Climate change, public health, and preparing for more extreme weather

It started out the beginning of the week 15th or 16th, I believe, and the downfall was April 17th and 18th where we received between five and ten inches of rain during those two days We received heavy heavy rain Wednesday through Thursday. We started to see the actual river flooding over the weekend. And then the flood stage finally peeked out on April the 23rd. That was the highest it had been in 70 years in this area The flood lasted for several days in fact we were still under flood watch and we were still above flood stage on May the eleventh. And it continued a few more days after that. We had a small unincorporated village out in the center part of the county called Edwards; where those folks had not been flooded for twenty or thirty years, were not expecting anything at all the levee broke and they were inundated and all the homes out there almost all the homes have four feet of water in them almost immediately. Well this flood obviously doesn't even really compare to the flooding we've had in the past, we reached a record crest so it was the highest we've ever seen the river in Peoria area.

This particular year in 2013 it was worse than it had ever been. As the seasons are getting warmer, as the climate is getting warmer over time then that's related direct with more extreme weather events and those weather events can be anything from more flooding, it can be drought situations as well they can be extreme heat and heat waves. So that has a direct correlation with personal health, with property in terms of flooding and washing out people's homes, mold that might take place in their homes leading to more asthma, mental health conditions being exacerbated or you know just personal distress from being displaced from your home from losing everything you have. So the whole spectrum from personal health, mental health, to property are all impacted by extreme weather events Extreme weather events exact a staggering toll on our society first and foremost in human lives that they affect. Of course they also exact a financial toll in 2014 there were about eight major extreme events across the United States that collectively resulted in about eight billion dollars in financial loss. Just in Illinois alone from 1993 to about 2012, extreme weather events cost the State almost five and a half billion dollars You know one of the things we really have to wrestle with as we move forward is changes in the variability or the uncertainty of what's going to happen.

We get a lot of questions about the difference between the weather and climate and so weather is kind of more the short term; you know what's happening right now what's happening in the next couple of days. Whereas climate is more the long-term picture; so what is happening maybe over the next 30 days, the next year, the next 30 years, the next century, or millennium, because if you take the weather over time is you average that up that becomes the climate of a particular region. We talk about global warming and then here we have this very cold, snowy winter in Illinois. That does seem like a contradiction but not really if you look at the global temperatures they actually did warm up during this time period but we were just in this one area that had very cold temperatures and while we were very cold other parts of the world were very warm. So like Alaska, I got a friend up there and they were in the 40s and 50s while we were minus 10 and minus 20s.

So big changes in the temperatures over a very short range, but it really did have a big impact on the global temperatures. So it's more of a local effect. And we see that pretty much every winter – somebody is in a cold spot somebody else very warm spot. So those kind of balance out. And it really falls in the category about weather pattern versus the long-term climate change. If you look at the latest National Assessment, which just came out this spring, what they're showing is that increase in temperatures at the mid-century mark on or about 4 to 5 degrees depending where you are across the Midwest. So that's the middle part of this century and by the end of the century obviously it will be much warmer as the CO2 gas has increased. So 4 degrees that's a pretty sizable difference by way of comparison that makes Chicago feel more like far Southern Illinois that's a big change in our temperatures over you know just a period of about thirty or forty years. So heat-related illnesses include kind of a spectrum of health problems related to extreme heat everything from direct exposure to the heat itself, which can cause you know rashes, sunburns, we know the connection with sunburn and cancer for instance.

It can cause dehydration, it can cause heat exhaustion, and it also can cause heat stroke, which can be potentially fatal. So you have a lot of extreme heat, you have a lot of ACs, a lot of power being generated and all of a sudden that can shut down the power grid and go from folks overusing the wattage for air condition to all of a sudden not having any air conditioning and now you have vulnerable populations, in particular our seniors those with mental health conditions, those that are disabled, really being adversely impacted as well. The connection between climate change and respiratory illnesses is a very clear link. As climate changes as things get hotter, warmer as the CO2 increases, carbon dioxide increases, and that can actually lead to pollen counts being higher, pollen and ragweed season being longer and more prolonged. When we talk about vector-borne illnesses we're really talking about principally tick-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease, and mosquito-borne diseases, such as West Nile virus.

We know that as temperatures continue to increase it promotes the longevity and the lifespan of these particular vectors. So they're living longer, they're getting to be around year round, which then exposes people to those vector-borne diseases. Right now the models are showing for precipitation across the Midwest and we're going to see wetter conditions in spring, fall, and winter and drier conditions in the summertime. We're getting overall wetter, we're going to probably see more flooding, more heavy rain events. You have flooding, which can actually overwhelm the stormwater management system. So now you have bacteria and sewage overflowing into the drinking water table, for instance, overflowing into beaches and people are swimming and they're getting exposed to bacteria that way so now you have more and more water-borne illness. I can recall a counterpart of mine from another state that said five years ago we need to look at climate as something we need to work on.

Up until that time we had not so my counterparts around the country now are starting to look at climate change and it is becoming a deliberate part of our emergency preparedness planning. So we're starting to look at those things now and try to effect change in our plans and also inject that into our training and exercise scenarios where possible. In public health data are our lifeblood. We rely on data to make and inform almost every decision we undertake. It's critically important to have good data; you can't figure out where you want to go unless you know where you are. With respect to weather events, data are no different we look at the data surrounding the extreme weather events to spot trends. Those trends help us understand two things. The first is what sort of events are we contending with, what sort of events should we be planning for. And secondly how soon we prioritize the relative importance of events like that. So weather is no different from any other type of issue that we plan and contend for in public health. What's important to understand though is that the data help us see small changes that are occurring over time that in the aggregate my present looming issues.

For example in illinois we know from the data that flooding is becoming a more serious problem and so we can and are adjusting our planning to take into account the threat that flooding presents. We're also using data to plan not just for single, discrete events but for complex, compound events. So in the event, for example, that an extreme heat event knocks out the electrical system, you would have a one-two punch where it's not only quite hot but you also lack the vital air conditioning services that are necessary to protect individuals. So looking at data holistically across a long time frame helps us see those trends that on a day-to-day basis might not be evident. We can always take a look back and see what the patterns have been, where in the State that are subject to those extreme weather events, and try to use that data as we move forward and compare it with projected future data that we might get and marry the two up and say ok do we still need to do emergency preparedness planning in this area and if so how much.

We want to keep it on the radar by having that historic data and the future projections. The cost for planning for an extreme weather is certainly less than the cost of the extreme weather event itself. More than that though, the cost of planning for an extreme weather event that doesn't materialize is far, far less than not planning for an extreme event that does in fact happen. Floods and heat waves have become more frequent and more severe and these trends will worsen in the coming decades. Preparing effectively for the future means planning to respond to natural disasters that are more complex more severe than what we've seen in the past. Hazard Vulnerability Assessments and All-Hazard Mitigation Plans should make use of climate information from the Illinois State Climatologist and the US National Climate Assessment. Out in Edwards they weren't expecting it, they don't typically have floods out there, and they were just devastated.

They feel helpless and homeless obviously. And they just don't know what to do..