Cities vs. Climate Change: Can Infrastructures Handle Extreme Weather?

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Many cities are not resilient to disasters, and with human-caused climate change creating more extreme weather, those infrastructures will be threatened even more, says Jeff Schlegelmilch of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness

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DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News Network. The Real News is in its fundraising season, and as a not-for-profit and viewer-supported news organization, we depend on you, our viewers, to provide independent news coverage. Real News has prioritized reporting on the global climate emergency by establishing a new Climate Crisis Bureau. Our ambition is to be the leading source of news and information about the climate crisis and our collective efforts to resolve that crisis. Please help us to achieve that critical objective by donating to the Real News Network, which you can easily do by visiting our website.

So, Southern California is suffering one of the worst wildfire seasons on record. Wildfires have destroyed at least 500 structures and have forced nearly 200,000 people to flee their homes. These wildfires come hot on the heels of Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma, which made 2017 the costliest hurricane season on record. In 2017, the economic toll from hurricanes may be as high as $400 billion. The extremity of these conditions is clearly linked to human-caused climate change, and may well be a harbinger of things to come. Can we better prepare for more extreme weather and the disasters that result from them, and should we be planning and building our cities and towns differently in preparation? With us to discuss what real disaster preparedness means is Jeff Schlegelmilch. He’s the Deputy Director at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Earth Institute of Columbia. Jeff joins us today from New York City. Thanks very much for joining us, Jeff.

J. SCHLEGELMILCH: Hey, thanks for having me.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Jeff, the Puerto Rican government just announced a new official death toll from Hurricane Maria of 64, although an analysis by the Center for Investigative Journalism and the New York Times suggested the actual death toll may be in excess of 1,000 persons, and in addition, months after Hurricane Maria struck the island, most Puerto Ricans are still without electricity. What in your view could have been done to minimize the death toll and the damage to the electrical grid in Puerto Rico resulting from this terrible hurricane?

J. SCHLEGELMILCH: Yeah, and as you mentioned, Puerto Rico is an absolute tragedy, really amplified by a lot of different things. One is the sheer source of the storm itself. This was a very powerful storm that would have done a lot of damage no matter where it made landfall, and in fact did. At the same time, there’s also underlying infrastructure vulnerabilities through years of, let’s just say, less than optimal governance over these things on the island. You add on to that providing the standard U.S. model of disaster response of bringing FEMA in to plug into the existing infrastructure, which is how they operated for Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida and did quite well with that.

The problem is when you go to an area where the infrastructure is just so completely devastated, there’s nothing to plug in to. That’s really where I think when we think of the way that we respond to disasters, we also need to consider where we’re going into. The issues in Puerto Rico are when we really need to bring the infrastructure with you, something that the U.S. military has more of an ability to do, but less of a model for domestic disaster response.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: That sounds like there’s a real fundamental problem in the infrastructure in Puerto Rico that can’t be dealt with any interim measures of the types of conventional emergency relief that the U.S. population has been accustomed to receiving. So, what kind of dramatic changes in the way an island like Puerto Rico and its economy and so forth are structured should we be contemplating in order to minimize damage of this nature in the future?

J. SCHLEGELMILCH: You’re absolutely right. The underlying infrastructure is not something that is changeable when you see a hurricane approaching. It’s something that is many, many years, sometimes decades and even generations in the making. It’s something that we have an extreme vulnerability to even on the mainland. It just hasn’t been tested to the extent that Puerto Rico has in its nature as an island and some of the other underlying issues there. When we design infrastructure, when we work on infrastructure, it tends to be valued based on efficiency, how it contributes to the local economy. They tend to be very complex endeavors. You have public actors. You have private actors. You have these very short-term demands, stewardship of the dollar to do it as cheaply as possible, and you add into that any sort of layers of politics and cronyism and things that go on really everywhere, and some places worse than others. Then you have a system that is very complex and yet still is not centered around long-term resilience and generational resilience to disasters.

