Skip to main content

Floods, fires, and extreme heat: disaster pile-ups are the new norm

The forecast for the future is a deluge of disasters

Share this story

Damage in the city of Pointe-Aux-Chenes, near montegut, Louisiana on August 30, 2021 after Hurricane Ida made landfall. 
Photo by MARK FELIX/AFP via Getty Images

Extreme heat, fires, flash floods, intense rain, hurricane-force winds, and tornadoes left people reeling from coast to coast across the US this week. Each event on its own is dangerous. Striking all at once or in quick succession, the sum of the disasters grows monstrous, overwhelming communities. 

“What we’re learning is that the unthinkable may have always been more likely than we wanted to admit — and with climate change, it becomes much more likely,” says Radley Horton, a research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who studies climate extremes.

“The unthinkable may have always been more likely than we wanted to admit — and with climate change, it becomes much more likely.”

A pile-up of catastrophes is called a “compound event,” and it’s something that’s testing humanity’s limits as climate change supercharges extreme weather around the globe. Existing infrastructure wasn’t built for this kind of punishment, and even the most experienced first responders are faced with scenarios no one has ever seen before. Before they can even catch their breath from one crisis, it seems, communities are dealt another blow.

Hurricane Ida is already a case study in compound events. The storm’s floodwaters drowned neighborhoods along the Gulf Coast early in the week. Ida’s 150 mph winds toppled power lines and wreaked havoc on the electricity grid. As if that wasn’t enough, dangerous levels of heat and humidity settled in once the storm passed, leaving many residents in Louisiana and Mississippi sweating it out in wrecked neighborhoods without power or air conditioning. 

“This is a type of event, definitely we can expect to happen more often,”  says Jakob Zscheischler, an Earth system scientist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany. “Even if the number of hurricanes don’t change in the future, the likelihood that they are followed by extreme heat is much higher because global temperature is rising.”

Ida barreled northward after striking the South, pummeling states that had just received record levels of rain the week before. As more rain poured into a sodden Tennessee, organizers cancelled the Bonnaroo music festival, citing a ‘tremendous amount of rain’ that left campgrounds flooded. People are still living under tarps after massive flooding in the state last week. Further north, streets became rivers in New York City, which recorded its rainiest hour on record. That record had been set less than two weeks before when Hurricane Henri hit the city. 

Meanwhile, the western part of the country is coping with a one-two punch of drought and heat, which also sets the stage for massive infernos. Residents are being asked to curb their water use while enduring summer heatwaves. They might not have air conditioning at times because of preemptive blackouts aimed at preventing power lines from sparking a blaze. Then, when wildfires do explode, it saddles them with yet another growing public health disaster: air laden with soot and pollution and from wildfire smoke. 

None of these events are random strokes of bad luck

From the storms in the East to the fires in the West, none of these events are random strokes of bad luck. They are tied together by the worsening climate crisis. Human activity — namely the burning of fossil fuels — is the main driver behind an uptick in extreme weather, a major United Nations climate report said definitively last month. Greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels trap heat; that heat drives up summer temperatures and gives storms more energy. Climate change has also souped up the water cycle, which leads to more droughts and more downpours. Compound events are likely to become more common, the report predicts.

“They are called extreme events because they’re a big deviation from the norm, but they are becoming the norm,” says Michael Oppenheimer, director of the Center for Policy Research on Energy and Environment at Princeton University. “We have to deal with the fallout of a new event before we’re finished dealing with the fallout of the previous event.”

Communities will have to adapt to that new reality by looking at the big picture rather than focusing on each extreme event individually — drought and fire, storm and heat, rain and more rain. Small communities are going bankrupt, The New York Times reports, after being pushed to the edge by storms and conflagrations. Other small towns, like Paradise and Greenville in California, have nearly been scorched off the map completely. 

But how can society prepare for these compound events — worst-case scenarios that might be beyond our current realm of experience? “That’s the million dollar question that I think we’re late to the game in asking,” Horton says. “You need to have rainy day funds, whether it’s literally, financially speaking, or whether it’s investing in more resilient infrastructure, more emergency service people, and not waiting until a crisis happens,” he says.

“The million dollar question”

That might mean changes to how we respond to disasters. In the past, federal agencies like FEMA might have been able to focus their resources on the aftermath of a single superstorm during a hurricane season. As climate change makes storms stronger, it stretches those resources thin. We saw this in 2017 when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico weeks after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma devastated the mainland (Irma also struck Puerto Rico), and FEMA sent haggard workers and inexperienced trainees to cope with the fallout from Maria on the island territory.

Even beyond responding to and recovering from disaster, compound events also change risk assessments for everyday decisions like where to build new homes and buildings. “We should never, ever build in a city or expand without the system being built in a way that recognizes and is able to deal with the anticipated effects of climate change,” Oppenheimer says.

Lake Tahoe Fire Threat Grows As High Winds Fan Flames
Smoke from the Caldor Fire in Kirkwood, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. California firefighters battled gusty winds Wednesday to keep a raging wildfire out of the resort town South Lake Tahoe as evacuation orders spread into Nevada. 
Eric Thayer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Another part of developing new risk assessments involves figuring out who is most at risk. Black Americans, in particular, will likely face more severe effects of climate change compared to all other demographic groups, according to a new report published by the Environmental Protection Agency yesterday. They often live in neighborhoods that can climb several degrees hotter than other areas because of a history of segregation and disinvestment, previous research has found.

“The impacts of climate change that we are feeling today, from extreme heat to flooding to severe storms, are expected to get worse, and people least able to prepare and cope are disproportionately exposed,” EPA administrator Michael Regan said in a press release.  

We’ll ultimately need compound solutions to all these compound risks, experts say. That includes bigger rainy day funds and beefed-up emergency response teams. Cities and infrastructure will need to be built differently, and we might have to abandon some places we used to call home. Humans will have to stop pumping out greenhouse gases that are driving the climate crisis in the first place, Oppenheimer emphasizes. 

President Joe Biden addressed the nation this past week with an appeal to Congress to pass legislation that will overhaul US infrastructure in light of the week’s brutal climate disasters. “The past few days of Hurricane Ida and the wildfires in the West and the unprecedented flash floods in New York In New Jersey is yet another reminder. These extreme storms, and the climate crisis are here,” he said in a press conference. “We need to be better prepared. We need to act.”