On Aug. 24, Laura and Marco were bearing down on Texas and Louisiana: the 12th and 13th named storms in the 2020 hurricane season.
The Gulf Coast typically does not see its 9th named storm until early October; this year’s 9th storm (Isaias) made landfall in early August. On the same day, 625 fires were scorching California fueled by higher temperatures drying out the soil and exacerbated by earlier snowmelt; both conditions are tied to climate change.
Aug. 24 was also the day Gov. Chris Sununu thanked the President via Twitter for approving New Hampshire’s application for COVID relief, explaining “this program will pump another $340 million into our state’s economy…at minimal cost to NH.” One day in August, then, provides a perspective on how governments’ spotty actions on COVID relief and inaction on climate perpetuate inequities and demand a better approach.
In New Hampshire we are now in peak Hurricane Season. Since 1938, seven hurricanes have made landfall in New England, with Hurricane Bob being the last to do so in 1991 as a Category 2. (While New Hampshire was spared the brunt of storm, it was still left with $2 million in damages and two lives were lost.)
Research suggests that there has been an increase in intense hurricane activity in the North Atlantic since the 1970s. In the future, there may not necessarily be more hurricanes, but there will likely be more intense hurricanes that carry higher wind speeds and more precipitation as a result of global warming.
Major fires are seldom and seasonal in New Hampshire, but peak fire “season” no longer exists in the American West: fires now occur throughout the year. The northern hemisphere is warming faster than the planet as a whole leading to conditions that are ripe for wildfires across the nation.
Climate and COVID collide. Where did the money, graciously accepted by Gov. Sununu come from? It is a portion of $44 billion raided from our country’s primary federal natural disaster relief program. That money was dedicated to provide relief to people who have suffered from California fires, Gulf hurricanes and similar natural disasters.
Early estimates of damage to Gulf communities from Hurricane Laura range from $8 to $12 billion. The lost wage assistance directed to aid New Hampshire’s COVID unemployed takes $340 million off the table – money dedicated to states, tribal, local and territorial governments for disaster response and recovery. The money will never reach the hurricane-damaged Gulf communities. To be fair, 30 or more states are also drawing on this lost wage assistance.
There is no quarrel with New Hampshire’s immediate challenge to see people are properly housed and provided money to put food on the table. However, the fact remains the federal government is syphoning money from the natural disaster relief program in the face of record-breaking fires and greater frequency of storms.
Moreover, the unemployment benefits are a band-aid and will only last until the FEMA funding is depleted: Gov. Sununu assumes the money will last 22 weeks, but FEMA says three weeks are guaranteed – and analysis from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget shows these federal supplemental benefits will last only about five weeks. By accepting the money, is New Hampshire complicit with Washington in robbing Peter to pay Paul, even as fires char Californians and storms flood Texans and Louisianans?
More than 4.8 million households nationwide sought federal assistance as a consequence of the 2017 hurricanes and wildfires – more than during the entire prior decade. The challenges of climate change demand that we have a better system in place for dealing with natural disasters, which now are not wholly natural, but in fact disasters amplified because of human induced climate change.
A review of big storms in New Hampshire shows there were 14 presidentially declared disasters between 1951 and 2000. In contrast, there have been 18 declared storm disasters in the first 15 years of this century, including one hurricane and one tropical storm. In other words, we have gone from having a big storm once every few years on average to the equivalent of one declared disaster annually. The drag on the economy and disruption to our lives is becoming very real. The economic and human toll of extreme weather events have grown. A Category 3 hurricane today would be terrible in New England: compared to 1938 there are more buildings, trees and wires today exposed to storm damage.
It is abundantly clear FEMA’s natural disaster relief program is stretched more than ever and Congress will be expected to fill the gaps. The FEMA funds were originally intended to be used for disaster relief; resilience and helping communities develop resilience in the face of a changing climate are not covered by the Disaster Relief Fund. But there are glimmers of hope: Congress recently appropriated funding for the Flood Mitigation Assistance (FMA) Program and the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) Program.
FEMA makes federal funds available to New Hampshire communities to reduce or eliminate the risk of repetitive flood damage. BRIC is FEMA’s new pre-disaster mitigation grant program that makes federal funds available for pre-disaster activities – helping make New Hampshire communities more resilient. BRIC helps people prepare for disasters and incorporate lessons learned from past disasters. Residents and business owners and local leadership in New Hampshire’s 15 coastal and tidal towns – and the dozens of communities along flood prone rivers – can learn more about BRIC grants by visiting the New Hampshire Homeland Security and Emergency Management website.
Can the U.S. address two crises at once? People, and the communities in which they live and work, should not rely on stop-and-start temporary and ad-hoc responses from their state and federal governments to help them confront COVID. And COVID is teaching many policy makers that sustained creative support from the federal government is not only necessary, but entirely appropriate in the face of the existential crisis that is climate change.
Roger W. Stephenson has been involved in the communication of climate change science and solutions since 1991. He is the Northeast advocacy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists and lives in Stratham, N.H. He has a B.S. in zoology and a graduate degree in wildlife biology from the University of New Hampshire. He writes Field of View: Climate Change Through a New Hampshire Lens as a public service and InDepthNH.org distributes it to all news outlets in New Hampshire. This column is based on science performed by researchers at leading institutions and on the National Climate Assessment, a congressionally mandated report developed by thirteen federal agencies to help the nation “understand, assess, predict and respond to” climate change. The opinions expressed belong to the writer and do not reflect the publication’s views.