One disaster after another

I waded through water over my knees to check the fence for my sheep last week. When they got out and headed for the field of alfalfa nearby, I waded through water where the alfalfa had drowned out after five years of doing just fine. While the alfalfa on the high ground is blooming and ready to be cut for hay, the ground underneath is muddy and too wet to drive a tractor over. Even though June’s rainfall was nearly average, the supersaturated soils have created a challenging spring.

In spite of our washed out culverts, wet fields and soggy pastures, our problems are dwarfed by those around us who have lost their homes to flooding rivers, ferocious tornadoes and raging wildfires. Even as much of the Midwest drowns in excess water, other parts of the country are parched with drought.

Around the world, monsoons flood whole villages, drought turns large swaths of Africa into new deserts and heat waves parch the earth. Coastal cities face rising sea levels and tropical storms, earthquakes and tidal waves devastate shorelines.

Climate scientists are careful to avoid pointing to global climate change as the cause of this spring’s violent and unpredictable weather. Most scientists agree that our climate is changing and a majority maintain that humans have caused some or a majority of the change. There still remains disagreement about how much, how fast, and if there is anything we can do about it. We will probably not know if this spring’s floods, droughts, tornadoes and wildfires were the result of a warming world until we are looking at it as history sometime in the future.

This spring’s disasters raise another important issue. If climate scientists are right and the incidence of violent weather increases in the not-so-distant future, how will we deal with resulting economic, environmental and social impacts?

The National Climatic Data Center lists Hurricane Katrina as our country’s costliest Weather disaster. The cost of this one storm across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida is estimated to be nearly $134 billion. My guess is that estimate is a conservative one and takes into account only things that have a dollar value. No one can measure the lives lost, the emotional trauma or the historical losses which resulted.

When tornadoes ripped through Missouri this spring, the mess left behind was unbelievable. The damages from the overflowing rivers like the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Little Missouri, the Souris Rivers and others will not be totaled for years. The slowly rising water of Devils Lake wears residents down like a long-term chronic illness. Likewise, the cost of the drought in Texas and Arizona just keeps adding up.

When disaster hits, organizations like the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and other non-profit agencies mobilize to help. Volunteers show up with chain saws, buckets and mops. People all over open their wallets and contribute to relief efforts. This kind of private, non-profit philanthropy is important. What happens, however, when these kinds of disasters happen more and more frequently? How long before compassion fatigue sets in for those who donate money or volunteer their time? How should the efforts of these organizations be coordinated to make sure victims’ needs are being met and funds are not simply funneled to the most dramatic or those which receive the most news coverage.

Immediately when disaster strikes, governors appeal to the federal government for assistance. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has become a household word. Victims of floods, winds and tornadoes have come to expect assistance from federal coffers. There is good reason for this expectation. The scale of many weather-related disasters makes other sources of aid inadequate to deal with the problems left behind. If we already spend billions of tax dollars dealing with disasters, how will we be able to afford to help twice as many victims?

Is the answer that we all carry more insurance? If damages from wind, rain and drought increase, the cost of insuring against losses will also increase. At what point will the average person not be able to afford to insure their property? FEMA is in the process of revising the 100 year floodplain maps to include more area. Will your house now be included in the area that is required to buy flood insurance? What will happen to those who can’t afford adequate insurance? Should the government subsidize homeowners and business insurance as it does crop insurance? Or, should the government begin budgeting more money to provide help when disaster strikes?

Even if there is debate over the causes of global climate change, the number and scale of disastrous weather events seems to be increasing. We’d better start developing a new plan for how we deal with the devastation that results.

Copyright © 2011 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains