Climate change is a threat multiplier.
As an upsurge in coronavirus infections stretches thin the capacity of health care workers and emergency managers nationwide, the Midwest is bracing for another battle: a potentially devastating flood season.
“The current situation with COVID-19 presents us a fight on two fronts: one front, we have the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and on the other, what promises to be a very active spring 2020 flood season,” Sharon Broome, mayor of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, said on a press call Thursday.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this week released its spring flood projections, predicting moderate to severe flooding in 23 states. The greatest risk for “major and moderate flood conditions,” federal experts say, is along parts of the Mississippi River basin.
For local leaders in the Midwest, this situation is offering a crash course in how to plan and respond to multiple types of disasters simultaneously. And in a warming world, overlapping and compounding disasters will likely be the new normal. Human-caused climate change is already increasing the intensity and likelihood of certain extreme weather events, including heavy rain and related flooding in the middle of the country.
“We’re good at responding when a disaster stares us in the face,” Kris Johnson, deputy director at the Nature Conservancy, told BuzzFeed News. “But we’re really not good at thinking about what can we do now to mitigate and dampen the potential impacts and increase our ability to be resilient to future impacts, whether they are public health–related or whether they are flooding.”
According to Broome, a network of regional mayors has been preparing for possible flooding for weeks, coordinating with each other, the Red Cross, Congress, and federal agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But the pandemic is complicating matters, requiring more virtual coordination and forcing planners to update response and recovery protocols to take into account the specific threats of the pandemic.
“I think we can anticipate that as we move forward, we will see more burnout for our first responders, greater depletions of our supplies, and greater demand for more recovery money,” said Alice Hill, a climate fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has also studied pandemics.