Climate Extremes: The New Norm

A Shift to a Culture of Disaster Preparedness Is Required

Captain Neil Black with CALFIRE | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

As the search continues for the residents of the fire-ravaged Paradise, California, it is clearer than ever that climate is changing in ways that spur unforeseen and devastating natural disasters, such as wildfires, droughts, record-breaking temperatures, mudslides and floods. The tragedies Californians are now experiencing align with the global trend of climate related natural disasters steadily rising over the past few decades. In 1980, there were 200 extreme weather events that caused widespread destruction and human death around the globe; in 2016 the number of such events more than tripled to over 700. A year ago this week, Santa Barbara County became ground zero for such devastation with the Thomas Fire and the debris flow that followed. “How we’ve thought of climate change until recently: Far away or in the future, affecting polar bears and low-lying island nations, or Sub-Saharan Africa, but now it’s creating havoc here, in our own backyard,” says Sigrid Wright, CEO and Executive Director of the Community Environmental Council. President Trump may choose not to believe his own government’s recent report on climate change, but those of us who have experienced its destruction know firsthand that it is not only real but a clear and present danger.

In the aftermath of the Thomas Fire, I became curious about the steps that were taken in advance that prevented this disaster from creating even more havoc than it did. So I reached out to those who were involved, motivated by my belief that rebuilding and reimaging what life will be like going forward with climate extremes as the new norm means it is critical to understand the investments made behind the scenes years before this epic disaster struck: the systems for communication and coordination, community engagement, and partnership with government that were built.

I started with Mark Ghilarducci, the head of Emergency Services for the State of California. He outlined the problem:“We are seeing a new era of disasters — the intensity, complexity, scope, and scale of these events are broad.” Why is this the case? The data is clear: Year after year, our planet experiences record heat levels; in fact, 16 of 17 the hottest years ever recorded have been since 2001. Hotter years lead to more wildfires, while most of the excess heat is trapped by the ocean, which then in turn disrupts the water cycle, causing record-breaking downpours. These downpours can cause floods and mudslides.

The conditions surrounding us seem to be changing right before our eyes, according to Rob Lewin, Santa Barbara County’s Director of Emergency Management. As we met in the Emergency Operations Center, he declared that “after nearly four decades of fighting fires, if you had told me we’d have the largest fire in California’s history on one of the shortest days of the year with the least amount of radiant heat, I would never believe it. Because of these climate extremes, we need to be prepared for what I call ‘black swan events’ — events that we can’t even begin to imagine.”

The unimaginable did happen here. With 25 lives lost, nearly 2,000 structures damaged or destroyed, more than 100,000 people evacuated, and nearly 300,000 acres burned, life in this community will forever be known as before the Thomas Fire and the 1/9 Debris Flow and life after. This prescient point was made to me by the respected former Santa Barbara Fire Chief Pat McElroy and one that was recently affirmed at a community event by former Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency James Lee Witt, an advisor to the Orfalea Foundation Aware and Prepare Initiative:

“As director of FEMA, I’ve seen small garden-variety disasters, I’ve seen the major disasters, and I’ve seen the catastrophic disasters. And you [Santa Barbara] have had a catastrophic event, there is no doubt about that. But now is the time to think ‘what are we going to do now?’ Are we going to continue the same path that we have in the past? Or are we going to look at Santa Barbara County and its communities in a new way?”

As we’ve seen in our community and throughout the state, disasters of epic proportions are no longer an if, but a when, and thus preparedness is a must. “We have to accept the new normal and mitigate against it,” Nancy Beers, who oversees the Early Recovery Fund at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, warned me. “A historical event is now a regular event; the question is not about when it may happen in 30 or 40 years, it’s about when it happens in the next year or two years — because it will.”

