U.S. shows better disaster handling
ATLANTA >> The two massive storms brought death and suffering and damage that will be measured in the billions of dollars. They left millions of residents cowering in their homes to ride out pounding rain and left evacuees — hundreds of thousands of them — scattered across Texas and the Southeast.
At the same time, hurricanes Harvey and Irma may have revealed a largely unnoticed truth often buried under the news of unfolding tragedy: The United States appears to be improving in the way it responds to hurricanes, at a time when climate scientists say the threats from such storms, fueled by warming oceans, are only growing more dire. For all the chaos, the death toll of hurricanes Harvey and Irma remained surprisingly contained: about 85 thus far in Florida and Texas.
“There’s no doubt that we’re doing better,” said Brian Wolshon, a civil engineering professor and evacuation expert at Louisiana State University. “The stuff we’re doing is not rocket science, but it’s having the political will, and the need, to do it.”
Across much of Florida and the region Tuesday, stressed and exhausted families were assessing damage from Irma or just beginning the arduous journey home, often grappling with gasoline shortages, sweltering heat, and power and cell service disruptions in addition to downed trees and property damage. At least 12 people were reported dead in Irma’s wake.
The pain was felt where the storm hit hardest, like the Florida Keys, where an estimated 25 percent of homes were destroyed and bleary-eyed residents contemplated a battered landscape of destruction. And the pain was felt far away, as well: in Jacksonville, Fla., where there was still major flooding from epic storm surge, heavy rain and rising tides; in Georgia, where at least 1.2 million customers were without power Tuesday; and in Charleston, S.C., where Irma’s effects coincided with high tide, causing some of the worst flooding since Hurricane Hugo, which devastated the area in 1989. The political will Wolshon cited has arisen, in large part, from the two defining and very different disasters of the century: the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and, four years later, Hurricane Katrina, whose floodwaters put most of New Orleans underwater and left more than 1,800 people dead.
The terror attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania revolutionized the way government coordinated disaster response. Katrina stimulated a new and robust conversation about the power of natural disasters and, more specifically, forced Americans to rethink the growing threats from floodwaters.
These issues have become central themes for government in recent years, and Richard Serino, a former deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said he was not surprised that the response to the storms thus far had gone relatively well. “It’s no accident,” he said. “We’ve been training people for this for the last 16 years.”
These events, and other disasters before and after, have fed into the collective knowledge of how a modern nation should respond to hurricanes, serving as catalysts for improvements in weather forecasting, evacuation policies and hurricane-resistant building practices.
Experts said all of them likely played a role in keeping the death tolls lower than expected in the past few weeks. The planning and response also benefited from a few lucky turns in the weather, the growing sophistication of personal technology — the iPhone did not exist when Katrina struck — and a public dialed in to the internet and tuned into 24hour television news. The deadly problems posed by hurricanes are at once ancient and rather new: Hal Needham, a coastal hazard scientist who runs a private consulting business in Galveston, Texas, notes that it was not until after World War II that populations began to soar in the hurricane-vulnerable states of Texas and Florida. The rise of satellite-based meteorology only came in the 1960s. Before that, hurricanes could still come as a surprise.
Today, lawmakers enjoy better weather forecasts but are now faced with the problem of what to do with millions of people who might lie in a storm’s path. Wolshon does not agree with all of the evacuation decisions made in the face of Harvey and Irma, but he said they were made with an evolving and increasingly sophisticated understanding of the challenges.
In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner and other local officials decided not to call for a mandatory evacuation before the arrival of Harvey, in part because of the nature of the threat to the area. Harvey, by the time it reached Houston, was not expected to bring storm surge or high winds, so much as pounding, extended rain. In this case it was difficult to know which areas would flood and which would not. So officials decided to encourage people to stay put.
It was a marked difference to the strategy of Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who announced Thursday to
6.5 million people, “Leave now, don’t wait.” Needham said that the move was probably the right one. “When Irma was bearing down on Southeast Florida, it did appear several days out that we could potentially see Category 5 winds in the metro Miami area,” he said. “When you have a massive flood event, if you can you just go up, if you’re in a condo or an apartment.” But in whipping, hurricane-force winds, sheltering in place probably would not have been as safe as hitting the road. Evacuation also made sense given the threat of huge storm surges, experts said.
Both Texas and Florida likely benefited from the growth and sophistication of the federal Department of Homeland Security, and the training that even tiny communities have undergone since Sept. 11, 2001.
A police officer in Florida City, Fla., directed a motorist Tuesday at a checkpoint as residents returned to their homes in the Upper Keys.