U.S. shows bet­ter dis­as­ter han­dling

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - TOP STORY - By Richard Fausset

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.

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