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Climate Expert On Policy Shifts Needed After Ida To Protect The Vulnerable

Destruction is left in the wake of Hurricane Ida on Aug. 31, 2021 in Grand Isle, Louisiana near New Orleans. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Destruction is left in the wake of Hurricane Ida on Aug. 31, 2021 in Grand Isle, Louisiana near New Orleans. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

This week Hurricane Ida took the lives of at least 60 people across eight states.

That includes 11 New Yorkers in basement apartments in Queens who died from horrific flash flooding. In Louisiana, some residents may have to wait six weeks for power. And fires continue to burn out West.

The storm has raised pressing questions about climate change unpredictability of our weather and how we plan for it.

Getting accurate predictions for specific weather events would require technology that the country hasn’t invested enough in yet, says Alice Hill, senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations. She worked on climate resilience under former President Barack Obama and authored the book “The Fight For Climate After COVID-19.”

“We have a much better understanding of the broad trends,” she says. “But when you get down to the specific — will a storm hit this location on this date with this much rain? — it’s really hard to predict.”

Extreme weather events don’t impact everyone equally. Many low-income individuals and people of color live in redlined areas, which are more prone to disasters, Hill says. Disabled people, the elderly, children and, in many countries, women face additional obstacles to evacuating during these events, she says.

In her book, Hill writes about being more resilient going forward and in specific places, not just to the broad climate models. People need to account for risk when deciding where they want to live — but right now, more Americans are moving to areas of risk, she says.

“Our cities have been developed, but they’ve been developed on an assumption that the climate will remain stable,” she says. “The climate is no longer stable and as that changes, some of the choices we’ve already made don’t look so good.”

The U.S. needs a national adaptation plan to address extreme weather events in different at-risk areas because the current “sprinkling of projects” across the country might not make the nation safer in the future, she says.

“The Government Accountability Office, which is the watchdog for the federal government, has pointed out repeatedly that without a national plan, we are at risk of not prioritizing the right investments,” she says, “and continuing to see communities being bailed out after disaster rather than investing in risk reduction in advance which can save us a whole lot of money.”

In “The Fight For Climate After COVID-19,” Hill writes that the U.S. needs to look at the climate crisis in the same way the nation has fought COVID-19 to protect vulnerable people.

The pandemic showed people the importance of creating safety nets that help the most vulnerable people prepare for catastrophic events in ways such as stockpiling goods, she says.

“A friend of mine at FEMA told me they just never planned to have to respond to all 50 states and six territories at once with the pandemic,” she says, “much less these wildfires and other things.”


Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.