Extreme weather conditions can be devastating to communities, potentially destroying housing, roads, businesses, and institutions. Residents’ livelihoods and social connections can be drastically disrupted. Rebuilding efforts can take years. The long-term effects of disasters, such as home repair needs or health setbacks, can harm the financial and emotional well-being of older adults.
Community planning plays a vital role in reducing the long-term risks to life and property from natural hazards such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and blizzards. Major natural disasters (including hurricanes, storms, floods, tornados, earthquakes, and wildfires) can cause property damage in the tens of millions of dollars. They can also lead to hundreds of deaths. Experts predict that future natural hazard events in the U.S. could be even more damaging and costly. Communities in states such as California and Florida are seeing natural hazards occur more frequently and severely. These communities now consider the resulting disasters as part of their “new normal.” Global climate change is expected to increase the frequency and severity of storms. U.S. residents are more vulnerable to natural disasters because the population is becoming more concentrated in high-risk coastal areas and residential development in forested areas is interrupting natural burn cycles.
People who have chronic illnesses, functional limitations, or disabilities are especially vulnerable during natural disasters. They may take multiple medications, rely on formal or informal caregivers for assistance, and experience general frailty. Other factors that increase vulnerability in emergencies and disasters include living alone and in isolated rural areas. Planning can help communities identify the natural hazards to which they are susceptible. Then strategies can be developed for reducing their vulnerability. Many of the strategies identified in hazard mitigation plans are implemented through land-use planning, development regulations, and building codes. Conflicting local interests, cost concerns, and a lack of public awareness of the importance of mitigation planning are major impediments to implementing mitigation activities.
Well-planned post-disaster recovery efforts are also needed when disasters do occur. Federal and state disaster aid is often available, but under-resourced communities may not receive sufficient funding compared with better-off communities. Such funding disparities can exacerbate existing social and economic disparities. Distributing disaster relief funds in an equitable manner helps ensure that all communities affected by natural disasters receive fair assistance.
NATURAL DISASTER PLANNING AND RECOVERY: Policy
Natural disaster planning and recovery
Policymakers should identify and take steps to mitigate potential natural hazards. This includes putting in place disaster-resistant building codes, design regulations, and infrastructure plans and preventing development in high-risk zones.
Policymakers should engage in pre-disaster mitigation planning and post-disaster recovery efforts. This includes discussions before a disaster occurs about risks and vulnerabilities, as well as how to use investments and policies to mitigate risks and expedite recovery efforts. This should include comprehensive, evidence-based planning for the needs of older adults and people with disabilities in a variety of circumstances and settings.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, in consultation with other appropriate federal agencies, should develop and maintain a national comprehensive strategic framework that incorporates both pre-disaster mitigation and post-disaster recovery efforts. The framework should include items such as common mitigation goals, performance measures, reporting requirements, the role of specific activities in the overall framework, and the roles and responsibilities of federal, state, and local agencies and nongovernmental stakeholders. Federal, state, and local governments should put in place technology infrastructure that will enable rapid communications and easy, transparent access to necessary information before, during, and after a disaster.
Disaster relief assistance and funding should be distributed equitably and fairly.