Many un­pre­pared for dis­rup­tions af­ter storm

Those who de­cide to stay don’t tend to fully think of is­sues in af­ter­math.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - INSIGHT - By Ali Mostafavi

Many peo­ple will likely de­cide to stay put de­spite evac­u­a­tion or­ders ahead of Hur­ri­cane Florence. And if his­tory is any guide, they may not be fully think­ing through the prob­lems they’ll face in the af­ter­math.

I con­ducted a re­search sur­vey in Har­ris County, which con­tains much of metro Hous­ton, af­ter the city was flooded by Hur­ri­cane Har­vey in Au­gust 2017, and found a com­mon thread. Few re­spon­dents who stayed in place dur­ing the storm planned in ad­vance for cop­ing with ex­tended ser­vice in­ter­rup­tions, such as road clo­sures, power and wa­ter out­ages and com­mu­ni­ca­tions in­ter­rup­tions.

I am a civil engi­neer and study in­ter­ac­tions be­tween peo­ple and in­fra­struc­ture in dis­as­ters. In this sur­vey, I wanted to un­der­stand how dif­fer­ent sub­pop­u­la­tions pre­pare for and ad­just to ser­vice dis­rup­tions dur­ing these events.

Hur­ri­canes don’t al­ways prompt manda­tory evac­u­a­tions — and even when they do, many peo­ple choose not to go. My re­sults show that plan­ning for los­ing key ser­vices, po­ten­tially for days or weeks, should be part of pre­par­ing to weather storms in place. And cities should keep their most vul­ner­a­ble res­i­dents in mind as they make de­ci­sions about storm-proof­ing crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture sys­tems, such as power and wa­ter.

Har­vey flooded sew­ers, closed roads, downed power lines and in­ter­rupted telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions ser­vices across south­east Texas. Un­like tor­na­does, which can se­lec­tively level one neigh­bor­hood and leave an­other un­scathed, hur­ri­canes are per­versely egal­i­tar­ian. In Hous­ton, tony and dis­ad­van­taged neigh­bor­hoods alike bore the brunt of Har­vey.

Most res­i­dents in hur­ri­cane-prone ar­eas know to store food, stock up on wa­ter, check their flash­lights and ra­dios and plan for evac­u­a­tions. But I found that rel­a­tively few Hous­to­ni­ans were ready for in­fra­struc­ture ser­vice dis­rup­tions.

My sur­vey was con­ducted three months af­ter Har­vey and in­cluded 750 Har­ris County res­i­dents. They rated sewer, wa­ter, elec­tric­ity and com­mu­ni­ca­tions as the most im­por­tant house­hold ser­vices, and found sewage back­ing up into homes from over­whelmed pub­lic wa­ter sys­tems to be the most oner­ous dis­rup­tion. Even house­holds with in­di­vid­ual on-site sep­tic sys­tems ex­pe­ri­enced sep­tic tank over­flow due to flood­ing.

Loss of potable wa­ter, which af­fected hy­giene, drink­ing and food prepa­ra­tion, was the next great­est hard­ship. Elec­tric­ity and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions out­ages tied for third place, fol­lowed by road clo­sures due to fallen trees, de­bris and flood­ing.

My stu­dents and I found that 53 per­cent of the peo­ple we sur­veyed were not well-pre­pared for ser­vice dis­rup­tion. Even the 47 per­cent who had laid in pro­vi­sions to weather the storm had not thought specif­i­cally about ser­vice out­ages. Most peo­ple who self-iden­ti­fied as pre­pared un­der­es­ti­mated the ex­tent and length of ser­vice dis­rup­tions, and many ran out of stored food and wa­ter. A whop­ping 80 per­cent of house­holds who were with­out power af­ter the storm had not even con­sid­ered the pos­si­bil­ity of ex­tended out­ages.

Re­gard­less of how well cities harden their in­fra­struc­ture, ser­vice dis­rup­tions are in­evitable dur­ing and af­ter ma­jor hur­ri­canes. Once res­i­dents ac­cept that fact, they can adopt prac­ti­cal strate­gies for weath­er­ing storms in place.

