This summer’s natural disasters (or, really, un-natural, human-caused-climate-induced disasters) are a Rorschach Test and magnifying glass for pre-existing regional issues which are amplified in times of crisis. The rebuilding and recovery provides an opportunity to address those problems by reshaping the built environment. Optimistically, a shattered status quo can allow for a necessary political breakthrough. Here are a few regional problems revealed by the recent disasters, and ways that recovery can play a role in addressing them.
Homelessness and affordable housing in Northern California
Most recently, the Northern California fires that raged across Napa and Sonoma Counties highlighted the social inequalities that have been mounting as billions of dot com dollars put the real estate market out of reach to most working families. The homeless population continues to increase, and it would not be surprising to find refugees from the fire taking shelter under highway overpasses in the coming months and years. During the rebuilding, insurers will undoubtedly favor Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove neighborhood up on the hill over the trailers parks and working class housing below. NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) property owners will likely continue to resist efforts to add granny units or inclusive affordable housing into the area’s city planning. As the pre-fire rent control debate in Santa Rosa showed, affordable housing was already at a crisis, and it has now been ratified by the fires – unless the City and County can come together to overcome those historic obstacles, and make density and affordability a top priority in the rebuilding.
On the environmental side, ranchers will hopefully accept some assistance from CalFire or the Resource Conservation Districts to prevent future fires. Local leaders should move quickly to implement best practices for fire-adapted communities in the wildland-urban interface before the headlines fade. Climate protection agencies, the cities, and the water agency should ensure that fuel load reduction is done with Biochar, which turns the pollutants of the decaying matter into a soil amendment, and can be carbon neutral or even carbon negative.
Houston and the Petroleum Industry
The worldview of climate deniers would collapse if they allowed themselves to admit the role a human-caused warmer ocean played in the destructiveness of the hurricanes this summer, even one that demolished their own town. They must not allow climate science to penetrate their ideology. They must try to let the petroleum industry off the hook by claiming it was just bad luck or an uncontrollable act of God (but not this one). If the industry had to actually answer for their “sins” then, as this Houston Chronicle editorial writes, Houston could be facing a diminished status as new version of the Rust Belt: the Oil Belt. Despite the reticence of most the media to admit it, human-caused (that is, fossil-fuel-caused) climate disruption is bankrupting whole cities and regions, causing hundreds of billions in damage. The region needs political leaders who are uncompromised by fossil industry campaign cash. Then they could institute a market-friendly carbon price (with revenues returned back to people) that would help make the shift to cleaner alternatives.
Houston’s hands-off approach to urban planning and surplus pavement (referred to as impervious surfaces by stormwater experts) were also revealed in the floods. Solutions exist here for rebuilding as well, including permeable paving, rainbarrels, green spaces, parks and bayous, and rain gardens that divert runoff before it hits the storm drain.
Florida, Sea Level Rise, and Solar
Florida’s beaches keep attracting people to the Sunshine State. Meanwhile, Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Sequel” highlighted how the state government is unprepared to deal with projected sea level rise. Regional leaders are trying, but if other elected leaders avoiding the issue are abdicating responsibility, voters must send a message at the ballot box. If it wants to survive, Florida must become a national and international leader on climate adaptation, including managed retreat when necessary. They cannot just build sea walls. With their abundance of sun, they can also become world leaders in solar energy, if they harness political energy.
Puerto Rico: renewable energy, debt relief, and democracy
Puerto Rico has enough going on to warrant its own article. In the short term there are many things that can be done to help the island recover. Longer term, they will need an infusion of renewable energy, debt relief, and democracy.
This article focused on longer term solutions, and of course when time is of the essence and lives are being lost, the humanitarian and life-threatening issues take precedence. But it is not too soon to consider how recovery can help solve the pre-existing problems that were amplified by disaster. If done correctly, such improvements could be a silver lining after the storm.