April 16, 2020

The World of Visible and Invisible Risk – Preparing for a Volatile Future

Three volunteers cleaning up after a hurricane

News had just come over, 
We had five years left to cry in
News guy wept and told us,
Earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet,
Then I knew he was not lying.
David Bowie, "Five Years"

The global community is going to see more pandemics, more disease and more ways they are spread (or vectors) as the climate changes and the earth warms. Some areas of the planet that have been used to drought will become wetter, and some areas that are used to moderate rainfall will become drier – shifting between periods of extreme abundance and extreme loss. 

We will be facing a future where the visible risks and vectors – floods, fires, mosquitoes, ticks and flies – will be interchangeable with the invisible ones – heat, viruses, bacteria and airborne pathogens. 

The world’s nations must use this global pause to adapt our behavior to a new reality where an extreme virus in one part of the world can become an extreme contagion worldwide. The changing climate will lead to more collusion between the unseen and the seen.iiiii   

Impacts of the novel coronavirus are reaching every corner of the globe, and the full health and economic fallout will not be fully known for years.  What we do know, given the changing climate conditions in many parts of the world, is that we need to consider how we are going to mitigate these risks. The world is more populous. We are more interdependent than ever; urbanized areas are extremely densely populated, and the stakes are high.

Communities across the globe have been struggling with climate-related disease since the beginning of time. Rising instances of yellow fever in the 18th and 19th centuries coincided with a change in temperature.iv  Dengue fever and malaria resulted from increased wetness and viruses and bacteria/coliform as an outcome of flooding. 

According to the World Health Organization, vector-borne diseases  resulting from heat and other climate related conditions account for 17 percent of disease and lead to 700,000 deaths annually.vi The response will be different depending on the cultural, economic and geographic profiles – but there is one truism we are all facing – this is a crisis confronting the world, and every nation will need to step forward, in unity to combat this. 

The timing of this pandemic can serve as wake-up call. Now is the time to respond to increasing climate events and mitigate the risks that threaten our most vulnerable communities, our homes and our lives.

How can Cities Prepare Communities for the Future?

Communities and municipalities are obligated to prepare for volatile climate events. They must ensure continuity in energy and water grids, minimize impacts to public health and stave off a downturn in economic growth. At the same time, they should leverage opportunities and resources like the vast potential for solar and thermal energy, the ingenuity of science and the technological sector and the ever-abundant generosity of humans to support one another in times of need. 

As communities develop their preparedness plans and take steps to mitigate risk for their most vulnerable residents, they should consider the following actions:  

1. Provide easily deployable temporary housing and shelter.

Provide easily deployable temporary housing and shelter for individuals who are homeless and displaced to protect their health and mitigate transmission of disease. With more than 550,000vii  people experiencing homelessness across the United States on a given day, ensuring those without homes have support to get treatment is critical. For example, Los Angeles is renting RVs and motel rooms to isolate individuals.viii Find a trauma-informed approach to outreach, which recognizes signs and symptoms of families and staff; and monitoring in multiple language.ix

2. Maintain three months of financial operating “fund balance” reserve.

Maintain three months of financial operating “fund balance” reserve to ensure city and essential service providers can operate during an economic downturn. It is essential that governments maintain adequate levels of fund balance to mitigate current and future risks like pandemics or economic shocks.x Cities should consider the multitude of risks that can be faced during a period of shock or downturn. Governments heavily reliant on tax revenues that ebb and flow with consumers are especially vulnerable this year to losses following mass shelter-at-home quarantine orders.

The Government Finance Officers Association recommends governments have two months of operating funds on hand in an emergency casexi for contingency. This should also translate to affordable housing providers and providers of essential services who should have business interruption coverage for periods of lost income.xii Cities should work with nonprofits and social service providers to make sure they have an operating reserve or for essential services, a low interest credit line to draw down upon for which the city can assist. 

Partner and cultivate support for social services, mission-oriented housing organizations, nonprofits and charities that are often on the front line of service provision. In the words of Chris Kui, former CEO of New York City’s Asian American’s for Equality, housing providers are the “social firehouses” of communities.xiii According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizationsxiv were registered in the U.S. in 2015, contributing an estimated $985.4 billion to the U.S. economy and play a leading role in providing services and support to vulnerable communities. Ensure that affordable housing owners and strategic and essential service providers have business continuity support

3. Bridge the digital divide.

Ensure all residents have access to digital spaces and virtual support – especially those with the fewest resources, the elderly, low income workforce. Set up accessible digital hubs, as seen in New York City via the NYC Digital Hub program where residents can access high speed internet and charge their phones. Set up private-public partnerships to provide internet-ready computers to youth and students similar to New York City’s partnership with Apple, which provides every student with a free computer. Additionally, low-income workers need computer access in case they need to work from home.

