Tropical Weather

James Wolfe, 72, left, and Elaine Wolfe, 65, install shutters on their home in Vero Beach, Fla, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019. The U.S. National Hurricane Center says Dorian could hit the Florida coast over the weekend as a major hurricane. (AP Photo/Ellis Rua)

Hurricane Dorian could soon batter the East Coast with devastating winds, rain and coastal flooding. The powerful storm’s impact on the Charleston area and the rest of South Carolina is still hard to predict.

But in the aftermath, affected residents will begin to pick up the pieces and rebuild.

As South Carolina residents, we should offer a helping hand to our neighbors in need. We should ask our elected officials and nonprofit organizations and community leaders to lend assistance.

It takes time and a lot of work, but communities affected by hurricanes can emerge stronger after a storm than they were before it.

Hurricane Dorian, which stands to become the first major storm of the season to make landfall in the United States, offers some important warnings as well.

As a nation, we must streamline our disaster relief programs. The number of so-called “billion-dollar” natural disasters — events that cause $1 billion or more in damages — appears to be increasing.

Last year’s total of 11 such events was the fourth-highest on record, behind 2017, 2011 and 2016, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information.

The cumulative cost of these catastrophes is large, of course. Last year’s toll has been estimated at $91 billion. But it is also proving challenging to move funds through the political and bureaucratic hurdles that stand between federal coffers and the local communities that need the help.

South Carolina, for example, is still waiting on millions of dollars in federal aid tied to hurricanes and tropical weather that have impacted the state each year since 2015.

We must also rethink our disaster spending more broadly.

The federal government has an obvious responsibility to assist with recovery after storms, fires, floods and other natural phenomena. But it ought to also make sensible investments in resiliency and mitigation to prevent future problems or lessen their severity.

Building back coastal communities without adding protections against hurricanes and sea level rise, for example, is fiscally irresponsible and morally problematic. Each billion-dollar disaster must be a chance to strengthen our defenses.

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And that should also include a stronger commitment to tackling climate change.

Climate change isn’t causing hurricanes. But it is making them more destructive, and it is exacerbating a number of other weather-related problems that threaten communities all across the country.

Ignoring or failing to adequately address this reality carries tremendous costs both human and economic. Some strategies for fighting climate change, such as energy conservation, can save money in the long run. Others, such as investing in cleaner transportation options, can improve public health.

The consequences of inaction, however, are mounting debt — this year’s tally of billion-dollar disasters is already above the 25-year average — and human suffering.

The first priority during a disaster like Hurricane Dorian must be safety and survival. We must help ensure that people affected by storms have shelter, food, clothing and the best possible chance to return to something resembling a normal life as quickly as possible.

But we must also put Dorian in context as part of larger, longer-term threat to our nation and prepare for a future of unpredictable and severe weather.