Communities weighing their disaster readiness in the face of an escalating threat landscape have the greatest concerns about cyber and pandemic vulnerabilities and report the need to make greater strides in preparedness areas including critical infrastructure security plan updates and ensuring medical care and business continuity, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Preparedness Report.
“Emergency management cannot be reactionary in today’s environment,” FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell wrote at the outset of the report. “Climate change directly impacts the frequency and intensity of natural disasters and our ability to ensure the safety of our communities. Building community-wide resilience to climate change through targeted mitigation investments and leveraging future risk data needs to be a primary focus for all levels of government and partners.”
“Though this entails higher costs for everyone, the consequences of inaction are far more severe,” she added, stressing that public-private partnerships and increased information-sharing across critical infrastructure sectors “remains pivotal to reducing risk to aging infrastructure systems and building resilience to all hazards, including cyberattacks.”
In 2021 the country experienced 20 weather-related disasters, resulting in 688 fatalities and cumulatively costing $145 billion. That far outpaces the average from 1980–2021, the report notes, with 7.4 incidents billion-dollar disasters per year.
Most communities in 2021 overwhelmingly identified cyberattacks and pandemics as the threat and hazard types they believe are most likely to occur and put the most stress on their capabilities, followed by flooding, active shooters, explosives or earthquakes, hurricanes or wildfires, winter storms, chemical security incidents, and tornadoes.
Ninety-five percent of communities reported natural hazards as likely to occur and 92 percent of communities reported hazards that can be exacerbated by climate change as most stressful to their emergency management capabilities, the report said, adding that climate change “will dramatically change communities’ risk outlooks in the coming decades.”
The report notes that extreme heat is now one of the deadliest types of weather incidents, causing more fatalities in the U.S. than incidents of hurricanes, tornadoes, or flooding — with vulnerable populations disproportionately affected. “Heat fatalities have outpaced hurricane fatalities by a significant margin in recent decades,” the report states. “The 30-year average indicates heat was responsible for just over three times the number of fatalities caused by hurricanes. The 10-year and 2021 averages for heat-related fatalities are eight times more than hurricanes.”
Another risk noted by FEMA is the projection that sea level along the U.S. coastline will rise, on average, 10-12 inches between 2020 and 2050, contributing to five times as many more flooding disasters by 2050 than today. And over the past four decades, windstorms caused more than $1 trillion in economic damages, making wind the country’s costliest loss-producing natural hazard. The risk of tornadoes in “Tornado Alley” — regions in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas that have typically experienced lots of twisters — has shifted, with activity increasing in Southeastern states like Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Missouri.
In California, 10 of the costliest wildfires in loss of life and property occurred after 2015, “mirroring the rise in global temperatures and severe droughts,” FEMA stressed. “Between 1979 and 2020, human-driven climate change was the main driver of fire weather in this region, causing twice as many fires beyond regularly observed variability.”
“The increased severity, duration, and occurrence rate of climate-related disasters puts immense strain on emergency responders,” the report states. “It continues to cause delays in recovery efforts, which can take weeks, months, or even decades.”
FEMA emphasized the risk to critical infrastructure security from cyber incidents — including the 2021 attacks on the Oldsmar, Fla., water supply and Colonial Pipeline — as well as from a changing climate, noting that “between the 2000s and the 2010s, the U.S. saw a 67 percent increase in significant power outages due to weather-related incidents.”
“As climate change causes natural disasters to increase in frequency, the likelihood that a cyberattack will coincide with another disaster grows, becoming a major area of concern for communities across the nation,” the report notes. “Such a cyberattack during or immediately after a natural disaster or terrorism-related incident could create a ‘domino effect,’ leading to losses of electrical power, water, telecommunications, and other infrastructure that could hamper response efforts and imperil survivors depending on the nature of the disaster.”
In 2021, communities “overall reported being relatively close to achieving their target goals” in attaining emergency capabilities, with communities reporting that they were closest to their goals in intelligence cycle auditing/execution, unified operations, threat and hazard modeling, supply chain risk preparedness, and information delivery. Areas in which they were furthest from their goals, from highest to lowest achievement and often blamed on having limited staff, were in reopening businesses, critical infrastructure security plan updates, body recovery/storage, medical care, and cyber plan updates.
“Targeted investments — particularly those that harden critical infrastructure and create redundancies — are one of the best ways communities can mitigate the impact of future disasters and adapt to the effects of a changing climate,” the report said, detailing avenues for assistance including sources funded under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
Leveraging data “to help anticipate and prepare for future climate change impacts” is critical for communities, the report emphasizes. “Along with mitigation projects targeting climate change impacts, communities can invest in mitigation measures to reduce the risk exposure of the nation’s critical infrastructure to physical and technological threats and hazards, including earthquakes, solar weather, power grid disruptions, and cyber threats,” it states. “…Communities can reduce their vulnerability by improving the resilience of these interconnected systems and structures and can leverage existing funding sources available through federal grants to achieve this goal.”
The report also advocates building public-private partnerships “to develop and complete physical projects and for information sharing and planning before, during, and after disasters” and to “help address specific areas of concern and promote community resilience to various threats and hazards.”
“Private capital is vital for boosting investments in risk mitigation measures such as sustainable energy transitions and critical infrastructure updates,” FEMA said. “While developing new and innovative resiliency-building strategies, the private sector can focus on digitalization, decarbonization, and diversification.”
Looking ahead, FEMA plans for the 2023 NPR to include “additional trend analyses of risks across communities, leveraging Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) data to better understand communities’ most challenging threats and hazards over time, and FEMA’s National Risk Index (NRI) data to examine anticipated disaster-related annual losses.”
“The 2023 report will also leverage data from the National Household Survey (NHS) to show trends in individual and community preparedness and resilience efforts,” FEMA added.