The Federal Emergency Management Agency observes September as National Preparedness Month. With the month we just experienced, the need to prepare for natural disasters is evident.
The National Hurricane Center has recorded only six years in the past 80 where more than two Category 5 hurricanes hit the western Atlantic or Caribbean. Three of those were in the past 12 years. In addition, the National Interagency Fire Center reports that over 8.5 million acres have been impacted by wildfires this year. The only years with more destruction to this point were in 2012 and 2015.
Preparedness can take two forms, individual and policy. Individuals can increase preparedness by recognizing potential threats and planning to meet those threats. Officials recommend having a kit with three days of supplies. That kit can be just ensuring that there is extra food, water and first-aid items, however. Another way to prepare is to take pictures or video of your residence, and the items inside, in the event of either disaster or theft.
FEMA Administrator Brock Long says that individual citizens are the true first responders. The ability of people to take care of themselves, and then expand their abilities to everything from CPR to knowing “how to shut off water valves and simple search and rescue in their communities,” is very important, he notes. Stories emerge from every disaster of neighbors helping neighbors and those who go out of their way to save others.
An area where individual and the policy level merge is the purchase of flood insurance. Most homeowners’ insurance will not cover damage from floods. Such insurance can be purchased through the National Flood Insurance Program.
While the press may note those who do not purchase insurance, less covered is that many people can’t buy insurance. This is because they live in communities that have not signed up for eligibility for the program, which prevents citizens from being able to purchase insurance. In fact, there are over 100 communities in Iowa where officials have not signed up to make communities eligible. Residents of Castana, Danbury, Oto and Ute are among those ineligible.
The broader policy preparation measures should lean toward prevention in order to minimize the demands of responding. More careful evaluation of land use and zoning are critical. Some homes in the Houston area have flooded at least three times since 2001. A careful examination of how many times to rebuild in the same area is in order.
So are decisions on how and where to build. Over years, people have made extensive efforts to ensure that rain water is dispersed quickly. That works for everyone except those downstream. Draining wetlands, increasing tiling and paving over greenspace all contribute to ensuring that water moves more quickly than nature intended. Building on waterfronts increases the cost of damage.
The combined effects of shaping our landscape and environment take a toll. The result is that labels like “100-year flooding” become meaningless. Reinsurance company SwissRe says that “Due to climate change, flooding events are increasing in frequency and severity.”
Earlier this year, FEMA Administrator Long talked about “hazard amnesia.” Disasters hit, action is demanded, time goes on and people revert to a pre-disaster mindset.
As technology and knowledge have expanded, so has the concept that we control nature and prevent disaster. We need to accept that there are some forces beyond our control. Nature will do what nature does. Disasters will occur. We can continue to deny that - or we can work to mitigate the effects of disaster and take actions to prepare. Humans have adapted over millennia and need to continue to do so.
Next week: Charese Yanney
A Sioux City resident, Steve Warnstadt is government affairs coordinator for Western Iowa Tech Community College and a former Democratic state senator. He and his wife, Mary, are the parents of one son and one daughter.