Climate Disasters Are Clobbering Local Responders

This summer’s extreme weather onslaught is shedding a light on a nationwide problem: Local governments aren’t ready for emergencies.

When natural disasters fueled by a changing climate grab the headlines, the Federal Emergency Management Agency gets most of the scrutiny on the government response. But the feds generally swoop in to aid recovery after the storm has passed.

Local emergency managers are the first ones on the ground. They know the roads, access points and community dynamics.

But as the rapidly warming planet makes fires and storms more frequent and intense, localities are facing unprecedented conditions — and they are not prepared. Limited budgets and inadequate staffing only make matters worse.

Take Lahaina, the small city in Maui, Hawaii, still reeling from this month’s devastating wildfire.

The county’s chief emergency manager, Herman Andaya, resigned last week amid criticism, including from Hawaii Gov. Josh Green, that his agency did not adequately warn people of impending danger. At least 100 people have died and more than 800 are missing. (Andaya, who cited health concerns as his reason for stepping down, defended his response).

A prime example of a botched emergency response is the Camp Fire that devastated Paradise, Calif. — population 26,000 — five years ago. Local responders were criticized for failing to reach all residents with evacuation instructions, leading to a bottleneck on the few roads out of town. But just one employee at the local sheriff’s office was coordinating those efforts.

Yucel Ors with the National League of Cities said the reality of emergency readiness is a lot more complicated than “they should have prepared for that.”

“Preparation, mitigation and resilience planning demand substantial resources, such as skilled personnel and funding, which are often lacking in small and medium sized municipalities,” he said.

While Lahaina sees more than 2 million tourists annually, it has a population of just over 12,700.

This isn’t an isolated incident. Disasters that require advance preparation and subsequent response are increasingly common, says Dawn Shiley of the International Association of Emergency Managers.

Her membership is now tracking several potential storms off the East Coast, dealing with a tropical storm that made landfall in Texas today, still responding to Tropical Storm Hilary in California and the Hawaiian fire and, to top it all off, reacting to a heat index of 113 degrees Fahrenheit in the Chicago area.



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