Still Learning: What Hurricanes Harvey and Irma Reveal about US Disaster Policy
by Emily Peiffer
Less than two weeks after Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston, Hurricane Irma rocked southern Florida. Thousands were displaced from their homes, and millions were left without power. This wave of record-setting storms has led to inevitable questions: Could we have prepared better? How long will it take to recover? How can we mitigate the effects of a similar disaster in the future?
Carlos Martín, a senior fellow in the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, said these past few weeks highlight the country’s need to improve disaster mitigation and resilience planning, in addition to effectively managing short-term expectations at a time of crisis.
In the following conversation, Martín explains how individuals, policymakers, and communities must take lessons from these and past storms and determine how to better prepare for the next one.
What have we learned from this current wave of storms?
We’re learning about managing expectations at all scales and on all fronts, starting with how quickly recovery will happen after the storm. In Houston, Texas learned from repeated experiences over the last decade about how to disburse funds and maximize resources. The state government had experience after Katrina, Ike, and during the wildfires and floods of the past several seasons. They have better processes, and the federal government has gotten much more effective in assistance from relief through recovery.
But recovery takes time—especially if we want it done well. Homes aren’t rebuilt overnight or even after several months as folks wait for insurance claims to be processed and assistance programs are managed. It’s painful to hear because so many residents need the reassurance, and so many officials want to promise immediate rebuilding.
Individuals and politicians have a huge desire for recovery. The House passed a $15 billion Harvey relief package. These are massive resources. People assume when they see lots of money plugging in that they’re going to be recovering very quickly, but that amount of money needs a lot of planning and preparation. Part of local officials’ responsibility is to manage expectations a little better, rather than promising that communities will be rebuilt overnight. When you rebuild overnight, you build either the same conditions that are susceptible to damage or worse. It’s about preparing people for the reality. If they want to rebuild well, it’s going to take time.
In terms of the different stages of recovery, which are we best and worst at tackling?
That speaks to the second expectation we don’t manage well: the future beyond this storm. We haven’t looked hard at the evolution of the resources, capacity, timing, what people can do to prepare themselves, and what the federal role should be. There are some bright spots. For example, from Hurricane Andrew, Florida learned it needed better building codes. It instituted those, and now it’s a test for Irma. They’re better at response and relief and recovery, but as a nation, we have not been very good at mitigation and building for resilience.
We’re really bad at long-term planning and at investing in preparations and infrastructure that can mitigate damage. Currently, mitigation funds are a tiny pot of money. The White House budget proposal calls for the elimination of disaster mitigation funds. As we envision bringing Houston and Florida’s Gulf Coast back, let’s envision how they can better prepare for future storms and do so equitably and honestly.
Are there any lessons we’ve failed to learn from previous natural disasters?
In many ways, we’ve unlearned how to prepare ourselves as individuals and how to prepare communities as we increasingly turn to outside assistance. We unlearned that it’s important to have the right insurance. I don’t blame households. Who understands their insurance policy? We’ve also unlearned how to support the most vulnerable. For relief and response, we’ve gotten better at evacuating the most vulnerable people. But we’ve unlearned how to prepare those segments of the community for the longer-term recovery. They’re less likely to have resources to recover and to have insurance.
Looking ahead, what will be the key take-aways from this current storm season?
These storms are going to happen. This is inevitable, not only because that’s the nature of natural disasters, but because of climate change’s effects. The one silver lining in this gray cloud is that we’re now remembering that these events are going to happen and remembering that we’re at risk. We have a history as individuals and as a country to want to forget bad things, so we don’t prepare for them.
Climate change is a reality, and storms are going to increase. We have failing infrastructure in this country that barely protects current communities. Important efforts include converting areas to wetlands that are more naturally defensive, creating more restrictions on coastal development, and implementing higher building code standards. We have to keep learning. I’d like to think that post-Katrina, post-Sandy, and now, post-Harvey, we’re learning more and will remember that this will happen again.
This post was originally published on Urban Wire, the blog for the Urban Institute. For more on resilience and recovery in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, check out videos from last week’s expert panel.