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Being better prepared for the spike in floods and storms

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Hurricane Harvey, which pummeled the Texas coast at the end of August, and Hurricane Irma, which caused catastrophic damage in the Caribbean and Florida this month, are the latest manifestation of a jump in extreme floods and storms.

In southwest Japan in July, at least 18 people were killed and hundreds stranded after unusually heavy rains caused massive floods and landslides. The common refrain everywhere is that nobody had seen or expected anything like this. But as climate change aggravates hydro-meteorological events, these catastrophes are the new norm. The only lasting response is to cut greenhouse gases and contain global warming, but meanwhile, we must also build urgently far greater resilience to the devastation.

Strengthening disaster resilience makes a big difference to lives and livelihood. With the intensity of weather-related hazards on the rise, and more people locating in harm’s way, these events are affecting more people and causing greater financial damage to economies and households. But effective measures have been taken, increasingly in recent years, to provide early warning systems and more robust evacuations of populations living in the paths of typhoons: as a result, death tolls from similar events have declined.

A striking example is how the population of Tulang Diyot — a small island off the mainland Cebu, Philippines — was saved from the wrath of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 because evacuations were enforced. While the storm destroyed all houses on the island, there were no casualties among the 1,000 inhabitants. In India, the evacuation of more than a million people before Cyclone Phailin in the same year proved effective. Warnings and alerts via news networks, text messages, satellite phones, and loudspeakers went out four days before the cyclone struck.

Japan’s Meteorological Agency recently updated its Evaluation Alert System to underscore the imperative for evacuations in these emergencies, and to map the intensity of weather-related hazards and people’s special needs.

Basic to building resilience is having accessible infrastructure for safe water, sanitation and electricity for health facilities. From Asia to Latin America, breaks in these lifelines are major causes of breakdowns in law and order that often follows natural disasters. Essential public services need to be assured of uninterrupted power supply, protected access routes, and safe water and sanitation. Disaster-proofing hospitals, by one measure, adds less than a tenth to the cost of new hospitals, while rebuilding a destroyed hospital virtually doubles its initial cost.

Structural solutions such as safe houses, breakwaters and evacuation routes in the event of floods and storms are going to be increasingly important in the era of climate change. Indonesia is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, regularly experiencing earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, volcanic eruptions, flooding, and drought. In 2004, storms and floods from one of the deadliest tsunamis in history killed some 230,000 people in 14 countries around the Indian Ocean — nearly 170,000 of them in Indonesia. The country’s post-tsunami efforts to be better prepared included the construction of evacuation centers linked to road networks in Banda Aceh, which provided a salutary lesson on preparedness.

Disaster readiness also involves non-structural measures such as zoning regulations to restrict new development in hazard-prone areas and building codes to protect businesses, homes and neighborhoods. These are an essential part of minimizing the kind of disruption to supply chains and information networks that we saw during the massive floods in Sri Lanka; Chennai, India and Thailand in the past decade. Such measures, however, are tough to implement because of conflicting interests between people’s livelihood on the one hand and their safety on the other. What is clear is that with rising sea levels and temperatures, previous norms of the safe distance to live from coastline must be revised. In this regard, the needed construction of levees can also make people complacent and build in dangerous locations. So, structural and non-structural measures need to be planned together.

With the increased frequency of floods and storms, providing adequate financing for disaster management will be increasingly important. Governments and external financiers need to facilitate credit for rebuilding lives and livelihood, especially for the poor and vulnerable. We have also seen high payoffs to investing in education, information sharing and capacity development in dealing with these calamities. The weak handling by the authorities of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the costliest disaster in the United States, has had lessons for preparedness, coordination across government units, relief and reconstruction during Hurricane Harvey, the deadliest flood in the U.S. in decades.

The new normal with weather-related disasters is a true game changer calling for far greater defenses. Just as governments try to cushion financial shocks, so they must invest in reducing disaster risk, as its consequences are even graver. In sum, building disaster resilience needs to become a core development business everywhere.

Vinod Thomas is a visiting professor at the Asian Institute of Management, Manila, and the author of “Climate Change and Natural Disasters,” 2017 (Routledge Publishers). An earlier version of this piece appeared on the Brookings Institution’s Future Development blog on Sept. 5.