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THE ELEMENTS

Earth, wind, fire and water… forces of nature that remain immune to mankind’s ability to fully control, much less predict. While allegations, distrust and pettiness continues in Washington D.C., millions of people are dealing with the stark realities of hurricanes, tropical storms, floods and wildfires.

These natural disasters provide a stark contrast to name calling, posturing and other elective foolishness that passes for leadership in America.  Those who have lost their homes to wind, flood or fire are unconcerned about building a wall, jousting with North Korea, climate policy disputes or whether the Iran nuclear deal was strong enough. They need drinking water, food, shelter and the opportunity to recover.  Maslow was right, when push comes to shove, the focus is on basic needs required for survival.

As of this writing, the 22 separate fires burning in California are down to 15; 5700 homes and other structures have been totally destroyed; over 40 are confirmed dead and well over 200 remain missing. The death toll will surely rise. Over 100,000 have been evacuated but fires continue unabated, even with over 8,000 firefighters working 20 hour days and the very best aircraft, trucks and technology at their disposal. This week, high winds, enormous fuel stocks and arid conditions promise to continue a disaster that will have consequences far beyond 2017. The cost, yet to be estimated, will run into billions.

In addition to California, Montana, Oregon and Idaho fires, all of which will have serious economic consequences and produce untold human heartache, the U.S. has encountered a hurricane season unlike any on record. While early predictions were for a mild hurricane season, there have been at least  14 hurricanes and tropical storms so far this year. The season, stretching from June 1 through November 30, continues to produce unsettled weather and unique patterns that are establishing a new baseline for future expectations.

The most revealing data was represented in a graphic comparing the size of Hurricane Irma to Hurricane Sandy which hit the Atlantic coast in 2012.  Due to demonstrably warmer ocean water, hurricane Irma was fully three to ten times larger than Sandy (or Andrew, Katrina or Harvey) with a diameter much broader and longer than the entire state of Florida.

The growing concern, expressed by meteorologists during the storm, is that warming oceans are producing larger and more violent storms- a phenomena predicted over ten years ago. This bodes ill for the millions who live on or near the coast or on a Caribbean island, and places the entire Gulf and Atlantic coasts in jeopardy. And, by the way, as of 10/12/17 Ophelia is building in the Atlantic- the 10th consecutive hurricane this year.

 So What?

Compounding human suffering and loss of life, there is a growing uncertainty regarding how one might live, build a business enterprise and thrive in areas prone to wildfires, tornados, floods and hurricanes. While tornados are highly localized, floods, wildfires and hurricanes cover hundreds of miles, cutting a broad swath through farms, cities and rural areas.  Nothing is immune to a 175 mile per hour storm that dumps a trillion gallons of water.  Or a fire, such as we are seeing in Napa and Sonoma Counties, that consumes entire cities, farmland, residential communities, businesses, parks, and infrastructure.

Cost of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Nate (landfall on October 8) is expected to exceed $200 billion. But those costs are associated with rebuilding structures.  There are significant hidden, or at least neglected costs associated with resident out-migration, loss of workers, businesses that close their doors, and the many unknown people and enterprises that elect to not visit or relocate to those affected areas… especially those that have had serial incidents resulting in death, disease, hardship and costly recovery efforts.

Over the next several years, tourists might elect to avoid denuded, recovering St. Thomas, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands or the Dominican Republic. Turks and Caicos is ruined…why visit? The loss of this primary revenue source will further devastate the Caribbean Islands hit by recent storms and will certainly cast doubt on those areas’ ability to return to anything resembling what was previously normal.

Meanwhile, the Gulf Coast of Texas and southern Louisiana, hit by Harvey, will also incur huge rebuilding costs and will experience at least some out-migration of families and businesses. There is already a skilled labor shortage, and it will only get worse. Full recovery may take over five years. Keep in mind that several areas of southern Louisiana have not recovered from Katrina (2005), which killed over 1,800 and has to date cost over $108 billion.

For the U.S., there are several serious underlying questions. With the American Society of Civil Engineers U.S. infrastructure grade remaining at a weak ‘D’ and the price tag to just bring America’s infrastructure back to acceptable safety/ operational standards is projected at $1.2 trillion, how will this nation afford an additional $200 billion?  And, what if the elements similarly exhibit their fury in 2018 with more hurricanes, floods and fires? Even more reason to rethink rebuilding. Why spend the money if it will just happen again and again?

Benefits to DIY companies, like Lowe’s and Home Depot, local contractors, and both skilled and unskilled laborers notwithstanding, the downside to insurance companies, general business communities, tourism, and families will continue to escalate as long-term affects become manifest. FEMA, by all accounts, has done reasonably well. However, as prepared as it was, that agency has drastically insufficient funding to cover its costs. Likewise, fighting fires across the west is tremendously expensive and not a single local fire department, state or federal agency has adequate funds. So, at a time when blather about reduced taxes is sure to escalate during Q4, wise, prudent business thinkers should wonder where the money will come from to pay for all the cleanup and recovery efforts—just to get back to some semblance of normal.

Citizens from every strata and circumstance have rallied to help. Money, manual labor, equipment, supplies, blood, and every conceivable contribution has provided a silver lining during serial disasters. But, once the initial adrenalin subsides, and the news becomes old, who will be there to help? Where will the money come from? How will this season of the elements impact national and regional economies? How will the stock market ultimately be affected? We believe there must be a holistic view, with better long-range planning and budgeting, integrated with realistic calculations involving weather patterns. If more fires, floods and hurricanes are the new normal, and similar seasons lie before us, will we be ready? Or, even though they are predicted, will we react with annual surprise?

With over four decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). Reprints of his book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders (2010) has sold out several times. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

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