Thousands of people across the Western United States have been rendered climate migrants in the wake of devastating wildfires that have burned a record-setting 4 million-plus acres, killed 31 people, and destroyed 8,687 structures.
When smoke and fire created hazardous conditions, city administrators in Oregon were left with no choice but to ask people to leave, resulting in half a million residents evacuating. And just as blazes ripped through the Western states, Hurricane Laura—an unprecedented 12th such storm for that point in the year—struck the southern shores of Louisiana with terrifying winds that killed more than two dozen people. Sacramento, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Seattle, and Phoenix were among the cities to witness record-breaking temperatures during the same stretch of time, with predictions of more severe climatic conditions if global warming continues unchecked.
In the wake of these climate-induced catastrophes, families across the country have witnessed their homes reduced to ashes or torn down by hurricane winds overnight, driving them to the edge of poverty and homelessness. According to one report, nearly 13 million coastal residents in the United States are expected to be displaced by the end of this century due to the climate crisis. As a result, the cities that managed to survive the worst will have to absorb the displaced residents.
While climate reality catches up with years of gloomy predictions, city planners are rushing to devise mitigation strategies to save the cities and residents from catastrophic weather events. Maryland’s Anne Arundel county recently came out with a 20-year land use and development plan following a bipartisan legislation that passed in May. The legislation, which passed without Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature, helps fund key resilience infrastructure projects and provides for establishing a Resilience Finance Authority to coordinate planning and development efforts.
In an interview with The Real News, Steve Kaii-Ziegler, the planning and zoning officer of Anne Arundel county, said the task ahead is daunting: “A very large percentage of our population is vulnerable whether it’s economic, social, or health issues. And much of the vulnerable population also reside in areas that are most vulnerable to sea level rise. It’s going to be quite a challenge to help those communities when there are catastrophic events coming that will influence whether or not they can stay in their homes.”
Kaii-Ziegler mentioned nuisance flooding as one of the many examples of climate-induced challenges America’s cities are facing: “You’ve probably all seen pictures where it’s a sunny day, and all of downtown is underwater. And that’s a result of tidal influences coming up through the storm water system. You don’t have to have big storms to create a major event anymore. It is simply that sea level is rising.”
The losses from recurring damages to public and private infrastructure run into the billions of dollars. One example is the United States military bases in the continental United States and overseas.
“I’m keeping track of Tyndall Air Force Base, which is in Florida, had a hurricane emergency,” Kaii-Zeigler said. “The base was basically destroyed. My understanding is the rough price tag to rebuild that base is $5 billion.”
Kaii-Zeigler proposed more of a focus on resiliency planning. Maryland’s legislation passed in May allows local jurisdictions with a population of 30,000 people or more to develop their own Resiliency Authorities. Kaii-Zeigler hopes resiliency planning will help cut through traditional bureaucratic layers, which cannot keep pace with climate challenges.
“I think we’re establishing the blueprint that other states and perhaps the federal government can use as we look at how we’re going to deal with climate change in the future,” Kaii-Zeigler said.
Resiliency Authorities can also issue bonds and redirect revenue streams to invest in infrastructure projects.
The bigger challenge is a bitterly contested and politicized public debate on climate science.
“We’ve got to help our citizens understand the magnitude of the problem,” Kaii-Zeigler said. “Not everybody believes in climate change, or global warming, and there’s a sizable amount of our population, who truly believes it’s nonsense.”