Disaster Planners Face A New Normal: Simultaneous Catastrophes

Human societies may be ill-prepared for climate change in part because they’re not preparing for the convergence of multiple disasters, experts said this week. And 2020 was a dress rehearsal.
“When you look at level of preparedness, people are preparing for one thing at a time,” said Kristie L. Ebi, a University of Washington professor who researches the impacts of climate change on extreme events, thermal stress, waterborne and vector-borne diseases.
“I live in Seattle,” she said. “We had wildfire, we had heat waves, and we had COVID all at the same time.”
Seattle has a relatively low penetration of air conditioning for a U.S. city, and last summer Seattleites faced a tough decision: close the windows in sweltering heat or open them to toxic air.
“We had very high levels of air pollution from the fires. When you look at the Air Quality Index, over 120 is really quite hazardous. My neighborhood was over 250. People don’t have air conditioning. It’s really hot. What do you tell them do do? Do you tell them to close their windows and doors to keep out the air pollution? Do you tell them to open their windows and doors so they can get fresh air in?”
Ebi spoke Thursday in a National Academies webinar on the links between COVID-19 and climate change. Her co-panelist also shared a story of multiple compounding catastrophes, though in a different season and a different region.
“If you think about the intersection (0f catastrophes) that we just had in the South, principally Texas, we had obviously significant ice storms and weather, and we had very cold, freezing, that knocked out the power systems,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “We had people who died because of that. And we did that during the COVID outbreak, which really disrupted—not just in Texas, but nationwide—the distribution of vaccines.”
COVID, too, is an environmental catastrophe, a zoonotic virus likely transmitted to humans because of deforestation and animal exploitation.
The climate links to human health are complex, Ebi said, causing more heat-related deaths, flood-related diseases, vector-borne diseases like dengue fever. Allergies and asthma are worsening with air quality, mental health is suffering, and in many places health is being challenged by reduced access to food and water.
“These disasters cannot be addressed one by one,” Benjamin said. “We have to think about overlapping disasters, and we need to build a cohesive all-hazards approach to dealing with these things both on the adaptation side and on the mitigation side, and then on the emergency-response side of what we’re doing.”
The task is complicated, said Ebi, by the fact that humans tend not to be very imaginative about “all-hazards.”
“When you tell somebody, all-hazards, they only think about the hazards that occurred the last few weeks,” Ebi said. “And then somebody like me will come in and say, the future is not going to look like this. It is going to be a lot hotter, it’s going to be more humid, there’s going to be more extreme events, we have more opportunities for vector-borne diseases to change their range, that you need to start thinking beyond history and think about what the future could hold.”

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