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The Essential Elements of a Climate Adaptation Action Plan

Hurricane image from above

Climate adaptation is accelerating.  

Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that 34 percent of the contiguous United States fell into severe to extreme drought categories in February 2022, while just six percent of the country was considered severely to extremely wet during the same period. This is a marked deviation from the first two decades of the 21st century, which saw a combination of both extensive drought and wetness. 

The 2022 hurricane season, meanwhile, is on track for another above-average year. Wildfire activity also continues to rise — California is experiencing longer wildfire seasons as a direct result of changing climate conditions, and the western Canadian province of British Columbia continues to struggle with growing wildfire impacts each year; 2017 and 2018 were by far the worst years on record with 1.2 and 1.3 million hectares destroyed. 

As a result, communities cannot afford to wait when it comes to climate adaptation plans. More active storm seasons, increasing drought, and expanding wildfires put cities and towns at greater risk of more frequent emergencies that require rapid, resource-driven responses. 

Not sure where to start? Here are three essential elements of a climate adaptation action plan. 

Initiating Risk Assessment 

According to Dr. Dan Kaniewski, former Deputy Administrator for Resilience at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Juvare Advisory Board member, “Risk assessment is the first step. Once you understand the risk, you can take action.” 

This assessment should include an evaluation of current conditions and potential outcomes. For example, areas currently experiencing extreme drought could find themselves under threat of flooding as climate conditions shift in response to large-scale meteorological forces and human-driven action. 

Kaniewski highlights the example of Beatrice, a small city in southeast Nebraska. Two decades ago, the city began looking at the potential impacts of long-term climate adaptation and identified the potential for major flood risk. “The city administration took it upon themselves to begin a buyout strategy for homes that keep flooding,” says Kaniewski. “Working with the community, they bought out these homes.” In his capacity at FEMA, Kaniewski visited Beatrice after substantial flooding occurred in the area — while a neighboring town that hadn’t conducted this kind of in-depth assessment was underwater, Beatrice experienced no substantial flooding in residential areas.  

Allocating Key Resources 

Once risks have been assessed and identified, the next step is allocating key resources to support emergency management efforts. Referencing the five mission areas of the National Preparedness Goal – prevention, protection, mitigation, response, and recovery – provides an effective framework to consider resource management.   

For example, preparation is about making sure you have the right people in place and that these people are prepared for disasters. In the case of flooding, for instance, preparedness focuses on equipping community leaders with the training and technologies they need to handle potential hazards as they occur. 

Mitigation is another useful lens to examine resource management. At the most fundamental level, mitigation is asking “how do I remove myself from a dangerous situation? How can I expend some resources to harden my home?” The answers to these questions may lead to actions such as raising your home or even moving if you’re near areas that flood. Communities may choose to support individuals in such an exercise. For Beatrice, this meant buying out homes that were at high risk of flooding and ensuring that no other houses were built in the same location.  

In the area of response, Kaniewski suggests that communities think broadly and consider all possibly response tools, such as leveraging insurance to offset financial challenges. Here, hazard prediction is key — “climate change makes disasters more extreme. Areas might go from high risk to uninhabitable.” Understanding both current risks and potential changes can help communities find the best fit when it comes to insuring their infrastructure against disasters. 

Tools such as Juvare’s WebEOC play a key role in helping an organization understand what resources they have at their disposal, and how they can effectively coordinate and harmonize these resources. 

Conducting Regular Review 

Kaniewski describes the “downstream effect of disasters” as being a salient feature of risk that stemming from climate change. Consider flooding. Storms in one part of a state or province may have serious consequences, but these are exacerbated when they happen after another severe weather event. A storm after a forest fire can lead to mudslides that in turn impact roads or utilities, creating a domino effect that can have serious implications for communities that are nowhere near the site of the original event. 

To help reduce this impact of downstream effects, he recommends that communities hope for the best and plan for the worst by regularly stress testing their climate plans. “Exercises are the best ways to test plans,” he says. “Test these plans based on various potential scenarios to see what happens.” He points to the FEMA “all-hazards” approach, which focuses on the creation of basic plans capable of responding to various disaster types since despite best predictive efforts there’s no way for communities to be entirely certain of what’s coming next. SimulationDeck by Nusura is an exercise management and simulation tool that can help facilitate these exercises. It allows exercise planners to replicate, in real time, the public-facing, whole-of-nation response to cyber rumors, threats, and attacks. 

There’s also a need for flexibility in action plans. Given the changing nature of climate conditions, these plans aren’t fire-and-forget — if certain aspects of a plan aren’t working as intended or specific resources are lacking, communities must be willing to go back to the disaster drawing board, dive into the data, and determine the best course of action.  

Mitigating the Impact 

Evolving climate conditions have created a new challenge for communities: Rapid changes in hazard risk mean robust action plans are now critical to ensure organizations have the people and resources necessary to respond in real time.  

Building an action plan to mitigate the impact starts with risk assessment — what hazards are most likely, and what conditions are influencing change? Next is allocating key resources. This means putting the right people in place, equipping them with the right training, tools, and technologies to effectively manage emergencies in addition to mitigating existing risks wherever possible. Finally, it’s worth conducting regular action plan review and testing to ensure plans are capable of handling both near-time and downstream consequences of significant climate events.  

With climate adaptation accelerating, communities and organizations face uncertainty about what tomorrow will bring. As a result, they need action plans capable of not only reducing risk from the perspective of today’s baseline, but also what comes tomorrow. Kaniewski puts it simply: “Tools like WebEOC can help communities understand what’s going on right now and how the situation is changing to create a vision for communities less vulnerable to disasters.” 

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