We’re Going to Need a Much Bigger FEMA

FEMA is built to handle one disaster at a time. That’s not going to work in the future.

“When troubles come, they comes not as single spies but as battalions.” That wisdom goes back to Shakespeare. Yet our disaster response system is keyed to handling single disasters, not clusters of major disasters.  That needs to change.

This week is a good illustration.  We have fires in California that may set records.  We have a major heat wave across the American West. And as Daniel Melling posted on this site last week, heat waves kill more Americans than any other weather event. We also have a stormy season in the Gulf ahead of us.  This week, it’s possible that two hurricanes will hit the Gulf Coast within a few days.  All this is made worse, of course, by the ongoing pandemic (which Trump has used FEMA funds to address).

Apart from the coronavirus, each of these disasters was made more likely by climate change.  As the Washington Post reported on Friday, “scientists say there is no doubt that climate change is driving the extreme weather, increasing the threats to property and life.”  Higher temperatures provide the energy that drives all these weather events.

One thing that gets missed in discussing these issues is how climate change impacts the odds of disaster clusters.  When the chances of an event go up, the likelihood of having it happen twice in a row goes up even faster even if the occurrences are unrelated.  If we double the chance of a single event, we quadruple the chances of two in a row. So as events become more likely, clustering starts happening a lot more often than it used to even for unrelated occurrences.

We saw a few years ago how overstretched FEMA was when the country was hit in rapid succession by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. We’re going to see more and more of those clustered events.  FEMA needs a lot more capacity to handle those clusters.

In Jaws, there’s a memorable moment when Roy Scheider’s Sheriff Brody gets his first good, up close and personal look at the giant killer shark. “You’re going to need a bigger boat,” he deadpans. We’re going to need a bigger boat, too — or rather, a bigger FEMA.

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Reader Comments

3 Replies to “We’re Going to Need a Much Bigger FEMA”

  1. Additionally, what about a service corps that trains and then deploys people to help in times of disaster? Like the military, it would be a way to serve your country- in another capacity. People could be trained as medics, firefighters, disaster communications experts, disaster planning and relief, etc. Some of this work is not limited by age. Paid service that benefits your community long after it’s over. Like the military it may help younger people find their career. Other models like Peace Corps and California Conservation Corps provide examples.

  2. I like the idea of a service corps. It would also help with the need for surge capacity, rather than relying on the military.

  3. actually, climate change has also made a coronavirus epidemic more likely. climate change is spurring animal migrations, in some cases micro-migrations where animals venture a bit further from their home than they would otherwise (whether to move or just to visit). we have few details about the origins of the sars-ncov-2 coronavirus but if it was truly long endemic in bats, and then jumped from bats to an intermediary species to humans, then both of these interspecies contact events were made more likely by climate change. thus climate change has increased the probability of new zoonotic viruses infecting humans.

    incidentally, the worldwide spread of the coronavirus was made more likely, if not by climate change itself, then by the same factors driving climate change: industrial monoculture, urbanization, fossil-powered transportation, consumer culture, globetrotting (long-haul, short-stay) tourist and business travel

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About Dan

Dan Farber

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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