4. Investigate how and when services can be automated to maintain continuity of services.

Financial benefits, income streams and grant programs should be automated and easy to access. Simplify terms and language so participants and users can access information and that the information is available virtually.

5. Back up key information in a secure location.

Ensure that applications and key documents are easily accessible virtually and can be used at times when city offices are closed. Work with IT teams to ensure all firewalls and security measures are in place. Create remote work options for staff where possible, and ensure all digital security systems are in place and that workers are trained in advance.

6. Design buildings to be high-performing and high-efficiency.

Promote building incentives, subsidies and building code requirements to ensure the lowest possible energy, water and fuel loads so that if energy systems go down, there is an easy and feasible way to back all systems up.

7. Ensure multiple redundancies in all essential services and resources.

Ensure multiple redundancies in all essential services and resources for a community-informed determination of activities and needs associated with water and sanitation, including non-perishable foods, clean water and water purification tablets, energy backup for essential loads, face masks, air purifiers and filters, iodine tablets, blankets and clothing, medical supplies, insect spray and citronella candles and nets, bleach and alcohol.  

8. Leverage private sector innovation and ingenuity.

Work with businesses, technology and institutions that can provide need-driven solutions and technical assistance. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce maintains a reserve of private sector partners that can assist communities in times of needxv and ensure continuity of operations. Private Sector companies can provide support on innovation, can originate and deploy resources quickly and typically have a very large reach and network within communities across the country and world and can provide backup relief if strategically planned.

9. Leverage local mitigation planning.

Leverage the local mitigation and planning that occurs in five-year cycles as authorized by FEMAxvi to determine community informed needs and utilize that planning process to originate and drive solutions to mitigate risks from climate and natural hazards while adapting local systems to changing climate conditions.  Enterprise is building a toolkit to support more participation in the mitigation planning process through our Northern California Democratizing Disaster Resilience and Recovery efforts. 

i https://nca2014.globalchange.gov/report
ii https://climatenexus.org/climate-issues/health/climate-change-and-vector-borne-diseases/
iii https://lens.elifesciences.org/08347/index.html#figures
v According to the World Health Organization, In epidemiology, a disease vector is any agent which carries and transmits an infectious pathogen into another living organism; most agents regarded as vectors are organisms, such as intermediate parasites or microbes, but it could be an inanimate medium of infection such as dust particles. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/vector-borne-diseases
vi https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/vector-borne-diseases
vii https://endhomelessness.org/homelessness-in-america/homelessness-statistics/state-of-homelessness-report/
viii https://www.lahsa.org/news?article=671-covid-19-guidance-for-los-angeles-county-homeless-services-community
ix https://files.hudexchange.info/resources/documents/Infectious-Disease-Toolkit-for-CoCs-Preventing-and-Managing-the-Spread-of-Infectious-Disease-for-People-Experiencing-Homelessness.pdf
x https://www.gfoa.org/fund-balance-guidelines-general-fund
xi https://www.gfoa.org/sites/default/files/GFR_DEC_09_68.pdf
xii https://fitsmallbusiness.com/business-interruption-insurance-cost-coverage-providers/
xiii https://www.amny.com/news/finding-and-keeping-affordable-housing%C2%8102gets-harder/
xiv This number includes public charities, private foundations, and other types of nonprofit organizations, including chambers of commerce, fraternal organizations and civic leagues.
xv https://www.uschamber.com/coronavirus
xvi FEMA requires state, tribal, territorial and local governments to develop and adopt hazard mitigation plans as a condition for receiving certain types of non-emergency disaster assistance, including funding for mitigation projects (Public Assistance, Fire Mitigation, PDM, HGMP, Flood and Dam). Jurisdictions must update their hazard mitigation plans and re-submit them for FEMA approval every five years to maintain eligibility. *FEMA offers planning grants that support state, tribal, territorial and local governments in developing and updating mitigation plans

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