Extreme weather and climate events can escalate to disasters for vulnerable communities and systems, both human and natural. Weather- and climate-related disasters have social as well as physical dimensions. As a result, disaster risk is affected by changes in the frequency and severity of physical events and by diverse and dynamic patterns of exposure and vulnerability. Some types of extreme weather and climate events have increased in frequency and/or magnitude, thus the risk and vulnerability of marginalized populations—which often include indigenous peoples—also increases, potentially resulting in greater losses due to disasters.1
Opportunities for managing risks from disasters can be developed at any scale, from local to international. Some strategies for effectively managing risks and adapting to climate change involve adjustments to current activities and paradigms, while others require transformation or fundamental changes in individual and community behaviors. Multi-stressor situations—impacts on vulnerable populations following natural disasters that also damage the social and physical infrastructure necessary for resilience and emergency response—are particularly important to consider when preparing for the impacts of climate change on human health. Effective adaptation planning requires an integrated approach that includes public health and safety concerns.1
Some Tribal Nations across the United States face increased disaster risks from extreme weather and other climate-related events, and these disasters can be exacerbated by limited access to resources. Disaster risk reduction (DRR) is a multi-faceted effort requiring diverse approaches to minimize impacts from disasters. Proactive measures can be taken to increase native communities’ preparedness and resilience, including (but not limited to):
- Discouraging new development or post-disaster redevelopment in vulnerable areas to reduce losses,
- Planning for stresses on transportation, including roads and bridges,
- Effective evacuation planning, including the deployment of early warning systems,
- Creating multiple evacuation routes, and
- Coordination across jurisdictional boundaries.
Some Tribal Nations may face unique challenges to disaster planning, primarily stemming from limited or no access to critical emergency response support coupled with geographic isolation. Conversely, low-income urban populations, which may include indigenous communities, are among those most vulnerable to disasters. Enhancing Tribal Nations' readiness requires increasing the capacity of tribal governments and improving planning in urban areas to better serve marginalized populations.1
Federal Emergency Management Agency support
In the United States in 2014 alone, there were eight weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each. These events resulted in the deaths of 53 people and had significant socioeconomic effects on the impacted areas, especially to vulnerable populations—including indigenous peoples.2
Hazard mitigation is defined as any sustained action taken to reduce or eliminate long-term risk to human life and property from hazards. Mitigation activities may be implemented prior to, during, or after an incident in order to reduce the impacts of extreme events. Furthermore, hazard mitigation is most effective when based on inclusive, comprehensive, long-term planning that is developed before a disaster occurs.3
National Disaster Recovery Framework
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) National Disaster Recovery Framework is a guide that enables effective recovery support to disaster-impacted states, tribes, territorial, and local jurisdictions. It provides a flexible structure that enables disaster recovery managers to operate in a unified and collaborative manner. It also focuses on how best to restore, redevelop, and revitalize the health, social, economic, natural, and environmental fabric of the community and build a more resilient nation. The Framework defines:
- Core recovery principles,
- Roles and responsibilities of recovery coordinators and other stakeholders,
- A coordinating structure that facilitates communication and collaboration among all stakeholders,
- Guidance for pre- and post-disaster recovery planning, and
- The overall process by which communities can capitalize on opportunities to rebuild stronger, smarter, and safer.
National Flood Insurance Program
Indian tribes, authorized tribal organizations, Alaska Native villages, or authorized native organizations that have land use authority are considered communities by the National Flood Insurance Program4, and can join the program even if no flood hazard map exists that covers the full extent of a tribe's lands. FEMA recognizes that effective relationships with tribes are necessary to fulfill its mission of working together to improve national disaster preparedness and response.5 To accomplish this objective, FEMA maintains regional tribal liaisons and publishes FEMA and Tribal Nations: A Pocket Guide concerning tribal engagement, programs, and support.
Bureau of Indian Affairs support
The U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Branch of Safety of Dams helps Tribal Nations develop emergency action plans to help protect Tribal Nations from a dam breach, high waters, and longer flooding periods anticipated under climate change scenarios. Additionally, a water rights negotiation/litigation program administered by the BIA Branch of Water Resources helps define and protect Indian water rights, which may help to reduce drought impacts on water supply.
U.S. Drought Portal and National Drought Resilience Partnership
Climate change is often characterized by increasing temperatures, reduced snowfall, lower soil moisture, and increased drought severity and length. Many Tribal Nations are located in arid and semi-arid regions of the Southwest and the Plains, which are particularly affected by a drying climate. The National Integrated Drought Information System and its U.S. Drought Portal support drought resiliency. The U.S. Drought Monitor complements these efforts by providing real-time maps of current drought conditions. Drought planning resources, products, and tools have been strengthened recently by the new National Drought Resilience Partnership, which makes it easier for communities to access drought assistance by promoting strong partnerships and information sharing at all levels of government. Some Tribal Nations are utilizing these resources to develop proactive drought plans that incorporate regional climate impacts analysis.
Wildfire risk reduction
Wildfire risk is increased with heat and drought conditions—which may be exacerbated by climate change—and when coupled with bark beetle and other pests that kill more stressed trees under these conditions. The Bureau of Indian Affairs Branch of Wildland Fire Management works with Tribal Nations to develop forest management plans that include wildfire mitigation efforts and wildland fire management. Tribal forestry practices include prescribed burns and thinning to reduce wildfire risk. Many Indian reservations are adjacent to U.S. Forest Service lands, so they often work closely together to reduce risks at the landscape scale by coordinating treatment efforts.6 Tribal Nations also participate in regional efforts to protect water supply reservoirs and streams by preventing wildfires in critical headwaters.
Building disaster risk recovery capacity
Reducing disaster risk for Tribal Nations will require capacity building at various scales. For example, numerous flood risk reduction measures are possible, including levees, land use zoning, flood insurance, and restoration of natural floodplain retention capacity. The effective use of these measures requires significant collaborations and investments, as well as updating policies and methods to account for climate change in the planning, design, operation, and maintenance of flood risk reduction infrastructure. This is a significant obstacle for Tribal Nations, many of which have limited access to resources necessary to design and implement effective DRR measures.
Extreme weather events will require policies to ensure that public health and life safety issues are addressed. Hurricane Katrina demonstrated that vulnerable populations are at greater risk to the adverse effects of extreme weather events—native communities are among these marginalized and most vulnerable demographics. Many of these communities will benefit from urban and regional planning policies that take into account their unique circumstances. Possible solutions include ensuring that buildings are constructed to resist extreme weather events, creating disaster plans that include the needs of marginalized populations, and providing support to tribally-led DRR efforts.
The preceding text was excerpted and adapted from the report Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment.
- 1. a. b. c. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2012: Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation. A Special Report of Working Groups I and II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. C. B. Field, V. Barros, T. F. Stocker, D. Qin, D. J. Dokken, K. L. Ebi, M. D. Mastrandrea, K. J. Mach, G.-K. Plattner, S.K. Allen, M. Tignor, and P. M. Midgley, Eds., 582 pp.
- 2. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Centers for Environmental Information, cited 2015: Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters: Overview.
- 3. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2006: Multi-Jurisdictional Mitigation Planning: State and Local Mitigation Planning. How-To Guide Number Eight, FEMA 386-8, 52 pp.
- 4. Federal Emergency Management Agency, cited 2015: Indian Tribes Definition/Description.
- 5. Federal Emergency Management Agency, cited 2015: FEMA Tribal Affairs.
- 6. U.S. Forest Service, cited 2013: About the Office of Tribal Relations.