Five months after the devastating 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, recovery remains an elusive goal for many who found themselves in harm’s way. Contributing to the problem was a long delay in Congressional passage of desperately needed appropriations (recall that damage estimates for the three hurricanes totaled some $300B). In September 2017 Congress passed a $15B supplemental appropriation measure for Hurricane Harvey, just as Hurricane Irma was poised to hit. This was followed by a $36B appropriation in October, but by this time the funds were needed for Hurricane Maria as well as for California wildfires. Another $90B was appropriated, but only this month, after being held up by larger budget debates, federal shutdowns, and other Washington drama. Awareness is building that recovery will by no means be complete before the region is tested by another hurricane season.
A few vignettes on where things stand:
Hurricane Harvey and the Texas coast. Federal funds are trickling into the affected area, unevenly reaching those impacted. A few thousand people were still living in FEMA-funded motels in mid-January, but ten times as many had applied for FEMA aid; estimates are that many people displaced by the hurricane are still living with family or friends, waiting for work on their homes to be completed (or even started). Most received far less aid than they need to rebuild. Moreover, many homeowners attempting to rebuild have been stymied by homeowner association (HOA) rules. Houston’s criminal justice center was flooded; although trials resumed in October, the court system is still working through a backlog. And long-term efforts to reduce future vulnerability remain unaddressed.
Hurricane Irma. The most recent tranche of federal funds included over $2B for agricultural relief (some of which will also be allocated for agriculture affected by Harvey and Maria) and $17B to the US Army Corps of Engineers to construct flood and storm damage-reduction projects and potentially to speed repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee. A small addendum: NASA received $80M from the latest supplemental to be allocated to cover repairs to Kennedy Space Center and NASA’s Houston facilities.
Hurricane Maria. The news from Puerto Rico continues to be dire. This morning’s E&E newsletter EnergyWire gives an extensive update on efforts to restore electrical service to the island. Some excerpts: After making strides in late 2017 to restore major chunks of infrastructure and get the lights back on, the repair endeavor has entered a plateau. While most have electricity, it is unclear how much longer those in the dark will have to wait…
…”The bulk of the work that is left is the hardest, requiring helicopter support and long commutes to remote, hard-to-access job sites,” said Jay Field, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, which was assigned by the Trump administration to lead the recovery. “Weather is also an issue due to rain and heavy winds.”
Last week, the island’s unified grid-restoration command said that it expects to have 90 to 95 percent of the territory’s power restored by March 31…
…. The pace of recovery has been complicated by overlapping lines of authority and Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy. While the Army Corps is in charge of overall recovery, much of the repair work is being done by PREPA, which is $9 billion in debt.
A new strain of uncertainty arrived last week, when the federal judge overseeing Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy proceedings, Laura Taylor Swain, rejected PREPA’s plea for a $550 million loan and asked it to look for other sources of funds.
In response, PREPA said it would start reducing output at some of its power plants because it couldn’t afford fuel. The utility told the court in a filing that the scenario “exacerbated the risk to an already fragile system and leaves it vulnerable to outages and resulting in brownouts on the island.”
(the full article merits a read).
Bottom line? As a nation we’re grossly underestimating the pain and disruption that disasters inflict. As a result, we’re underinvesting in actions and measures that would mitigate such tragedy and loss. In particular, we’re underinvesting in technologies such as NASA Earth observations, hydrological models at the NOAA-USGS-USACE National Water Center, Census Bureau’s OntheMap, and data analytics. Taken together, these and similar technologies, and efforts to build public awareness such as the NWS Weather-Ready Nation, would allow early detection of the buildup of disaster vulnerability and risk, prior to disaster, and thus motivate and guide pre-event disaster reduction actions and measures at a cost far less than the any subsequent cost of disaster recovery itself.
Time to move in that direction.