4 lessons for a better extreme weather response

By Lisa Cornish 13 February 2017

A thermometer. Photo by: KayVee.INC / CC BY-NC

As Australia neared its highest ever recorded summer temperatures, the impact of extreme weather events topped the agenda of the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society and Meteorological Society of New Zealand conference in Canberra gathered from Feb. 7-10.

“Climate change related disasters are now inevitable,” Gordon McBean, president of the International Council for Science, told the audience. As he spoke, bushfires raged in Australia, set off by a blistering summer.

“The evidence is very clear. There is an increasing occurrence of disasters — floods, storms, droughts and heatwaves,” he said. “When we look at the number of [natural] disasters around the world, 75 or 80 percent of them are climate and weather related.” These extreme events, he continued, are both more frequent and of a stronger magnitude.

Developed countries such as Australia and Canada are struggling to cope with the enormity of these events, speakers noted. Emergency responders in Australia are being forced to look beyond traditional response systems to cope with the disasters, according to Mark Crosweller, director-general of Emergency Management Australia. Among the reforms needed are better preparation for hospitals and medical personnel to accept higher patient loads during times of stress, said Liz Hanna, a researcher with the Climate Change Institute

As those countries fortify their response systems and build new innovations, some of their lessons learned can provide guidance for developing countries, which with weaker infrastructure and fewer fall-back systems face even further challenges in responding. Developing countries might also have a few things to teach their wealthier peers about community cohesion in crisis. Here are four considerations and tips for dealing with extreme weather.

1. Identify and plan for vulnerability

Emergency responders need to understand who is most vulnerable within a community and who would require additional support in an emergency event or evacuation. Once a vulnerable group is identified, their needs can be incorporated into a response plan. “We want to work to reduce this vulnerability,” McBean said.

This is an area that developing countries can improve upon, McBean’s research has found. Working in Lagos, Nigeria, he surveyed public perceptions of flood risk in slum areas of the city in May 2011. The surveys analyzed the vulnerability of specific groups in the community, with a particular focus on gender. Initially, survey respondents did not generally anticipate different levels of risk within their community.

In mid-July 2011, Lagos received the equivalent one month of rain in an 18-hour period. And it provided McBean with the opportunity to conduct a second round of surveys after floods had hit the same community to understand how the disaster changed perceptions. This time, respondents had witnessed firsthand the different levels of vulnerability within their community, impacting their ability to respond quickly to disasters. Low-income women were found to experience the worst effects of flooding.

McBean is also working in Taipei and Bangkok to improve awareness of issues especially among young people, together with the two cities’ governments.

2. Invest in climate information

High-quality information is vital to preparing for and responding to extreme weather events. Analysts urged governments to fortify their departments of meteorology.

In some developing countries, this is happening. Vanuatu, for example, is investing in and operating emergency response warning centers, said Rob Webb, deputy director of hazards, warnings and forecasts at Bureau of Meteorology.

Other governments don’t see meteorological data collection and systems as a high-value commodity. That could be to their peril, he warned.

McBean recounted hearing from a colleague at a meteorological service in a developing African nation, for example, that the government was cutting their budget believing the same information could be easily received from CNN. “That’s very tragic,” McBean said.

A lack of information, or even misinformation, can limit a government’s ability to prepare and respond to extreme weather events.

3. A strong community builds resilience

Developing countries often excel in one area where their wealthier peers fall behind: building strong communities.

Rich countries often rely on technology to disseminate information, which may fail in an emergency when the phone network or power goes out. Webb discussed Cyclone Tracy, a disaster that hit the Australian city of Darwin in 1974 killing 71 people. He suggested that those living in Darwin today would cope worse than 43 years ago due to their reliance on technology. For the modern day community, Webb said early warning systems need to make the disaster feel “real.” “Our warning systems need to be able to get into the decisions they have to make,” he said.

Early warning systems in developing countries are often community based. “I am jealous of the Samoan response systems where they have communities using church bells to contact every member of the community very quickly, and the community are well practised to run up the hills,” Webb said. “We would be very lucky to get a small part of the community working like that.”

In a disaster, community cohesion enables each person to understand their role or response — and support can be identified for those who need it.

4. Know where to invest and why

Developed countries such as Australia and Canada need to invest in more personnel, better data and technology, medical services, infrastructure, awareness campaigns and cross-jurisdictional collaboration, speakers said.

In developing countries, funding support has focused on self-sufficiency — strengthening infrastructure, building community capability and providing educating and training.

Webb said Australian funding aims at helping countries and communities improve and expand their own efforts. “There is a lot happening and it’s not about walking into a country and telling them how to do it,” he explained.

Conference participants warned that the current level of support for developing countries may not be enough. With even developed countries struggling to respond, they expressed a sense that developing countries were being left with few defenses against Mother Nature.

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About the author

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Lisa Cornishlisa_cornish

Lisa Cornish is a Devex reporter based in Canberra, Australia. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.


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