Investment in Preparedness Is Critical

In my research, I learned that there are five phases of the disaster life cycle: prevention, preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation. While each has distinct challenges and requires its own set of expertise, the goal is to approach the cycle holistically. “We not only need more focus on preparedness, but we need it to be a continuum so that the mitigation phase and the preparedness phase are merged,” said Desiree Matel-Anderson, the first and former Chief Innovation Advisor at FEMA and now the founder of Field Innovation Team (FIT), an organization that focuses on bringing smart technology and design into resilience initiatives and disaster response. An uptick in climate related disasters — such as a year-round fire season in California — requires a change in approach. “We need to change our perspective to one of co-existing with fire instead of fighting it,” said Dr. Max Moritz, a University of California wildfire scientist. “Fire isn’t going away anytime soon. We need to locate and build our communities accordingly so that we reduce our vulnerability over the long term to this essential and inevitable natural process that is wildfire.”

A known statistic in emergency management is for every dollar you invest in emergency preparedness, you save six dollars in recovery efforts. “It’s been shown time and time again, in places all across the country: investing on the front end, before disaster strikes, does pay dividends in the recovery of a disaster,” Director Ghilarducci aptly expressed. This belief is affirmed by Dr. Steve Gaines, Dean of UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management: “The search for greater resilience is especially important in the face of ever-growing evidence that many such extreme events are happening more often and becoming more extreme as a result of climate change.”

Central to building a culture of preparedness is improving the safety standards of our homes and buildings, taking into account the broad range of disasters that are likely to occur. “Building for resiliency to reduce the impact of potential disasters should be top of the list of any priority, at least on par with environment and aesthetics,” explains Brett Mathews of the the Partnership for Resilient Communities, formed in the wake of the tragic devastation in Santa Barbara. For example, billions of dollars are being put back into Houston after Hurricane Harvey, yet as Nancy Beers of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy warned, “we’re rebuilding and putting people back into harm’s way — so we better learn to mitigate against a changing climate and adapt our infrastructure so that it is more resilient.”

One only has to look to Puerto Rico to see the extreme and compounded devastation that occurs when preparedness is not part of the equation; the death toll from Hurricane Maria is still not known but predicted in a recent Harvard study to be near 5,000 people, nearly a third of whom died in the months after the storm because they couldn’t access the health care they needed. “Puerto Rico is the example of a lack of preparedness in a community that is hanging by a thread already,” explains Nancy Beers. “Their struggle to recover is hinged on a lack of access to good electricity.”

After disasters strike, thankfully, people and organizations generously open their wallets to help with recovery. Yet it is far more challenging to garner support, both from the public and private sectors, for preparedness. The philanthropic investment in disaster planning pales in comparison to that which is spent on recovery. According to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, just six percent of disaster philanthropy is directed towards preparedness. “Response and relief efforts continued to receive the most funding (34 percent) while Disaster preparedness (6 percent) and reconstruction and recovery (5 percent) continued to be underfunded areas of the disaster lifecycle,” states their recent 2017 Measuring the State of Disaster Philanthropy report. Regine Webster, Vice President of the Center, explained, “You can count on one hand the number of foundations that focus on preparedness.”

Fortunately, one of those few, the Orfalea Foundation, was determined to strengthen the community disaster resilience in Santa Barbara County. In 2008, the foundation, which has always prioritized prevention over intervention, launched a unique public/private partnership called the Aware and Prepare Initiative to enhance the capabilities and coordination of government agencies and non-profit organizations in mitigating, preparing for, responding to, and recovering from emergencies and disasters. The foundation’s $8 million investment helped prepare Santa Barbara County for the Thomas Fire and Debris Flow, and several disasters in the preceding years, in countless ways. “In all my travels throughout this great state, witnessing thousands of disasters, I’ve never seen such an endeavor or initiative like the Aware and Prepare Initiative. … The willingness of a philanthropic organization to jump out and pull together the necessary partners together to build community resilience and strong disaster preparation,” explained Director Ghilarducci. “You can’t stop the natural disaster from happening — there is no silver bullet — but you can impact the damage. What the Aware and Prepare Initiative has modeled is shift in culture: people are now thinking about the culture of preparedness on the front end. Now Santa Barbara is a model for the rest of the state.”

