Cities and Resilience: The Year Climate Started Hurting Politicians

In city after city, the story has been the same. An extreme weather event hits, the city's team has been overwhelmed, and the whole issue becomes a small arms firefight between the mayor and whoever else lines up on the ramparts. In February, it was snowmaggedon that left DC's Adrian Fenty and Balitmore's Stephanie Rawlings-Blake looking bad. This month, it's New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg that's come off looking inept. In 2009 and again this month, it was London's mayor that looked unprepared.

In February, Vincent Cannato, an American history professor at UMass-Boston, told ABC News: "The thing about snow, it is symbolic. It's symbolic about other problems. It's symbolic about the way people see the whole city functioning."

We assume that if only city government worked better, the hassles of the weather could be avoided. We blame The Man.

There have been plenty of other extreme weather events that have caught cities flat-footed, too. There was the flooding of Fargo early this year, which the mayor there noted was "uncharted territory," but also a "wake-up call." Then there was the more recent flooding in San Diego, which got the mayor lashed by a political opponent.

And earlier this month, it was Minneapolis' mayor pleading for the patience of the residents of his city when a snowstorm hit. That city's transportation supervisor said, "I don't remember since the Halloween blizzard [of 1991] when we didn't get through our routes. It's just overwhelming."

Which brings me to my point: While I'm sure weather emergencies can be handled better or worse, if the weather is crazy enough, the government-quality signal gets drowned out by the weather signal. Cities were built with certain tolerance levels in mind, certain climactic baselines, and if you go outside of them, everyone looks terrible because they're pulling levers of power and control that are not commensurate with the task they need to fix.

Let's use the floodplain as a metaphor. People tend to build where a flood may happen every once in a long while, but not where a flood happens every couple of years. That just makes sense, and there's a whole institutional framework that exists around making that happen. But what if the baseline changes? Suddenly the place that used to flood (or get deeply snowed in or run out of water) once every 50 years starts getting hit once every 10 years. It's not that human beings couldn't build a system that would allow them to live in that place, but that the system they need is not the one they have. And the system they'd need is also going to be a lot more expensive than they bargained for.

The same goes for snow. If you're a mayor, you could have X number of plows and plow operators and different kinds of anti-snow legions. You could pump money into making sure you had a truly resilient system that could beat any type of storm. Or you could fix the roads and keep up the sewers. Or you could raise taxes and do it all but cost yourself politically. Under those circumstances, most mayors have favored efficiency and lower taxes over resilience at the extreme ends of the weather spectrum. Why prepare for a day that may never come? Why plan for a once-a-decade event when you've got people in your ear about things that need fixing tomorrow (or yesterday).

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