Letter to the editor: anticipating and preparing for natural disasters


The sun sets over the mountains, as seen on top of Roan Mountain, near the Tennessee-North Carolina border. (Photo contributed by: Allison Winters)

In January 2021, the Tennessee Climate Office at East Tennessee State University was recognized by the American Association of State Climatologists (AASC) as the official state climate office for Tennessee. State climate offices serve residents, businesses, non-governmental organizations, and state agencies in their respective states by providing climate data and tools to help people understand the role of weather and climate within their state or region. Until this year, Tennessee was one of only two states without a state climate office.


Dr. Andrew Joyner and Mr. William Tollefson have been working to establish the Tennessee Climate Office (TCO) since 2016, cultivating partnerships with the National Weather Service offices in Tennessee, NOAA Regional Climate Centers, state agencies, and researchers at ETSU and other universities across the state including the UT-Institute of Agriculture, UT-Martin, Vanderbilt University, UT-Knoxville, University of Memphis, and others. Since the fall of 2017 the TCO has produced monthly climate reports for the state which are submitted to the Southern Regional Climate Center and NOAA and disseminated through an email list and website (etsu.edu/tn-climate). The TCO began meeting with other state climate offices and the AASC in 2018 to start the process of gaining official recognition as the State Climate Office for Tennessee.


The main goal of the Tennessee Climate Office is to provide reliable, understandable, and Tennessee-specific weather and climate data to decision-makers in our state. Understanding the past, present, and future climatic conditions in our state is key to the success of various sectors of Tennessee's economy and environment including agriculture, transportation, public health, tourism, conservation, and wildlife management. Another key sector that the TCO already provides useful data and tools for is the field of emergency management in Tennessee.


When wildfires devastated parts of Sevier County and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2016, leaving 14 people dead and $2 billion in damage, leaders across East Tennessee asked a simple question: How can we be better prepared when this happens again?


What followed was a world-class demonstration of leadership and collaboration. The town of Pigeon Forge implemented a curbside brush removal program. Leaders took part in a federal pilot program called Ready, Set, Go! that prepares residents and businesses for evacuation, and the National Park Service dedicated more resources toward communication efforts to prepare for future wildfires and other hazards. Sevier County (including each city/town), through the leadership of their Emergency Management Agency, developed a new, comprehensive and community-led hazard mitigation plan in coordination with the Geoinformatics and Disaster Science (GADS) Lab at ETSU. This plan studied the risk various hazards (tornadoes, wildfires, floods, landslides) posed to communities within the county, and developed specific strategies that could help reduce the impact or threat of casualties when disaster strikes again.


These programs and initiatives seem common sense, but the idea of building resilient communities has just begun to take root in Tennessee. We’ve all experienced some form of a natural disaster — from flooding, to tornadoes, to wildfires, to severe thunderstorms, or extreme heat, and the chance for future disasters will likely increase over the next few decades.


That is why the Tennessee State Legislature commissioned a report from the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, to find out not only how we can mitigate future natural disasters, but how Tennessee can become a leader in hazard mitigation and resilience.


Hazard mitigation plans, like the one completed in Sevier County, are required for each county to be eligible for certain types of disaster relief funds from the federal government, and provide a way to gain more state and federal aid to make a community more resilient. In Tennessee there are eleven counties that have never prepared a hazard mitigation plan, and all but one of those are in East Tennessee. These counties tend to be the more rural counties in our region, which may not have the resources or personnel to complete these plans. However, hazard mitigation is among the most fiscally responsible things a government can spend money on: for every $1 spent, citizens recoup $6 in prevented recovery costs.


Since many of the hazards addressed by hazard mitigation plans are weather- or climate-related, this is a problem that the TCO and GADS Lab, also housed in the Department of Geosciences at ETSU, are uniquely positioned to help solve. Leveraging the climate data and products produced by the Tennessee Climate Office, the GADS Lab can help counties in Tennessee develop or update their hazard mitigation plans, using the best data available, which will help our region become more resilient to these types of hazards.


For Tennessee to become a leader in building and maintaining resilient communities we need to use the best data available and build broad coalitions of community members, local and state government officials, scientists, and engineers to grow our capacity for long-term resiliency planning and hazard mitigation across the state. The Tennessee Climate Office hopes that our work can play a part in making Tennessee one of the most resilient states in the country.