As Natural Disaster Costs Soar, Local Leaders Call for a National Strategy

Diverse group of elected officials and business leaders throughout the nation seek improved guidance and collaboration from the White House and agencies

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As Natural Disaster Costs Soar, Local Leaders Call for a National Strategy
A two-lane highway stretches ahead toward forested foothills, behind which snow can be seen on the peaks of the crest of a mountain range. Clouds of smoke rise from the foothills, filling much of the sky.
Smoke from a forest fire near Mora, New Mexico, darkens the sky on May 4, 2022. New Mexico has seen the second-largest number of federal disaster declarations since 2022, following only California.
Jim Weber Santa Fe New Mexican via AP

Twenty years ago, billion-dollar disasters were far more the exception than the rule. But as weather patterns have changed, the frequency of such costly events has skyrocketed. In fact, since the start of 2022, the nation has experienced 27 weather disasters that have exceeded $1 billion in cost, twice as many as two decades ago.

These events imperil lives, destroy homes and businesses, and hurt local economies. Recognizing the urgent need to respond to this new reality, and because of limited national leadership to address the pervasive crisis, more than 500 local leaders representing all 50 states have called for a national strategy for improving resilience to extreme weather, the creation of a White House-level resilience officer, and greater collaboration between local communities and federal agencies on disaster readiness and response.

Many of these local leaders and organizations—from chief resilience officers throughout South Florida and county supervisors in Milwaukee to chambers of commerce in Pennsylvania and organized labor representatives in Ohio—have experienced weather-related disasters firsthand and recognize the various tools that communities can use to mitigate the worst impacts. Examples range from changing where and how new infrastructure and developments are built to using nature-based solutions to limit the impact and costs of future disasters. These leaders also know that costly weather events, including flooding, drought, tornados, hail, and wildfires, aren’t isolated to the coasts: They can—and do—happen nationwide.

Top 10 States for Disaster Declarations, January 1, 2022—May 31, 2023

Weather-related presidential disaster declarations aren’t limited to coastal areas

Rank State Major Disaster Declaration Emergency Declaration (Special Emergency) Fire Management TOTAL
1 CA 6 2 5 13
2 FL 4 3 2 9
3 NM 1 - 8 9
4 AK 6 - 1 7
5 OK 4 - 3 7
6 TX 1 - 6 7
7 AZ 3 - 3 6
8 WA 3 - 3 6
9 SD 5 - - 5
10 TN 5 - - 5

Note: Major disaster declarations cover a range of natural disasters, from hurricanes and storms to earthquakes, droughts, and floods, that the president determines has caused damage beyond the combined capabilities of state and local governments to respond; emergency declarations supplement state and local or Tribal government efforts in providing emergency services, such as the protection of lives, property, public health, and safety, or to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe; and fire management declarations help states, local, and Tribal governments mitigate, manage, and control fires on publicly or privately owned forests or grasslands. For more details see How a Disaster Gets Declared.

Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency, Open FEMA Dataset: Disaster Declarations Summaries – v2, accessed June 25, 2023,

In fact, since the start of 2022, half of the top 10 states by total number of federal disaster declarations have been inland states.

While the lack of a unified national approach has left many communities vulnerable, there is now bipartisan interest in Congress to introduce legislation that local leaders, as well as more than 40 national organizations, see as key to creating such a strategy and protecting their communities. This legislation would establish a position for a White House chief resilience officer (CRO) who would design a national resilience strategy and implementation plan. This strategy would be key to aligning and coordinating federal resilience initiatives to ensure that businesses and communities have the resources they need when disasters strike.

Floodwater covers the streets and other low-laying surfaces in an urban area, which includes several multistory commercial buildings. The center of the photo looks down a flooded street with traffic lights standing above the water; in the distance, a truss bridge crosses a waterway.
Floodwater from the Mississippi River inundates the riverfront section of downtown Davenport, Iowa, on May 2, 2023. Nationwide, a flood occurs somewhere in the U.S. on eight out of every 10 days.
Scott Olson Getty Images

Additionally, the CRO would coordinate interagency working groups and nonfederal partners to identify barriers to bolstering climate resilience. The strategy would focus on supporting communities to better access federal funding, resources, and technical assistance to help them better withstand severe weather.

The White House would have examples to build on: A similar model of comprehensive resilience planning is already being implemented in states and communities throughout the nation; for example, through North Carolina’s 2020 resilience plan.

With the frequency and intensity of extreme weather increasing, federal legislation to develop a coordinated approach to resilience would complement the ongoing work within states and help ensure that local leaders have the resources needed to prepare their communities for the next natural disaster.

Laura Lightbody is a director and Brian Watts is a principal associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ flood-prepared communities project.

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