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Summertime brings many simple pleasures: warm days, evening barbeques and beach trips with family and friends. But for communities along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, summertime also heralds the start of hurricane season, a major threat to safety and security.
Despite warnings of a more active hurricane season, many communities will not be ready for the coming storms. This lack of preparedness isn’t because communities don’t believe a hurricane will strike: it’s because residents underestimate their personal risk.
To better prepare for and respond to natural disasters, communities must implement resilience principles that help them survive, adapt and grow – and that means they must recognise the severity of the threats they face.
But, several pervasive myths about disasters continue to put communities at risk of devastation.
Myth 1: It won’t happen to me
While most Americans admit natural disasters pose a threat, many believe, “it won’t happen to me.” In a 2013 Risk Perception Survey conducted by Swiss Re and Gallup, 56 percent of Americans believed their neighbourhood would be hit by a major natural disaster within the next three years. But in earthquake-prone California, only 10 percent of homeowners buy earthquake insurance, leaving the large majority of Californians exposed to possible financial ruin.
The “it won’t happen to me” mindset should be abolished immediately.
If action is not taken to secure our social, economic and physical infrastructure through resilient solutions, communities will continue to suffer extreme consequences when disasters strike.
In New Orleans, a new partnership is working with city officials to assess and mitigate risk before a crisis. Launched in January 2016, the team of Swiss Re, Veolia and 100 Resilient Cities – Pioneered by The Rockefeller Foundation could help New Orleans understand and protect critical assets – like its water systems – under current and future climate scenarios.
Backed by insurance capital, Veolia could be prepared to make critical repairs. So, if a storm damages a wastewater plant or ruptures a water main, residents are not waiting for weeks or months for repairs – and New Orleans therefore becomes more prepared as the frequency of natural disasters increases.
It’s time to approach natural disasters in the same way we save for retirement: taking critical steps today to adequately prepare for our future. While this sort of planning may not show immediate results, it will be integral to ensure a future crisis doesn’t become a catastrophe. Through careful planning with a resilience approach, cities and individuals will be working smarter, not harder to respond to crises.
Myth 2: Someone else will take care of it
When you go to a restaurant for dinner, the assumption is that you will pay the bill. When it comes to natural disasters, most individuals assume the federal, state or local government will pick up the tab. This is simply not the case.
When disaster strikes and a family’s home is destroyed, the largest check that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will write is for $33,000. Period. And while that may cover some of the building costs, it certainly will not make most homes whole.
It’s important to encourage communities to look beyond the federal government for the tools and resources necessary to prepare for and build back from disaster.
One place to look is MyStrongHome, a new insurance start-up that combines risk reduction with disaster insurance. Using the site, residents are encouraged to protect their homes while purchasing adequate levels of insurance to reduce their exposure and related burdens.
Additionally, some cities are looking at ways to transfer the financial cost of emergency evacuations to the private market, so that local government can focus on protecting lives and not worry about the financial impact of making smart decisions.
Myth 3: There’s nothing we can do
Oftentimes there is a feeling of helplessness when it comes to natural disasters; a feeling that no matter how much you prepare, ultimately there is little you can do to prevent the fallout after a storm.
But studies show that changes to public policies, improvements to infrastructure, and the use of certain financial mechanisms not only protect us from storms, but build stronger, more holistic communities.
An example of this approach is Barbados, a Caribbean island 21 miles long that loses four percent of its GDP every year battling tropical storms and hurricanes. Recently, officials determined that every dollar invested in green infrastructure in the island’s Folkestone Marine Park reduces future hurricane losses by $20.
This is what The Rockefeller Foundation refers to as the Resilience Dividend; a down payment on preparedness that will pay off in times of crisis.
Underestimating the risk of powerful storms inevitably leads to fragmented communities, weakened infrastructure, and an ailing economy. Only by assessing risk, improving our infrastructure, updating public policy, and advancing financial structures can we protect individuals and governments from massive losses.
It’s time to start preparing for the realities of natural disasters, not the myths.
Alex Kaplan @alexskaplan is Head of North America and Senior Vice President of Global Partnerships at Swiss Re.