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Arkansas Department of Emergency Management Seeks to Cope With Climate Change

5 min read

Call it what you will, the chief of the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management says that the state is facing a new normal, one in which extreme weather events are occurring more often and with greater intensity.

“We have to base our preparations and thoughts on what scientists are telling us,” David Maxwell said in a recent interview.

Since 1953, Maxwell said, Arkansas has experienced 59 presidentially declared disasters. But during just the eight and a half years he’s headed ADEM, the state has seen 17 presidentially declared disasters.

“So you can see that the tempo certainly of disasters is picking up,” Maxwell said. “From that standpoint, along with the intensity of the disasters, I think emergency management nationwide is certainly paying attention.

“Certainly, my counterpart in Alaska is already feeling the effects. They’re having to look at the possibilities of relocating centuries-old villages. I think our colleagues in New York and New Jersey certainly recognize it after [Hurricanes] Irene and Sandy. My counterpart in Florida can’t talk about it, I understand. I read an article yesterday about that.”

Maxwell was referring to a controversy in Florida over assertions by former state employees and others that the administration of Republican Gov. Rick Scott has prohibited state workers from using the terms “climate change” and “global warming.” (Scott denies that such a ban exists.)

(Also see: The Growing World of Emergency Management)

FEMA Requirement

Another recent national development highlights the linked issues of climate change and weather disasters in Arkansas. It’s a move by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to approve mitigation money only for those states that have addressed climate change in their hazard mitigation plans. Federal mitigation funds pay for efforts that lessen disaster losses and protect life and property from future disasters.

Several national news accounts about FEMA’s new State Mitigation Plan Review Guide have said that the agency would withhold “disaster preparedness” funds. That’s an error, Maxwell told Arkansas Business. The money at issue is “mitigation” funding, a different category and, at least in the case of Arkansas, a lesser sum.

And neither category involves federal funding for relief after a disaster like a tornado or flood.

Maxwell also stressed that the FEMA requirement to address climate change wouldn’t affect Arkansas until the state updates its mitigation plan in four years. That’s because the update cycle is every five years, and FEMA is requiring state consideration of climate change only as the states update their plans. In other words, it’s “not a drop everything and get it in type of requirement,” he said.

Still, it’s money that the federal government is using as a carrot to persuade states to address climate change. News accounts have emphasized the impact this would have on states with Republican governors who deny manmade climate change.

Back in October, Asa Hutchinson was asked on the gubernatorial campaign trail about climate change. “Clearly, there’s dramatic things happening,” he said at the time. “I believe the science. Let’s continue to gather data and follow the science.”

Last week, Arkansas Business asked Hutchinson, now governor, about the FEMA requirement and whether he plans to study the effects of climate change in Arkansas. Through a spokesman, Hutchinson repeated his support for science and his belief that climate is changing:

“We need to follow the science on the question of climate change and the issue of global warming. Certainly there are current changes in trends on our climate and temperatures across the planet, and these need to be evaluated in light of historic patterns, and my intention is to follow the science.”

Asked whether he thought climate change threatens Arkansas and, if so, what could be done about it, the governor, in his emailed response, deflected the question: “When it comes to the issue of our climate, we have to balance the concerns raised over CO2 carbon emissions with the needs of our agriculture to produce and to grow and to maintain reasonable utility rates for our consumers. Right now, I think EPA and their overregulation of our industry is the greatest concern to the economic growth in Arkansas and the protection of our consumers from utility rates that are too high.”

He added: “This appears to be another example of the federal government pushing an agenda on the state of Arkansas and using federal money to drive us into the climate change debate, and I don’t think that’s the most urgent issue facing our state.”

More Extreme Events

It may not be the most urgent issue facing Arkansas, but it’s one that Maxwell must consider in his role as chief responder to natural — and other — disasters. That’s because, scientists say, climate change is resulting in more extreme weather events. This means “wetter wets, dryer dries, warmer warms, colder colds,” as Marty Matlock put it to Arkansas Business a couple of years ago. Matlock heads the Office for Sustainability at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and is a professor of biological and agricultural engineering.

Wetter wets? Those could be floods, which Maxwell said was the state’s No. 1 disaster challenge.

Tornadoes, of course, are always a concern, like those that struck Mayflower, Vilonia and White County April 27, killing 16 people in Arkansas, injuring dozens more and causing widespread property damage that’s still visible. The storm was part of a series of storms across the nation that resulted in at least 35 deaths.

The April 27 tornadoes proved to be an unusual case for Maxwell. Normally, he would come to ADEM headquarters at Camp Robinson to supervise emergency response. But Maxwell lives in Conway, and because of storm damage along the highway, he would have had to travel far out of his way to reach HQ.

“So I went to the county emergency operations center and worked directly with them,” he said. “And as it turned out, it was a good thing. We would normally send our area coordinator to work directly with the locals. Our area coordinator lost his house that night.”

Warmer warms could result in droughts like the one that devastated Arkansas farmers and others in 2012.

Colder colds can mean ice storms, which are the biggest disasters in terms of property damage, Maxwell said. The ice storms of December 2000 caused the worst icing in Arkansas in almost 70 years and $200 million in damage. Maxwell, who has been with the Department of Emergency Management for over 30 years, was the agency’s state coordinating officer for the storms.

Maxwell said he’s comfortable talking about the new weather normal and its potential for more and more severe disasters in Arkansas.

“We have the empirical evidence of more disasters of greater intensity,” he said. “I don’t really have to worry whether it’s ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ or whatever the catch phrase is at the time. I just know that we’re having more events and we have to be prepared for them.”

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