Building a New and Stronger Culture of Preparedness

The essence of the Aware and Prepare Initiative is indeed creating a new and stronger culture of effective partnerships in advance of a disaster to save lives and minimize damage. That meant a three-pronged approach to establishing necessary systems.

First, building a new state-of-the-art emergency operation center for a centralized and coordinated response; second, bolstering meaningful ways for community volunteers to engage; forging an invaluable partnership between the philanthropic community, non-profit organizations and local government. This also included bringing other funder and advocacy partners together including the James S. Bower Foundation, the Santa Barbara Foundation, the Hotchkiss Family Foundation, the Outhwaite Charitable Trust, the Wood-Claeyssens Foundation, the Fund for Santa Barbara, and the Hutton Parker Foundation. Other regions have pieces of this comprehensive approach, but very few have all of these systems in place to strengthen preparedness and build resilience, which is all the more imperative in the face of climate disasters.

1) Building the Hub

The Emergency Operations Center, supported by the Orfalea Foundation in 2010, is the technologically advanced facility that allows for a coordinated response. During the Thomas Fire and January 9th Debris Flow the building housed 150 people working around the clock from FEMA, Army, National Guard, the Fire Department and State Office of Emergency Services and emergency representatives from the local jurisdictions. “It is the hub that brings people together,” said Office of Emergency Management Director Rob Lewin. “The architecture facilitates communication and allows for amazing cohesion in our response.” Lewin described the evening when the Thomas Fire marched over the hills into Santa Barbara, evacuation orders were given, and people needed immediate help getting to safety. Coming up with a transportation plan to move hundreds of people took minutes, not hours, because all the necessary decision makers were already on the same page by literally being in the same room. “It is hard to imagine what the damage might have been without that centralized facility” he said. Before the Aware and Prepare Initiative, no full-time emergency operations facility existed in Santa Barbara. The Center has now been key to the response to several preceding wildfires, the 2015 oil spill and of course the deadly 1/9 Debris Flow.

2) Building a Community of Volunteers

“Not just knowing one another but really trusting each other is the essential component to disaster response,” is a commonly held edict proclaimed by Jim Caesar, UC Santa Barbara Emergency Manager, who now directs the Aware and Prepare Initiative’s ongoing work with community partners. Over this past decade, the Initiative has focused on community building to create a fabric of trust between key individuals and organizations that are crucial in a disaster. It established an innovative grassroots outreach program for the Latino population called LISTOS (‘ready’). LISTOS has not only proven to be an invaluable link to the Spanish speaking community but, according to Caesar, has empowered the individuals who have gone through the program with leadership skills that help them in all areas of life.

In addition to this new program, Aware and Prepare gave life to three other existing volunteer organizations by investing in staff and infrastructure, and in turn empowering thousands of people to work together ahead of time and trust each other before disasters strike. “The Aware and Prepare Initiative pulled together and built a capacity that arguably has been measured successfully time and time again,” said Director Ghilarducci. In addition to LISTOS, the three other programs are:

CERT is FEMA’s Certified Emergency Response Team program. Santa Barbara County now has 9,000 people who have gone through the CERT training, meaning they have spent dozens of hours honing skills such as disaster medical operations, fire safety, search and rescue — as well as relying on each other.

VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) is a national, statewide and local program that connects non-profit and faith-based organizations together to provide added capacity in times of need — such as churches that become shelters or the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County that activates to provide food for displaced families. The Aware and Prepare Initiative gave VOAD a big boost by funding a program manager for five years.

EPIC (Emergency Public Information Communicators) creates alliances between professionals whose job it is to communicate to the public in a disaster.

“The Aware and Prepare Initiative programs really came through for our community with the CERT teams staffing the Emergency Operations Center call center and mask distribution in numerous cities, to LISTOS serving in the shelter for Spanish translation and donation management, to EPIC making sure the news was received by the whole community, to VOAD not only networking all the nonprofits during the fire but always helping with the Long Term Recovery Committee” Caesar concluded.

