satellite image of a typhoon
Source: NASA/Unsplash

Reducing Risk, Building Resilience

A year after Hurricane Sandy battered the northeast United States, Typhoon Haiyan cut a deadly swath through the Philippines in November 2013. In between, wildfires ravaged the western United States; cyclones, typhoons, and earthquakes struck India, the Philippines, and other parts of Asia; floods swamped the east coast of Australia; a storm packing hurricane-force winds lashed Europe; and the list goes on. These events are reminders of the devastating impact that extreme weather and natural disasters has on lives, properties, societies, and governments around the world. As countries rebuild, it is critical for governments to improve disaster-response planning. Lessons learned to reduce risk and build resilience, whether acquired domestically or internationally, have clear national security, economic, and development benefits.

Hurricane Sandy provides one example. In December 2012, just a month after the storm, President Barack Obama convened a Rebuilding Task Force led by the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, with Shaun Donovan as chair. The Task Force’s report, released in August 2013, emphasized that reducing disaster risk and building resilience are paramount to protecting communities across the nation. Though no single disaster is attributable to climate change, managing the risks is critical for mitigating the threats from a constantly changing climate. The report’s important recommendations include: incorporating science-based projections of future risk into urban planning, coordinating infrastructure investment regionally, and better harnessing the power of the insurance sector. These insights from Hurricane Sandy provide critical information that emergency managers, city planners, politicians, and citizens could use to reduce disaster risk around the world.

National Security Implications 

Technical prediction capabilities can improve warnings for events like tsunamis in Indonesia; regionally coordinating infrastructure investment can better protect – at a lower cost – places like Caribbean basin states; and leveraging insurance can reduce the risk of economic burdens to taxpayers everywhere. Learning the disaster risk reduction lessons from Hurricane Sandy and other global events will help make the nation more resilient while supporting U.S. national security, economic, and development goals.

The national security implications of climate change and extreme weather are clear: Climate change acts as a threat multiplier for instability at home and abroad. More than 24 senior retired military leaders of the CNA Military Advisory Board have warned of this threat since 2007. As the U.S. Department of Defense noted in its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, “While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict.” Some of the potential impacts are already clear: (a) Extreme-weather events increase demand for U.S. forces to provide disaster relief and humanitarian assistance; (b) Droughts and floods are globally altering crop cycles and disrupting food supplies; and (c) A changing Arctic is opening a new area of the planet to increased human traffic, from shipping to energy exploration to a potential accident at sea in remote and risky areas.

These changes have global implications. For example, a 2012 intelligence assessment on “Global Water Security” from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded, “During the next 10 years, water problems will contribute to instability in states important to U.S. national security interests.” These, of course, are only the challenges that analysts can expect today; even more challenging tasks are identifying and understanding the unexpected. A 2013 National Academies report, entitled “Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis,” observed that, “It is prudent for security analysts to expect climate surprises in the coming decade.” Therefore, reducing the risk of disasters will lower the impact to national security.

Economic Benefits & Development Goals 

The economic benefits of reducing disaster risk also are significant. Several studies have found that investment in risk reduction pays dividends in avoided response and recovery costs. A 2005 study by the Multihazard Mitigation Council found, “On average, a dollar spent by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on hazard mitigation (actions to reduce future losses) provides the nation about $4 in future benefits.” Of the $3.3 trillion that the international community invested in international aid from 1991 to 2010, only 3.5 percent went to natural disasters, and just 12.7 percent of that small sum, or $13.5 billion, went to disaster prevention and preparedness. U.S. programs allocate their funding similarly: disaster readiness represents only 3.0 percent of the humanitarian assistance request in the president’s FY2014 request, and 0.4 percent of the total aid budget.

What is good for U.S. national security and financial responsibility has clear international development benefits as well: protecting lives is fundamental, especially given that natural disasters killed 3.3 million people worldwide between 1970 and 2010, according to the World Bank. Diplomats met at the United Nations on 25 September 2013 to review the progress of the Millennium Development Goals and agreed to hold a summit in September 2015 to adopt a new development agenda. With the memories of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, the 2008 Cyclone Nargis, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and the 2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami fresh in mind, protecting citizens worldwide from the effects of these hazards has taken center stage. Incorporating disaster risk reduction into post-2015 development plans would provide a strong foundation to organize the next decade’s worth of efforts.

Equally important, the development benefits that many countries seek, the national security efforts that the United States requires, and the economic benefits that support all are mutually inclusive. A hospital system that can triage mudslide victims effectively has many of the same skills needed to respond to, for example, a chemical or biological weapons attack. Consequence management training to cope with weapons of mass destruction and to mitigate the effects of natural disasters provide complementary resilience. Both reduce the risk of destabilization of the United States, its allies, and the international system.

No single country has a monopoly on good – or bad – responses to disasters. Governments can learn from the experiences of others and better protect their citizens by doing so. Particularly critical will be the role of scientists, who stabilized relationships after the Cold War and could play a similar role among states through disaster risk reduction. With the recent results of the Hurricane Sandy Recovery Task Force, the time for action is now.

Sherri Goodman

Sherri Goodman is an executive at CNA, a nonprofit research organization, and a former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense. She is the executive director of the CNA Military Advisory Board. Her leadership with a range of organizations in the private, nonprofit, and public sectors spans national security, homeland security, energy, water, and environmental security.

Gretchen Hund

Gretchen Hund, a senior scientist, is the director of the Center for Global Security’s Global Risk Initiative at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. She has over 30 years of experience addressing topics that combine science, technology, and public policy issues. Her current research focuses on nuclear nonproliferation, global trends, and associated risks influencing national security, as well as carbon dioxide sequestration. From 1985 to 1990, she was a senior analyst at the U.S. Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, directing and participating in studies on environmental issues including radioactive waste management and wastes in the marine environment.



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