Disaster Resilience Strategy and Leadership Vary Widely Among States

New research finds some have taken steps to plan and adapt, but others are lagging

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Disaster Resilience Strategy and Leadership Vary Widely Among States
Six workers secure a large blue tarp on the roof of a two-story condominium under a cloudless blue sky. In the foreground is a badly damaged black SUV, along with large branches and pieces of homes—evidence that a strong storm recently struck.
Workers repair the damaged roof of a residential building in Little Rock, Arkansas, after an outbreak of tornadoes on March 31, 2023. A new study finds that many states lack sufficient plans and programs to prepare for and respond to climate-related disasters.
Peter Zay Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Editors' Note: This article was updated Dec. 8, 2023 to add the map and to clarify the amount of money that climate-related disasters in the U.S. have cost over the past 20 years.

In the past 20 years, climate-related disasters have surged in frequency and intensity in the U.S., affecting all 50 states and costing trillions of dollars. These events, which have decimated communities and uprooted countless lives, are not expected to ease, as experts predict more and higher-intensity droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, and floods in years to come. Fortunately, states are increasingly taking action to embed resilience planning and management across agencies and functions and to develop comprehensive strategies for projected future conditions.

New Pew-sponsored research from the American Planning Association (APA), “Planning for State Resilience: A 50-State Breakdown,” explores what states are doing to reduce the impacts of climate-related disasters, now and in the future. APA identified 22 different governance features related to resilience: 11 that measure the formality of a state’s efforts—that is, defined roles and responsibilities within government—and 11 that reflect how strategic the state is in its approach to resilience planning, such as tangible guidelines and policy. The state-by-state variation in the study’s findings reflects the variation of needs, funding sources, and cultural norms across states.

It also shows the progress that some states have made on climate policy. Twenty years ago, no state had a dedicated resilience office, chief resilience officer (CRO), or other coordinating body responsible for leading state-level resilience efforts. Now, as APA reported, 12 states have established a lead agency and 11 have designated CROs, while several others have coordinating bodies or assign specific resilience functions to an agency official with a broader set of responsibilities. Additionally, the study found that 20 states have adopted a formal definition of “resilience,” with seven states codifying this definition in statute.

In total, nine states were classified as “more formal,” having six or more of the 11 formality features examined. Nine states were classified as “more strategic,” having six or more of the 11 strategic features examined. Only four states were classified as both “more formal” and “more strategic.” By contrast, APA found that 21 states had a formality score of zero, and 26 states had a strategic score of zero—indicating that those states have work to do on climate resilience. More concerning, 17 states scored zero on both formality and strategy. 

Most States Lack Structured Approach to Resilience Efforts: Survey examines how governments work to reduce long-term climate risk. The map highlights CO, NC, SC, VA, and WV in dark blue indicating they have a more formal governance structure, CA, NY, VT, and WA in bright blue indicating they have a more strategic resilience approach, and FL, MA, MD, and NJ in light blue indicating they have both a more formal governance structure and a more strategic approach

APA’s research also highlights notable efforts in several states, including those where Pew has supported ongoing resilience-building efforts, such as South Carolina and Washington. For example, South Carolina established an office of resilience and created a CRO role in 2020. Then, earlier this year, the state completed its first statewide resilience plan and supported it with $200 million in funding for implementation. Meanwhile, officials in Washington have worked to embed resilience into local technical assistance and climate planning guidance in the state.  

Finally, the APA study highlights several important questions that illustrate the need for more research to assess how different states’ approaches affect development and implementation of resilience plans. For example, while states need resources to develop strategies and plans—and put them into action—there is great disparity in how they account for and fund resilience activities in budgets. This, along with other variables, highlights the need for policymakers to better understand how to build durable resilience programs and how regional and local officials are using state resilience plans.

More than ever, states are taking the lead to establish more formal governance and adopt more strategic approaches to develop new policies, comprehensive plans, and innovative projects to foster greater resilience to current and future climate-related disasters. But significant challenges remain, in part because resilience is a relatively new concept in most state governments. Many states have delegated responsibility to local jurisdictions for decisions relating to land use, transportation, housing, economic development, and public health. As such, it’s increasingly important for policymakers and planners to understand the efficacy of state models that cultivate leadership, substantive technical assistance, and capacity building in county and local governments so that officials and staff at all levels can effectively advance state goals.

Mathew Sanders leads state resilience policy efforts for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. conservation project.

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