Lowering the death toll in natural disasters

Urban Resilience Project
Island Press
Published in
3 min readApr 12


By Kyria Stephens

In my hometown of Buffalo, New York, a deadly blizzard on Christmas weekend left more than 40 people dead. Across the country, torrential rainstorms in California claimed at least 20 lives. From deadly ice storms in Austin to wind chills of -36 degrees in Boston, weather-related events are putting more and more lives at risk.

With extreme weather on the rise due in part to climate change, we must find ways to limit the death toll, which often disproportionately affects people of color and low-income residents.

In my role as Director of Inclusion and Community Initiatives for the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus — an organization that has worked to improve equity for 20-plus years — I have thought a lot about how we can save lives during natural disasters. Here is some of what I have learned:

Empower community leaders

In the Buffalo blizzard, many community members jumped into action. A Black barbershop owner opened his door to dozens of people in need. Bangladeshi immigrants set up warming shelters, rescued stranded motorists and went door-to-door checking on people. As one local resident wrote on Twitter, perhaps we should “give mosques, temples, and churches a generator, cots, and a snowmobile to get to people.” Community groups and religious organizations know what the neighborhood needs and can often respond more efficiently than the government — so let’s make them part of the solution.

We are all in this together

Mother Nature doesn’t discriminate. The California storms have affected people experiencing homelessness in tents along riverbanks, residents of a town where the average home costs $5 million, and everyone in between. While low-income residents may not have as many resources to help them get through a disaster, we must recognize that everyone is at risk, and act accordingly.

Ego doesn’t help

At one point during the Buffalo storm, elected officials were arguing about whether the city or county could do a better job clearing the snow-clogged roads. But the residents — thousands of whom had been without power for days — didn’t care. They just wanted to be able to drive to a friend’s house for heat, or to the grocery store for food. Putting egos aside to coordinate efforts can speed up the planning, response and recovery.

Design for the future

Many of the people who died in California were in cars trapped by rising floodwaters. Climate change leads to warmer air, which holds more moisture and can increase the intensity of storms like the ones in California. While climate change affects everyone, its impact (e.g., flooding, heat waves, etc.) is often disproportionately felt by lower-income people, which is why it should be a critical factor in designing more equitable cities. Be proactive, because climate change will have a monumental impact on your city.

Use what works

When Buffalo’s sidewalks were still covered with snow days after the blizzard, some residents wondered why we couldn’t be more like nearby Rochester, New York, which plows nearly 900 miles of sidewalks for residents after big storms. Elected officials and community leaders should talk with their peers in similar communities, and use proven strategies and plans.

We may not be able to stop future storms. But by following these lessons and focusing on the entire community with an equity-based approach, I truly believe that we can save more lives.

Kyria Stephens is the Director of Inclusion and Community Initiatives for the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (BNMC), an innovation district recognized globally for its efforts to improve equity. Stephens was a key contributor to City Forward: How Innovation Districts Can Embrace Risk and Strengthen Community, a book by BNMC President and CEO Matt Enstice.

This article was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation.

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Urban Resilience Project
Island Press

A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project (URP) is committed to a greener, fairer future. www.islandpress.org/URP