Guest post by Chad Briggs, Strategy Director, GlobalInt LLC
News of the unfolding humanitarian disaster in the US territories of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands following Hurricane Maria have been disquieting, to say the least. Critics have accused the Trump administration of slow response to the hurricane impacts, while defenders of the White House claim that such responses take time, and that things are going as well as could be hoped. Coupled with the damage to Florida and Texas following Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, the US and its Caribbean neighbors have experienced the most intense month of hurricane activity in history.
Although conditions are far from stable and it is too early to draw full conclusions from current events, two important points should be made in reference to the September 2017 hurricanes. First, despite the complicated nature of disaster response and the difficulties in aiding an island with millions of people, planning techniques exist that allow effective mitigation and response- it is a matter of political will as to how well they are employed. A related point is that such disasters may well become more severe due to climate change, and it is incumbent upon the US government and its allies to plan for such events and their impacts well in advance.
Scenario and contingency planning techniques allow agencies to identify a plausible range of hazards that can impacts given geographical areas, focusing on what’s possible rather than what is considered most probable. Probabilities can be misleading, focusing on historical records that may now be outdated either because of changing conditions in affected areas (e.g. Tampa, Florida’s population has grown from 10,000 residents since its last major hurricane, to 4 million when Irma hit), or due to changing climatic conditions (e.g. when several 500-year storms occur in the same month, something has changed). In addition, disasters tend to occur from a mix of hazards, rather than just one (Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands were hit with Hurricane Irma earlier in September, already disrupting power for 1 million residents). Scenarios allow “stress-testing” of systems to a variety of forces, and can help identify critical vulnerabilities in systems.
Impacts of the storms are not only related to their strength, but as closely interrelated to how vulnerable populations and infrastructure are in the affected areas. Vulnerabilities are likewise concepts that we understand well, such as in Houston, Texas where warnings about the city’s vulnerability to flooding emerged decades ago. Loss of city greenspace, replaced by impenetrable surfaces and suburban sprawl, were well understood to contribute to the city’s vulnerability to flooding. While the amounts of rainfall that Texas experienced as part of Harvey were record-breaking, the impacts of such precipitation could be mapped out and understood in advance.
In the case of Puerto Rico, underdevelopment of the electrical grid was well known, owing at least in part to the large debt owed by PREPA to Wall Street funds. Loss of the power grid creates a cascade of risks and system failures, from health care to communications to transport. Puerto Rico’s catastrophic loss of power and transmission will have reverberating effects for months or years, though the initial response should focus on critical systems such as hospitals. A response scenario would have also identified the lack of access from roads, a condition similar to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. Despite cargo containers arriving at the ports, inability to distribute aid requires military capabilities (e.g. helicopters). The fact that affected areas include islands does make response more difficult, but hardly impossible. USAF conducted scenarios on major disasters in Hawaii, much farther from the US mainland and working on assumptions of no ports facilities. A mix of military and civilian planners were nonetheless able to sketch out response plans and priority areas, so that aid would not be delayed due to decision paralysis and inaction. Puerto Rico now suffers from a near total loss of electricity on the island, loss of 80% of agriculture, millions left without clean water, and a progressive breakdown of living conditions. The slow and meandering response from the White House need not have occurred, and we worry that the unfolding disaster may foreshadow similar responses in the future.
Changing climate conditions require more attention be paid to potential disasters in coastal zones. Given the state of knowledge of changing climate conditions, experts have warned for years that it was only a matter of time before strong hurricanes became more common, when the ‘unprecedented’ string of storms seen in September 2017 may become the new normal. Hurricane strength, after all, is based upon a nonlinear ‘tipping point’ where waters warmer than 26°C feed into storm strength. Just such waters were present both in the southern Atlantic and Caribbean this year, allowing a string of named storms to form, reform, and strengthen across the Gulf of Mexico. While climate sciences cannot predict the timing of such events, the increasing probability should come as little surprise.
The security implications of increasing risks to coastal populations in the US and the Caribbean are threefold.
- Adequate response to hurricanes and other disasters, especially those on islands, can often only be provided by resources possessed by the military. Although not the primary function of the Dept of Defense (the US Coast Guard and National Guard have more domestic responsibilities), increasing pressure to provide humanitarian aid and disaster response (HA/DR) can cut into budgets and operational readiness of the military services.
- Many military installations are located in coastal regions and/or very near sea level, and are vulnerable to shifting environmental conditions that may leave them inoperable. Hurricane Andrew in 1992 heavily damaged Homestead Air Force Base in Florida, helping lead to the decision to permanently shutter the facility. Long-term damage from forces such as sea level rise are a concern to facilities such as Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia, where rising waters leaves facilities even more vulnerable to storm surges.
- A human security consideration was raised by the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, when he told the Washington Post that Puerto Ricans could flee en masse to the US mainland. As US citizens, Puerto Ricans are entitled to such resettlement, just as residents of New Orleans moved following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Yet environmental migration raises questions of rebuilding and long-term vulnerabilities, as those who leave first are often islanders with more resources- precisely the people Puerto Rico would need to help rebuild in the long term. Climate migration can therefore exacerbate security concerns of affected areas.
As Richard Clarke and R.P. Eddy wrote in their recent book Warnings, organizations often ignore those experts who warn of potential disasters. When leaders choose to focus on other, simpler issues, and when they denigrate the value of science in policy planning, such warnings become even more difficult to turn into actionable plans. While no one can predict exactly what disasters will affect the US and its allies in the future, scientists and security planners increasingly have knowledge of what’s possible, and how to respond if and when such hazards appear. The ability to avoid or mitigate such disasters can make investment in foresight a very worthwhile investment, and the field of disaster and climate security is worth listening to now that we seem to have entered this new and more dangerous era.
Chad Briggs, Strategy Director, GlobalInt LLC, firstname.lastname@example.org