It's time to break the news.The Messenger's slogan

Hurricanes Fiona and Ian show how the warming-driven cascade of disasters makes emergency response harder

It’s hard to keep track of climate change’s ravages — for the public and for emergency response officials.

First Hurricane Fiona tore through Puerto Rico, knocking power out to the entire island and threatening the fragile infrastructure still on the mend from 2017′s devastating Hurricane Maria. A week later and 1,000 miles to the northwest, another monster storm — Hurricane Ian — tore a hole through Florida, destroying entire communities and flooding large areas for days or more.

A packed catastrophe calendar

That’s only a partial list. By sheer temporal necessity, many of these sorts of disasters will increasingly occur on top of each other. When that happens within a given country or region, the resources needed to respond will inevitably be strained — and more so in the developing world where those resources are limited to begin with.

Cutter called Puerto Rico the “test case” for that sort of spiraling response failure to cascading disasters. “Even before Hurricane Maria, just the number of times that the island has been affected by hurricanes, by earthquakes, by heavy precipitation events, is over time affecting the entire capacity of the island,” she said. With not enough time to respond fully to one calamity before the next one strikes, there is often little way out of such a spiral.

The wildfire three-step

Some of these disasters aren’t necessarily related to each other in physical terms, beyond their climate change connection — one hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast doesn’t meaningfully contribute to the formation of the next one. But others are fully intertwined: drought, heat waves and wildfire, in particular, are inextricably linked. They will combine more and more in places like the American West, with devastating results.

“This toxic soup of different types of air pollution affects people with respiratory illnesses, particularly low-income individuals, people of color,” he said.

Straining the global attention span

“We tend to treat disasters as discrete events. They start, and they stop, and we have our emergency management cycle. And if you watch media attention, it follows a very similar pattern. If you watch donations to NGOs, it follows a similar pattern,” Jerolleman said. “But the financing, the support, they follow that cycle too. They need a start, and they need an end, and they don’t do well with concurrent events. And that is the same internationally.”

Still, Cutter told Grid that some aspects of foreign aid are fairly standardized, so the media attention shifting won’t necessarily diminish the U.N. response or other official actions. But just as with domestic cascades of catastrophe, the international community does have a finite amount of money and resources to distribute.

Looking ahead, experts agree that emergency response planning needs to be better resourced and should take climate change’s potential to pile one disaster on another into account — along with the changing nature of the disasters themselves.

“It’s not just the compounding events, it is also the fact that the characteristics of the events are changing,” Jerolleman said, citing how hurricanes are increasingly able to intensify more rapidly as the climate warms. “A lot of our planning assumptions for things like evacuation assume that we have longer than we do. It’s not only events on top of events, it’s also the fact that our actual plans don’t work as well.”

Start your day with the biggest stories and exclusive reporting from The Messenger Morning, our weekday newsletter.
By signing up, you agree to our privacy policy and terms of use.
Sign Up.