By Marc Kodack
As we begin to assess the full extent of the damage and lives lost caused by Hurricane Dorian, it is worth looking at recent assessments of community resilience commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security to help shape how we better prepare in the future. This includes making sure that the military communities that keep our bases operating are resilient to climate and non-climate related disasters. Military installations located across the U.S. have recently been affected by significant climate-influenced disaster events (and non-climate disasters) that presented serious risks to military communities, and have cost billions of dollars in facility and infrastructure repairs, and. These events include earthquakes in July 2019 at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California, that resulted in the installation being in a “mission unsustainable” state for multiple days sustaining an estimated $2.5 to $5 billion in damages; severe flooding on the Missouri River resulting from record melting snow upriver exacerbated by a bomb cyclone in March 2019 which effected a third of Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, with an estimated $650 million for “operations, maintenance, construction, and simulator costs;” and Hurricane Michael in October 2018 which struck Florida and Tyndall Air Force Base damaging every building on the installation resulting in $4.7 billion in damages (see also John Conger’s article on his eye-opening visit to Tyndall about 6 months after the hurricane hit).
Many people who work on these military installations live in the surrounding communities. These communities suffered considerable damage similar in scale and scope to what occurred on the installations. With such extensive regional damage, installation driven local economic activity will be depressed for some period of time. For example, in fiscal year 2017, the total economic impact of Offutt was $1.57 billion; for Tyndall it was almost $600 million, likely higher in fiscal year 2019, and for China Lake it was $1.2 billion. After these disasters, the contribution of the installations to the local economy will be lower for some period of time depending on how quickly installation functions and operations can be brought back to full capability. Local businesses themselves will also need time to begin again to contribute to the local economy.
Many past regional disaster events, whether climate change-influenced or not, have damaged both military installations and the surrounding communities. Climate change-influenced disaster events are becoming more and more frequent, and will become even more common in the future, resulting in damage to facilities and infrastructure. Funding will then have to be found for repairs. All these past events have disrupted military missions and operations to some degree lasting days, weeks or months depending on the event and its effects. However, given their regional geographic scale, these events will continue to simultaneously disrupt the functioning of installations and local communities and their economies by the physical displacement of individuals and families, and considerable infrastructure damage. Without the two-way maintenance and persistence of the many physical, social, environmental, and economic connections between an installation and its surrounding community, neither will be able to restore full functionality for some period of time. Enhancing these connections to lessen the risk of their degradation or total disruption would strengthen the ability of the installation and community to better meet the mutual challenges they are presented with by any disaster event.
While the Department of Defense has a well-developed framework and multiple processes for addressing natural disaster events in the U.S. and the support it can provide to local communities when an event occurs, how well positioned are local communities themselves to respond to natural disaster events?
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) asked the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Lab to assist FEMA in determining priorities for which communities should receive technical assistant using existing community resilience research, and the result was published in a December 2018 report. Technical assistance consists of 10-12 months of in-person and distance learning for a community to help that community build capabilities to increase its’ resilience prior to a disaster. Argonne used a multi-step process to identify publicly available “commonly used [quantifiable, county level] resilience indicators” applicable to multiple hazards. The process identified 20 total indicators with a focus on population (11) or community (9). “Population-focused measures describe attributes that influence an individual’s ability to cope with disasters (e.g., age, income, employment). Community focused measures are qualities inherent to the local community environment that enhance or detract from the community’s ability to prepare for, respond to or recover from a disaster (e.g., the presence of civic associations, hospitals, mobile homes).” Data for these 20 indicators were collected for each of the 3,141 counties or their equivalents across the U.S.
A series of U.S. maps were then created showing each indicator by county using one of five colors where blue is more resilient to red with less resilient for that indicator in that county. Another U.S. map was then created aggregating all 20 indicators for each county together to show the relative resiliency by county, where blue-shaded counties were the most resilient, and red-shaded which were the least resilient to a disaster. The analysis “suggests…those counties in orange and red on the aggregated data—map may face multiple and interrelated challenges to resilience.” Argonne suggests that these red and orange-shaded counties could be the focus of FEMA’s technical assistance investments. Areas of the U.S. where these red and orange shaded counties cluster include the lower Mississippi delta (Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas); south Texas, western New Mexico, northern Arizona, southwestern Georgia, southwestern Alabama, Puerto Rico, and the central area of Alaska.
Some of these red or orange-shaded counties may be near installations that might be part of the surrounding local community. For example, Stewart County, Georgia (red) is approximately 20 miles south of Fort Benning.
Further analysis using the Argonne results can determine how many additional counties that are less resilient to disasters, those shaded red or orange, are part of an installation’s local community. For those that are, the ability of that community to function after a disaster may have implications for the functioning of the installation because of the pre-disaster event interconnections.
In short, existing tools and assessments already give us clear information about how resilient communities across America are or aren’t, and how resilient our military communities are or aren’t. It’s critical that we use this information as a means of both helping save lives and livelihoods, and maintaining our national security.