Hurricane Irene, a sign of things to come for growing urban centres and local governments – Political leadership needed to reduce risks

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene that hit the east coast of the United States just over a week ago, it is a reminder that disasters caused by extreme weather events are becoming common place even for countries and cities that are considered to be at the pinnacle of development.

Local governments and authorities have always been at the front lines of preparing and responding to disasters. With the added factor of rapidly growing cities and greater pressure on infrastructure and services, the leadership and commitment by local governments and communities to reducing their risk to disasters is even more important.

“Climate variability is likely to bring more of these extreme weather-related events to places where they have not previously occurred and they will not spare lives unless the anticipation of risk is strengthened. Cities need to adapt to climate change, build their resilience and prepare,” said Margareta Wahlström, the United Nations Disaster Risk Reduction Chief.

In the last few weeks, New York City has become the clearest example of this. As commuters trickled into a mostly unscathed New York City in the wake of Hurricane Irene, New York City’s Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has received a mix bag of coverage for his leadership and decision to evacuate thousands of people at risk. At one point he ordered 370,000 residents to evacuate from low-lying areas.

"I would make the same decisions again without hesitation," the Mayor said when he was pressed to defend those early decisions. "We're just not going to take any risk with people's lives, and the best scenario possible is you take the precautions and it turns out they're not needed."

UNISDR launched a world campaign in 2010 to establish a global network of cities and local governments to learn and share experiences on preventing and reducing their risk to disasters. The “Making Cities Resilient: ‘My city is getting ready” campaign encourages mayors to sign up and adhere to the ‘ten essentials’ to reduce their risk to disasters, including ones caused by extreme weather events like Hurricane Irene.

Over 800 city mayors worldwide have committed to integrate disaster risk reduction and resilience building in planning, awareness raising and investment decisions for their respective cities. This includes promoting legal frameworks and proportionate budget increases at the local government level through strategic spatial and territorial planning, land-use, and development programming.

“The main drivers to reducing our risk to disasters are political leadership and setting priorities. It is encouraging to see local governments and city officials in the United States, including New York City, putting plans in place to save lives,” said Wahlström.

“Can similar actions be taken to build their resilience and reduce the economic and financial costs from disasters?”
VI Regional Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in the Americas, Cartagena, Colombia 20-22 June 2018 VI Regional Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in the Americas, Cartagena, Colombia 20-22 June 2018.
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