If you are reading this in the United States, you are experiencing a disaster—maybe more than one. Hurricane Sally hammered Alabama and the Florida panhandle last week, submerging homes and leaving tens of thousands without power. The West Coast is still wreathed in smoke from its worst fire season ever by acres burned, during which entire towns have been incinerated. Coronavirus cases are spiking in Wisconsin, but major disasters are layered on top of the coronavirus pandemic everywhere. “For the first time in American history, all 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Seminole Tribe of Florida and five territories have been approved for major disaster declarations for the same event,” a FEMA spokesperson told me, via email. The entire country is literally a disaster area.
Disasters have been trending upward for decades, but 2020 is a very bad year. After forecasters exhausted the official list of alphabetical storm names, they moved onto the Greek alphabet. Subtropical Storm Alpha petered out over the weekend, and Tropical Storm Beta is now menacing the Gulf Coast. We still have more than two months to go in hurricane season. Twice as many disasters caused more than $1 billion in damage each in the 2010s than in the 2000s, according to data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But “that really has to be adjusted for the size of the population and the size of the economy," Jay Zagorsky, an economist at Boston University, says. He’s done the math, and even after adjusting for growing gross domestic product, the rise in disasters is still significant.
Disasters are by definition sudden and terrible, but their causes are typically complex and multifarious. One cause of their rise is climate change, which worsens both western wildfires and eastern hurricanes. Forest management, planning and zoning policies that encourage sprawl into forests and floodplains, and aging infrastructure all play a role too. Systemic racism and deepening inequality mean many Americans don’t have the resources to avoid or bounce back from a disaster. Some rightly fear the police or government officials to whom they are told to turn for help.
Disasters also give rise to other disasters. Heat waves dry out soil, creating drought. Fires destroy the vegetation holding soil together, causing mudslides. Climate change raises sea levels, triggering coastal flooding as estuaries back up with water. Fires and floods force people into shelters, spreading the coronavirus.
Researchers who study this tangled web of crises call them “cascading disasters”—disasters that trigger other disasters like falling dominoes. As the climate warms, they are becoming increasingly common. Many risk analysts, though, still treat each disaster as a discrete event, according to Amir AghaKouchak at UC Irvine and Farshid Vahedifard at Mississippi State University.
The interwoven causality and relentless pace of disasters in 2020 is changing the way many of us think about them. Instead of individual episodes that impinge upon a normal course of events, like bombs lobbed by an angry god, disasters are an ongoing and possibly permanent texture to our lives. Not an event, but an era.
Vahedifard says that in a time of cascading disasters, the United States should be spending much more money to prevent and prepare for them. As an engineer, he’s particularly concerned about the nation’s infrastructure, which has been given a grade of D+ by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Our dams, bridges, public-transit networks, drinking-water systems, and energy infrastructure are falling apart. The deadly 2018 Camp Fire was caused by a worn-out hook on a high-voltage transmission tower, which broke, dropping a sparking line onto bone-dry vegetation. The hook was likely 100 years old.
But Vahedifard says that when he asked engineering students across the U.S. to give the country’s infrastructure a grade, the average was a B. It's the civil-engineering equivalent of “shifting baselines” in ecology—a phenomenon in which people don’t notice long-term environmental change, because of our tendency to compare current conditions to our own lived experience. These young engineers have grown up in a potholed, crumbling, rusting world. It is normal to them. And, Vahedifard says, they will likely “underestimate the value of improving things” as a result.
Humans cover the Earth in part because we are so very adaptable. But our mental flexibility means that we can also adapt to life within multiple ongoing disasters. We get used to wearing masks or working from home or perusing empty store shelves. We get used to seeing guys with military-style rifles wandering around downtown. Checking the air quality before we take the dog out becomes a habit. We stop clocking the daily pandemic deaths, because the number is always roughly 1,000. It happens so quickly.
Cascading disasters could become the new normal, the background to our lives. Or we could try to stop the dominoes from falling. But if we are to make the kind of sweeping systematic changes that could stop climate change from getting worse, end the truly dystopian inequities in our country, and crush the pandemic before hundreds of thousands more are dead, we cannot allow our baselines to shift. We cannot forget that these are disasters.
Just this moment, sitting at my desk writing, I felt and smelled a gust of smoky wind press against my office window. My heart sank as I imagined that wind feeding oxygen to the wildfires that still rage in my area. Come to think of it, I did get an emergency alert about a “red flag warning” for extreme fire danger on my phone this afternoon. I had forgotten about it. I get so many these days.