3) Partnership with Government

With the onslaught of climate related disasters, coordinated preparedness between non-profit organizations and philanthropies with government emergency services is more critical than ever — yet usually overlooked as an essential component. “With all that we are facing, disaster response can’t be exclusively a government solution — the whole community has to come together,” said Director Ghilarducci. Perhaps the most unique yet behind-the-scenes way in which the Aware and Prepare Initiative laid the groundwork for response to the Thomas Fire and 1/9 Debris Flow was by forging an effective partnership between government, the philanthropic community and non-profit leaders nearly a decade before. The simple function of the Initiative is to facilitate multi-sector collaboration, information-sharing, and partnership-building. For example, supporting EPIC, a coalition of public information officers who are responsible for managing day-to-day and crisis communications for their agencies. The often-used phrase in emergency management is “you don’t want to be exchanging business cards during a disaster.”

Traditionally, when disasters strike, community foundations are the go-to organization to fund the recovery, yet often have had little to no engagement with government emergency response preparedness work and thus no track record of collaboration. “On the emergency management continuum, most philanthropies engage with government in the wake of disaster — in reaction mode — rather than on the front end when partnerships can prove to be more meaningful in mitigating the damage,” said Barbara Andersen, Chief Strategy Officer at the Santa Barbara Foundation. “People who are more strategic with their funding will do the painstaking work of partnership building.”

Another factor is traditionally those who support climate change mitigation work independently from those who fund disaster relief. Fortunately, these funding entities are beginning to join forces. “Thankfully, we’re seeing a coming together of climate funders and disaster funders,” said Andrea Zussman, an advisor to Northern California Grantmakers.

Moving to a culture of preparedness requires major shifts not just in how we approach planning but in the way we live our lives. “The urgency now evident in how disasters affect us makes clear that the world has changed, and our place in it is increasingly more vulnerable; whether the threat be tornado, hurricane, wildfire or debris flow,” explained Ben Romo, Community Recovery and Engagement Coordinator, Santa Barbara County Office of Emergency Management. “Until recently, people in Santa Barbara had difficulty perceiving of a wildfire in December, and very few of us knew the term debris flow or the catastrophic impacts one might bring to our community.” Now that the Santa Barbara community has been made painfully aware of its vulnerability, many are committed to ensuring the infrastructure that we depend on more resilient. A newly formed public/private organization in Montecito called The Partnership for Resilient Communities is building off of the strong foundation of the Aware and Prepare Initiative. The Partnership has already retained a national disaster expert, David Fukutomi to work inside the County with top executives, disaster recovery officials and public safety chiefs. They are working with Public Works on potential monitoring and mitigation solutions, leveraging best practices from other countries, and, seeking innovative funding sources from private and public sectors. First and foremost in their work is learning from experts how to reduce the risk of future debris flows of the magnitude experienced early this year in concert with the County, Montecito’s governmental entities, federal and state agencies and citizens to rebuild a community that is safer and more resilient than before. “Aware and Prepare set the groundwork; our role is to move it forward,” explained Brett Matthews.

Moving forward to create a culture of preparedness requires stronger cross-sector collaboration, and therein lies the challenge. Dr. Sarah Anderson, Associate Professor of Environmental Politics at UCSB’s Bren School, has studied government responses to wildfires, and explained:

“After a disaster, we are consumed with thinking of rebuilding…But in three years, we have moved on. Governments respond that way as well. Ten years of data on how governments respond to disasters show that people forget and governments forget. At the same time that wildfire risk is going up, because our fuels are re-growing, our attention to wildfire, the salience of wildfire to us, is going down. This is a tragedy but it is also a window of opportunity to make long term changes now. Our human impulse is to think about recovery, which is critically important… But we have to make changes now that last: preparedness.”

I believe our community is up to the challenge.


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