The incoming Biden-Harris administration will have a long list of disaster-related issues to contend with—and we don’t just mean the urgent necessity to combat the still-raging COVID-19 pandemic.
When Hurricane Iota made landfall in northeastern Nicaragua as a Category 4 storm last month, it became the 30th named storm this year alone—setting a record high for a year also marked by some of the worst wildfires ever seen, as well as a plethora of climate change-related storms, severe droughts, and a variety of catastrophic events across the planet. By September, the U.S. alone had already counted 16 separate billion-dollar climate-related storms.
It’s worth recalling, too, that until the pandemic took hold, the prevailing sense may have been that disasters were indeed more frequent and more severe—but invariably local. It was the Gulf or the U.S. West Coast that took the hit. That was then.
The COVID-19 pandemic, in stark contrast, is, by definition ubiquitous, rising and falling in waves. It’s up in one region, down in another, and surges again in a place it had previously laid low—behaving much like a lethal game of geographic whack-a-mole.
So when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are finally sworn on Jan. 20, they’ll face the most complex set of disaster challenges in modern history. The pandemic will be front and center, of course, but also demanding attention will be the need to mitigate climate change—the underlying driver responsible for the growing severity and frequency of natural disasters. At the same time there is a need to develop and institutionalize protocols for handling overlapping catastrophic events.
Given these realities, here’s how three key issues that will likely play out within President Biden’s broader “disaster agenda”:
First, how are we to manage overlapping mega-disasters? Do we have the resources and the capacity to manage multiple disasters simultaneously? In the case of disasters like severe wildfires or major coastal storms, at-risk populations need to be rapidly evacuated and safely sheltered, all the while strictly observing pandemic control guidelines like wearing face masks, social distancing, maintaining hand hygiene, and avoiding poorly ventilated indoor spaces.
FEMA and local response agencies have managed this challenge in some of the major disasters we’ve seen earlier this year. Successful strategies should now be enshrined in federal policies and sufficient funding identified to make sure extra shelters and relevant protocols are in place going forward.
Second, how can we eliminate risk disparities based on race or financial status? Long-standing inequities in the impact of disasters, including those that are climate-influenced, have roots in persistent poverty, reduced access to health care and other factors.
COVID-19 has dramatically exposed the extent to which social and health disparities disproportionately threaten Black and Latinx communities in particular, at least partly because holding frontline and service jobs is incompatible with working remotely. As such, people who must work in these positions are at increased risk of contracting coronavirus infections via extensive direct contact with the general public.
A new national strategy for crisis response must take into account these existing linkages among social vulnerabilities, climate change hazards, and environmental justice—and incorporate them into a set of revitalized emergency preparedness strategies It is also essential that the full range of relevant public, private, and voluntary organizations be seated at the planning table.
The Biden team knows this. In October the campaign released the “Biden-Harris Plan for Tribal Nations,” which underscored the need to address the disproportionate impacts and disparities experienced by Indigenous communities in the face of a public health crisis and climate change. But putting this plan into practice at the national level for all disenfranchised populations will require significant political will, as well as crucial buy-in at the state and local levels
Third, the new administration understands that natural disaster mitigation can’t happen if we don’t seriously address climate change. Early appointments, such as selecting former Secretary of State John Kerry to be special presidential envoy for climate, underscores the president-elect’s commitment to moving rapidly to establish U.S. leadership in managing the climate crisis globally, as well as in the United States.
In addition, the Biden-Harris team will hopefully consider significant expansion of funding to support disaster risk reduction and disaster prevention programs, including major upgrades of U.S. infrastructure. There is no doubt that greater investment pre-disaster will not only save money, but protect lives and livelihoods, too.
It is abundantly clear that, for a myriad of reasons, 2020 has been a horrendously difficult year. But without extracting the key lessons learned from a year of record-breaking wildfires, hurricanes, and other public health threats on top of a world-changing pandemic, we risk suffering through such crises again and again in the coming years. Fortunately, every indication so far suggests that the Biden-Harris team is up to the task of taking on these complex challenges and creating a far more resilient America, precisely what we need right now.
Dr. Irwin Redlener is the Founding Director at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness as well as a Senior Research Scholar at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. He is the author of Americans at Risk: Why We’re Not Prepared for Megadisasters and What We Can Do Now as well as The Future of Us: What the Dreams of Children Mean for 21st Century America. Follow him on Twitter @IrwinRedlenerMD
Jeff Schlegelmilch is director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and the author of the book Rethinking Readiness: A Brief Guide to Twenty-First-Century Megadisasters from Columbia University Press. Follow him on twitter @jeffschlegel