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MADISON — For Sally Kefer, it’s changed from how a community responds after the flood to what the community can do to prevent that flood.
It’s about analyzing the long-term local damage leveled on private homes and businesses, expensive infrastructure and public waterways by the weather – and then taking Mother Nature’s hint to adapt the community to a world where seasons aren’t so predictable.
“We can’t work in the design environment of the 10-year/24-hour storm event when storms that are more intense and more frequent may be becoming more common,” the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Bureau of Science Services land use team leader says.
Kefer is talking about community adaptation. What’s that? Planning for extreme weather.
Community adaptation means daily quality of life
That’s the theme she carries into every workshop she holds in different communities around Wisconsin where local officials, government staff and civic leaders are grappling with the often costly reality of floods in their areas, runoff causing problematic erosion and old trees toppling like dominos in wind storms, challenging road crews, interrupting power and endangering residents.
The workshops began in 2009 when a group of DNR, University of Wisconsin-Extension and Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI) staff held several community workshops to inform local officials about projected changes to Wisconsin’s climate and to discuss “climate adaptation.” Workshops were held in Eau Claire, River Falls and Madison. DNR and WICCI staff have also participated in federally sponsored workshops in Milwaukee, Green Bay and Superior.
“Community leaders have seen weather events posing new community challenges,” Kefer says of those who attend her workshops. “We don’t argue about what is causing the changes. We focus on preparedness and prevention.”
The local leaders talk about how extreme weather events have demanded a lot of expensive repairs over time. Kefer says: “We ask them to evaluate and project what actions and strategies are needed and then to consider what putting those actions on the ground looks like to avoid the need for the same repairs.”
All of this means daily life doesn’t necessarily have to be interrupted by damages caused by weather because those damages were anticipated, planned for and possibly prevented.
Adaptation also means helping local farmers to consider what they are able to grow under variable annual conditions such as drought where they might opt to have access to quick growing, drought tolerant seeds that ensure success at some level in a given season. It also can mean planting different tree species in urban and forested areas that are more likely to survive gradual warming temperatures and which grow their roots to a depth that survives extreme weather. “These are ideas that can be discussed, decided upon and incorporated into daily decision-making by the community,” she says.
“Another issue communities need to think long and hard about is wind events,” she says. “We have seen these throughout the state. We get communities thinking about what it might mean to have to handle one of these. For example, would it start by a unique blast from the siren to warn of a high wind event – when that siren is typically only used for tornados?”
The goal of the workshops is to arrive at local solutions to local emerging impacts and issues. “This is about them, community leaders and overseers of the local economy, and about asking, ‘what if’ and making choices and thinking ahead to keep residents safe, businesses operational, schools in session and government functioning are key goals for communities.”
Not just for communities: there are things you can do!
Kefer says adapting to changes in climate is also an issue for individuals. “There are some very simple things you can do to make sure you are ready for a weather emergency,” she says. For example:
• Prepare an emergency action plan for your home. Know where the sturdiest part of the house is.
• If a siren goes off, take it seriously. Store several gallons of water and change it out every couple of months.
• Keep your car tank full of gas.
• Make sure your cell phone is charged at all times.
• Store a flashlight that works.
• Create a communication plan for your family and friends.
• Check on your elderly neighbors.
• Check the National Weather Service web site for more tips.