What we’re watching: Weekly disaster update, August 21

Flood damage on SR-157/Kyle Canyon Rd in Nevada, Aug. 21, 2023. (Credit: Nevada DOT via Twitter)

We know all too well that disaster can strike anytime, anywhere in the world. Some disasters make headlines; others do not. Here at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP), we monitor the status of disasters worldwide and compile a list of the ones we’re tracking weekly, along with relevant disaster-related media coverage.

Here’s what we’re watching for the week of Aug. 21, 2023.

New or Emerging Disasters

Tropical Storm Hilary – Mexico and Southwest U.S.: Hilary became a Category 4 hurricane over open waters before making landfall in Mexico’s northern Baja California Peninsula as a tropical storm on Aug. 20. Floodwaters resulted in one death near Santa Rosalia, Mexico.

The storm then crossed into California, becoming the first tropical storm to hit Los Angeles in 84 years. It brought record rainfall and flooded streets, downed trees and knocked out power for thousands. Up to 10.51 inches of rain fell near Forest Falls, California.

Hilary caused flash flooding throughout southern California, with significant flooding in the Antelope Valley and parts of Los Angeles County and Ventura County. The Coachella Valley saw up to 4 inches of rain at lower elevations.

Las Vegas declared a state of emergency on Aug. 20, and California Governor Gavin Newsom proclaimed a state of emergency on Aug. 19.

Hilary was downgraded to a post-tropical storm on Aug. 21. However, the National Hurricane Center said the storm was still predicted to bring “catastrophic and life-threatening flooding” to parts of the southwestern U.S.

Wildfires – Canada: The country’s preparedness level remains at 5, the highest, with 1,041 active fires as of Aug. 20. Of those active fires, 381 were in British Columbia and 236 in the Northwest Territories (N.W.T.).

The N.W.T. capital Yellowknife is home to about 20,000, and those residents, along with several other Northwest Territories communities, have been ordered to evacuate as crews battle 236 active wildfires in the area. The fire complex is about 9.3 miles outside Yellowknife’s boundaries and had not progressed much as of Aug. 19 due in part to suppression efforts and improved weather conditions. Mike Westwick, N.W.T. fire information officer, called the firefighting effort the territory’s largest ever.

See our 2023 North American Wildfires disaster profile for more.

Wildfires – Spain: According to local authorities, a fire in Tenerife, the largest of the Spanish Canary Islands, covers approximately 20,757 acres (8,400 hectares). More than 12,000 people have been forced to evacuate in Tenerife, a popular tourist destination for Europeans. Officials said the fire had been lit intentionally and had opened three separate lines of inquiry. The fire is described as Tenerife’s worst in decades; however, no injuries have been reported. On Aug. 20, officials said fire stabilization was close and that the government would declare the area affected a disaster zone.

Earthquake – Colombia: A pair of earthquakes shook Bogota, Colombia and surrounding areas on Aug. 17. The earthquakes occurred about 100 miles southeast of Bogota. The first was 6.3 magnitude, and the aftershock registered a magnitude of 5.7. Officials said one person died when they panicked and jumped from the seventh floor of a building.

Colombia is experiencing a complex humanitarian emergency and has the highest recurrence of extreme events in South America. The World Bank says, “Rapid population growth in poorly planned urban areas, informal settlements, and densely populated coastal areas, coupled with the effects of climate change, are already exacerbating flooding and landslides in the country.”

Previous/Ongoing Disasters

Wildfires – Hawaii: Nearly two weeks since a wildfire tore through Lahaina, Maui, 850 people remain missing, and 114 have been confirmed dead. Nearly 3,000 homes and businesses in Lahaina are damaged or destroyed.

Investigators have not determined what first ignited the Lahaina fire on Aug. 8. Still, scientists say it is likely that winds from a strong high-pressure system, moderate-to-severe drought conditions and dry invasive grasses met plantation-era wooden buildings in the historic town to cause such destruction.

However, there are no “natural disasters.” While hazards (e.g., wildfires) are natural, disasters are not. Without vulnerability, which develops from human decisions, a disaster will not occur. The Maui disaster was decades in the making. Naka Nathaniel writes that this was not a natural disaster but “a human-made disaster generations in the making.”

See our 2023 North American Wildfires disaster profile for more.

Watch our webinar

Hawaii wildfires: What will recovery look like?

In addition to the disasters listed above, we actively monitor the following disasters or humanitarian emergencies. For more information, see the relevant disaster profiles, which are updated regularly.

