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OPINION: U.S. cities face a triple threat

by Bruno Sarda | CDP
Wednesday, 5 August 2020 14:19 GMT

A man walks into heavy wind and rain along the waterfront of the Hudson River in front of the New York City skyline during Tropical Storm Isaias in Weehawken, New Jersey, U.S., August 4, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Sega

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Hurricanes, COVID-19 and extreme heat are hitting at once and stretching resources thin - but there are ideas on how to cope

Bruno Sarda is president of the CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project) North America.

This week, Hurricane Isaias tore through the United States, killing at least five people and leaving more than 3.4 million residents without power from North Carolina to New York.

The start of a fierce hurricane season - against a backdrop of over 4 million COVID-19 cases and heat warnings for record-challenging temperatures - presents cities across the United States with a dire new reality of a triple threat: COVID-19, hurricanes, and climate change.

Each summer in the United States brings extreme heat and the beginning of another hurricane season. This year, cities’ existing tools to protect against climate change and extreme weather events could put citizens at higher risk of a third threat: COVID-19.

Think of the cooling centers that protect the elderly from high temperatures, or the displacement shelters for those whose homes have been damaged or destroyed due to hurricanes and floods. By design, they bring large crowds of people together in a dense space.

How will cities protect vulnerable people from these extreme weather episodes while also safeguarding them from the pandemic?

American cities are currently not equipped to handle all these threats at once – their resources are already stretched thin.

"Limiting the pandemic, responding to floods and keeping our city revenues from falling off a cliff all comprise the three-front-fight we're currently facing," explained Sharon Weston Broome, mayor of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and co-chair of Mississippi River Cities & Towns Initiative. 

“Our cities are losing between 6-25% of their revenue just addressing the pandemic for one month.”

It’s particularly worrisome that it is communities of color that will bear the brunt of the immediate, acute impact of climate change including hurricanes, floods and extreme heat – the same communities being hit disproportionately hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

We must do more to protect our populations from the complex and intersecting crises of climate change, environmental stress and disease.

This triple threat of dangers cannot be siloed. As federal government funding becomes available to cities and progressive stimulus bills are rolled out, this spending must be used in the right way. Long-term solutions for rebuilding local economies must address both COVID-19 and the environment.

Sustainable infrastructure is one key solution, as it addresses multiple health and environmental risks whilst enhancing community resiliency. It also creates jobs, bolstering the livelihoods of citizens in a time of unprecedented unemployment, and mitigates environmental risk in the future.

Over 100 cities in the United States reported 320 sustainable infrastructure projects worth over $24 billion to the CDP (Carbon Disclosure Project) last year, targeting water, waste and clean energy. This signals a strong demand from cities to develop infrastructure projects that are ecologically and economically sustainable.

For example, Boulder, Colorado, is reducing flood risk in its Ponderosa Mobile Home Community Stabilization Project by replacing outdated water and sewer infrastructure, ensuring long-term housing affordability and resiliency for all residents.

Boulder is also engaging with the community to ensure that no residents are displaced in the process and all homes in the community are energy-efficient.

Sustainable infrastructure projects like these are a critical way that local governments can create jobs and replenish local economies to protect communities from future environmental and health hazards.

Finally, as cities look to rebuild in the long term, they will need to be fully transparent to assess future risks.

Environmental disclosure is a resiliency tool that helps companies and governments understand their resiliency gaps, and prepare for and prevent major disruptions like the ones we’re seeing now from extreme weather and airborne disease.

After all, 154 global cities told CDP last year in their annual disclosure that increased prevalence and incidence of disease is a significant environmental risk for their communities.

COVID-19 has been called a once-in-a-century pandemic. But U.S. cities have also seen once-in-a-century storms strike their communities with increasing frequency over the past decades, rendering the term meaningless.

Cities need a green recovery from these overlapping crises that builds long-term resilience for both health and environmental threats. What’s more, recovery must address social inequity by supporting vulnerable and historically marginalized populations.

Not only is this doable, it’s also the only way to truly protect citizens and economies in the long run.