A mural honoring the togetherness of community following Hurricane Sandy is displayed on the Jersey Shore Boardwalk. ©Allison Heller, 2012.
The United States is experiencing another historic year in terms of disasters. From January through September, the nation endured 15 weather and climate-related disasters that resulted in losses of more than $1 billon each. To date, 2017 is now tied with the record-setting year of 2011 for the highest number of so-called billion-dollar disasters. The experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which tracks these major events, note that we have been exposed to an unusual combination of more frequent disasters, extreme losses, and a diversity of disaster types that range from drought to wildfire to floods, storms, and cyclones.
The economic impacts of the catastrophes that have unfolded in rapid succession across the United States and its territories represent just one indicator of how bad this year has really been. The counts are still being tallied in terms of lives lost, injuries to body and mind, environmental harm, and population dislocation. What is clear is that by just about any measure, 2017 has been especially dramatic and devastating. And this is, of course, not only true for the United States, but for many nations around the world.
This level of destruction and social disruption can and often does lead to a sense of despair. This is the case for those struck low by the disaster itself, but witnesses to catastrophe can also experience anguish and hopelessness. We are all witnesses right now.
But this is not the moment for despair, because despair can lead to inaction.
If this year teaches us any lessons, please let it be that this is the time to collectively act in ways that turn this tide of mounting disaster losses and growing human suffering.
This is our moment.
Look around, look around at how lucky we are
To be alive right now
Look around, look around…
—Lin-Manuel Miranda, “That Would Be Enough.”
We are lucky to be alive right now. This is our window of opportunity as a diverse and powerful nation and as a global community to heed the call of nature and to move forward in a more just and resilient way. This is the time to recognize that we are on a collision course with continued catastrophe, but we can still do something before we move into a permanent state of crisis. We can create change, together.
So what can we do as individuals and as community members? A short, and admittedly incomplete, list follows.
Know Your Risk
Most disasters unfold where we live, so start there. What natural and technological hazards do you face in your immediate surrounding environment? Which groups of people are at greatest risk in your community? What property is in harm’s way? What do you value—materially, socially, culturally—that may be lost if disaster strikes? You’ll find many resources to help you identify risk and learn more about disasters on our resource page.
Preparing for disaster, such as gathering useful supplies, can help ward off feelings of helplessness. ©Melissa Venable, 2011.
Most communities have emergency management officials who are eager to get the word out about how to protect yourself from risks to your home and community. Even if you don’t have the financial capacity to take recommended protective actions, it’s possible that local emergency managers can help you move forward in reducing your individual risk. Begin by contacting your local officials as a place to start.
In addition to individual and family preparedness, it is just as important to think about collective action that will help reduce disaster risk. Find out what efforts are already happening in your community, and consider getting involved. There are many professional agencies as well as voluntary organizations active in disaster that are looking for ready, willing, and able volunteers and staff members.
You also can be a leader of change within your professional organization or neighborhood. Whether you are a stay-at-home parent, a school teacher, a nurse, or a CEO, you can take the initiative to increase risk awareness and engage in conversations about preparedness and mitigation in your personal and professional networks. When we work to build the capacity of those around us, and target resources effectively, then we can begin to move the needle toward reducing risk.
Disasters unfold at the local level, but they are influenced by state and national policy. Are you voting for political leaders who are helping to build a more sustainable future for generations yet to come? Where do your elected officials stand on matters related to disaster risk reduction? If you don’t know the answer to these questions, find out, and encourage officials to take a stand that involves mitigating risk.
This makes good financial sense—it’s estimated that every $1 spent on hazards mitigation saves $4 in disaster losses. It also makes good social and moral sense to invest in building more just and environmentally sustainable communities. If your elected officials do not currently have platforms or statements regarding the hazards that face your community, call them up and encourage them to begin addressing local disaster threats!
Also, if you are reading this and you care about the environment and your community, I hope you will consider running for your local school board, city council, or other elected office.
History has taught us important lessons regarding social change, and among those is the incredible power of grassroots activism in combination with top-down interventions. Think about the dramatic shifts that have occurred in civil rights legislation and environmental protection in the modern era. It’s true that the progress we have seen would have been impossible without inspired leadership, but it is equally true that everyday people raising their voices and standing up for what is right led us to a tipping point of positive change. Every voice counts. Every voice matters. And when voices join together, we are able to serve as a stronger catalyst for public good.
Focus on Possibility
We hear on an almost on a daily basis that we are a divided nation. But I will always believe that what binds us together is far stronger than what separates us. One thing that we share in common right now is the fact that every state in the nation has been affected by at least one billion-dollar disaster since 1980. We are all living at risk, we are all interconnected, and we all have a role to play to effectively respond to 21st century social and environmental challenges. Let’s begin to focus on solving these problems as if all of our lives depended on it. Because they do.
As always, I wish you each well, and I thank you for all that you do on a daily basis. Please remember to take care of yourself and others.
Lori Peek, Director
Natural Hazards Center