U.S. Midwest Low-Attention Disasters

The Midwest is regularly faced with low-attention disasters that affect people across the region. CDP’s Midwest Early Recovery Fund (ERF) effectively funds efforts that catalyze equitable disaster recovery.

These are some of the latest disasters and related news the ERF team is monitoring:

  • In Oklahoma, severe storms swept through the Owasso and Catoosa areas on Aug. 13, which caused damage in the area. The National Weather Service reported 95 miles per hour winds three miles northwest of Catoosa.
  • Bollinger County, Missouri, located about 100 miles south of St. Louis, received up to eight inches of rain in just a few hours on Aug. 14. The heavy rain resulted in flooding in Glen Allen, Marble Hill and other parts of the county.
  • Alaska Legal Services Corp, a nonprofit law firm, was awarded federal money to support victims of disasters last year as they continue to navigate the recovery. The funds will support the victims of 12 disasters in American Indian and Alaska Native communities in Alaska and other Western states.

Complex Humanitarian Emergencies – Democratic Republic of Congo 

Many places worldwide are experiencing emergencies caused by conflict, climate change, drought, famine, economic challenges and other conditions that combine to create a complex humanitarian emergency (CHE). CDP maintains complete profiles on several CHEs, and what CDP considers Level 1 CHEs are profiled in this weekly blog post and tracked.

The humanitarian emergency in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the longest-running on the African continent. According to the United Nations Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Until a solution to the conflict is identified, humanitarian needs are likely to continue to increase, with insufficient levels of funding to assist all those in need.”

A primarily ethnic Lendu militia, The Cooperative for the Development of Congo (Coopérative pour le développement du Congo, CODECO), has repeatedly attacked displaced people’s camps in Ituri over the past few years. Human Rights Watch (HRW) said CODECO fighters killed at least 46 civilians at a displaced people’s camp on June 12 in eastern Ituri province while calling on the Congolese Army and UN Peacekeepers to increase protection.

The violence in the country’s east continues to cause new population movements and displacements, hampering people’s ability to participate in agricultural production. In the eastern DRC, 6.7 million people in Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu are acutely food insecure, and 256,000 children are malnourished.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says the increase in conflict and displacement is why DRC’s children bear the brunt of the country’s worst cholera crisis since 2017. According to UNICEF, “Across the country, there have been at least 31,342 suspected or confirmed cholera cases and 230 deaths in the first seven months of 2023, many of them children.” Anticipatory action can help humanitarians get ahead of large outbreaks.

Despite the scale of the needs, funding for the humanitarian response remains low. Donors have funded just 33.2% of the $2.25 billion humanitarians require to support 10 million people in 2023 as of Aug. 21.

What We’re Reading

  • Rebuild Lahaina Not As A Tourist Spot But A Place For People To Live – Honolulu Civil Beat: Jonathan Osorio, professor of Hawaiian Studies and dean of the Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge, provides historical context to the devastating wildfire that decimated the town of Lahaina, Maui.
  • Predatory Real Estate Investors Are Reportedly Already Eyeing Maui – Dwell: “Speculation such as this has long occurred after disasters, but it rings particularly disturbing in places like Hawaii that have exacerbated inequality and histories of extraction, where the cost of living for native Hawaiians has become increasingly challenging.”
  • ‘Let Maui heal’: Grieving Hawaii residents want tourists to go home – The Washington Post: “As Maui reckons with catastrophe, many residents have been questioning whether the tourism businesses that fund their livelihoods should continue during a tragedy.”
  • Massive mental health toll in Maui wildfires: ‘They’ve lost everything’ – National Public Radio: The size of the emotional and psychological toll is becoming more evident as the need for mental health support grows. Maui’s chief mental health administrator John Oliver calls it “the worst mental health disaster in our state’s modern history.”
  • As the peak of hurricane season nears, Lake Charles is still recovering from 2020 storms – New Orleans Public Radio: Between August 2020 and May 2021, Lake Charles, Louisiana, endured two hurricanes, a winter storm and flooding following heavy rain. Recovery is ongoing, and some residents are experiencing anxiety as hurricane season approaches its peak time frame for activity.
  • Why this year’s record glacial outburst flood likely won’t be Juneau’s worst – Alaska Public Radio: In the future, the neighborhoods in Juneau will be at the mercy of an ever-changing basin. Scientists seek to learn more about how the basin changes and what those changes might mean for future floods in Juneau.

Journalist Adrienne So recounts their experience completing the Disaster Relief Trials (DRT) in Portland, Oregon. DRT is a bike race that mimics four days of chaos after catastrophe hits. So concludes they can’t do it alone. When disaster strikes, “We have to start saving each other.”