Fam­i­lies that live out­side of hur­ri­cane paths or flood plains can still ex­pe­ri­ence ex­tended dis­rup­tions – for ex­am­ple, if high winds dam­age power distri­bu­tion net­works, or lo­cal roads are blocked by downed trees. It is crit­i­cal for house­holds to un­der­stand the like­li­hood of ser­vice dis­rup­tions, as­sess their ba­sic needs ob­jec­tively and pre­pare for pos­si­ble ex­tended out­ages.

Our re­search showed that some pop­u­la­tion groups were es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble to los­ing spe­cific ser­vices. House­holds with chil­dren 10 and younger self-re­ported that los­ing elec­tric­ity was the most oner­ous hard­ship for them, since it made it im­pos­si­ble for them to re­frig­er­ate and pre­pare food. On the other hand, re­spon­dents age 65 and older re­ported that road clo­sures were their great­est bur­den be­cause they could not drive to work, gro­cery stores, health care fa­cil­i­ties or phar­ma­cies.

We also found that low-in­come res­i­dents and racial and eth­nic mi­nori­ties were less pre­pared over­all and ex­pe­ri­enced greater hard­ship dur­ing post-Har­vey ser­vice losses. Dis­as­ter re­searchers widely view these groups as vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tions, since they have fewer re­sources to pre­pare or adapt to dis­rup­tions.

In­ter­est­ingly, we found that se­niors over 65 were bet­ter pre­pared to en­dure sewer, wa­ter and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions losses af­ter Har­vey. For many of them prior ex­pe­ri­ence with storms had in­stilled the value of prepa­ra­tion, and on the whole they were ready for the im­pend­ing storm.

Hous­ton is in­vest­ing in a swath of flood con­trol and flood risk re­duc­tion projects. No­tably, on Aug. 25 the city adopted a $2.5 bil­lion bond mea­sure to over­haul the re­gion’s flood-pro­tec­tion sys­tem.

Pro­tect­ing homes is im­por­tant, but cities should also in­vest in hard­en­ing in­fra­struc­ture sys­tems, such as power and wa­ter lines, to sup­port res­i­dents who shel­ter in place dur­ing storms. Lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties can han­dle some of these up­grades. For in­stance, some Hous­ton neigh­bor­hoods lost in­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity for as long as six weeks due to sub­merged util­ity boxes hous­ing net­work elec­tron­ics. This prob­lem could be solved by rais­ing the boxes above po­ten­tial flood lev­els.

Iden­ti­fy­ing and hard­en­ing in­fra­struc­ture com­po­nents, such as power sub­sta­tions and waste­water treat­ment plants, that are highly vul­ner­a­ble to fu­ture storms is a crit­i­cal task for util­i­ties and city plan­ners. Also, rec­og­niz­ing and pro­tect­ing vul­ner­a­ble sub­pop­u­la­tions who are most af­fected by ser­vice out­ages should be a pri­or­ity.

As house­holds pre­pare for a storm, con­sid­er­a­tion of pos­si­ble power out­ages, sewer backup, and road clo­sures should fac­tor into their de­ci­sions about evac­u­at­ing or shel­ter­ing in place. If they stay, they should not un­der­es­ti­mate the like­li­hood of ser­vice dis­rup­tions.

No one likes to lose power or in­ter­net, but imag­in­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of ex­tended ser­vice out­ages and the re­sult­ing hard­ship can help house­holds pre­pare and cope with the dis­rup­tions.

JAY JANNER / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN 2017

Cities should keep their most vul­ner­a­ble res­i­dents in mind as they make de­ci­sions about storm-proof­ing crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture sys­tems, such as power and wa­ter.

JAY JANNER / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN 2017

Un­like tor­na­does, which can se­lec­tively level one neigh­bor­hood and leave an­other un­scathed, hur­ri­canes are per­versely egal­i­tar­ian.

JAY JANNER / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN 2017

Re­gard­less of how well cities harden their in­fra­struc­ture, ser­vice dis­rup­tions are in­evitable dur­ing and af­ter ma­jor hur­ri­canes.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.