On the one hand, you have this issue of crumbling infrastructure, whether it’s roads, whether it’s power, that we’ve come to rely on and take for granted. Now with climate change, the changing nature of terrorism, you have an increase in the threats that are going to test this infrastructure that is decreasing in its ability to withstand even the current state of threats.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Experts suggest that California’s devastating wildfires have resulted partly from vast areas of dried vegetation, which scientists are linking to climate change. Is urban sprawl next to vegetated areas partly to blame for the extensive damage we’re seeing to structures in the current round of wildfires?

J. SCHLEGELMILCH: In the scientific community, there’s always a hesitation to attribute a single event to climate change, but I think it is fair to say that the kinds of disasters we’re seeing are indicative of the kinds of extreme events we would expect to see. Some places are going to get drier. You’re going to see more droughts. You’re going to see more fires. Things like that. Other places are going to get wetter. You’re going to see higher rainfall totals in hurricanes and conditions that are conducive to more powerful hurricanes. But, in addition to that, as you mentioned with urban sprawl and the way we live our lives, there’s two sides to this coin. There’s the threat and the changing nature of the threat itself as a result of climate change, and then there’s the hazard, which is how we build ourselves into risk.

With urban sprawl, if we’re taking an area that is a flood plain and we’re putting a lot of pavement and concrete, and reducing a lot of the natural vegetation there that absorbs it. Or, if we’re sprawling out in an area that’s surrounded by beautiful forest, but that are getting dryer and dryer, then part of that calculation has to be how we’re going to build more resilience. That means it’s going to be more expensive to build in the first place, or it’s going to be far, far more expensive to recover after a disaster strikes.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: In your estimation, have any of the major urban centers in the United States taken adequate measures to mitigate damage from the kinds of climate change-related extreme weather that we can anticipate in the future? Anything that we can point to as a kind of model for the way we should be building our communities, and if so, which urban centers would you put into that category?

J. SCHLEGELMILCH: I think there are certainly areas that are thinking very proactively about this. New York City, where I’m from, is absolutely one of those. I think the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Initiative has tried to catalyze this kind of thinking across major urban areas around the world. I think the simple fact is that these are very complex issues that we’re just starting to try and figure out. I don’t think there’s a single city you can point to and say, “They’re doing it all right,” although I do think that there are examples in different cities where they’re doing community engagement, where they’re looking at building infrastructure. In Taipei and Taiwan, where they’re looking at the sponge city concept, having pavement that can absorb water rather than simply run it off. There’s a lot of pockets of best practices around the world gaining momentum, but I don’t think we’re yet at that critical mass where there is one shining example where they figured all the different elements out.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Do you think there are some general principles that planners, policy makers ought to be embracing in order to better prepare urban centers in the United States for the types of extreme weather we’re seeing with increasing frequency?

J. SCHLEGELMILCH: Absolutely, and I would really link them into three different general categories. The first one is engineering, and engineering probably gets the most attention right now, because that’s where you’re actually building stuff to prevent bad stuff from happening, so it’s very tangible. Whether it’s putting up flood walls or the sponge city concept, or microgrades, things like that. There’s something, again, very tangible about all of that. But the other piece, and this is where some colleagues, most notably Daniel Aldrich at Northeastern University and some other folks are really looking at social capital. How are people working together within a community? There’s some very interesting research here that suggests that looking at the impact on communities after the tsunami and subsequent meltdown of the Fukushima reactor in Japan that actually the height of the flood walls had no correlation to survivability. But looking at crime rates as a proxy of social capital and social cohesion and how connected we are as communities was a very powerful indicator of who survived and who didn’t.

This brings up another less visible element on how are we investing in communities? How are we investing in neighbors helping neighbors? Who knows their neighbor’s first name? So, oftentimes where infrastructure falls short, people are able to make up the difference if we’re investing in that.

The third area is the politics of that. How do you manage that? How do you create political systems that embrace the relationships with the private sector that unlock the power of the private sector, and that’s able to really look generationally at problems, even though you’re on two-, four-, or six-year election cycles.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: This has been Dimitri Lascaris speaking to Jeff Schlegelmilch of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Earth Institute of Columbia. Thank you very much for joining us today, Jeff.

J. SCHLEGELMILCH: Thanks for having me.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris for the Real News.