Shelter-in-place!

“A banker lends you an umbrella when the sun is shining but takes it back when it starts to rain.” – (origin debated)

Let’s get one thing straight: in the face of natural hazards, the individual- and the societal policy goal should be the same, namely:

Home should be a safe haven, not just on fair-weather days, but also when times are threatening. Home has to be more than the point of embarkation for flight from danger.

 Home should not be like that proverbial banker – offering shelter when it’s least needed, but then falling short just when it most matters.

Shelter-in-place? Six[1] aspects of the policy merit our attention.

1. For millions of people, shelter-in-place has not been a viable option this hurricane season. Across the Caribbean and on the mainland United States, houses of conventional construction situated in floodplain were simply not defensible in the face of category-4 hurricane winds and several feet of storm surge. To stay would have been to court injury and death.

2. The alternative to shelter-in-place is evacuation. And evacuation presents two sides. On the one hand, in the face of impending disaster, evacuation can save lives. Who could ask for more? But in too many ways, evacuation presages defeat. All too often, evacuation is not an end to risk. Instead it’s the portal, to weeks or years or even a lifetime of risk and tragedy and disaster of another kind.

3. Evacuation has its limits, poses intrinsic dangers. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria demonstrate this. Evacuations can readily save lives when thousands of people are involved. But Harvey and Irma showed that when millions are on the move, scaling–up leads to hours on crowded roads, gridlock, and travel of hundreds of miles. To do this safely requires pre-positioning stocks of gasoline, food, and other essentials for evacuees, as well as readying numerous emergency shelters across broad areas. The lead times required for these measures get passed along in the form of new demands on weather forecast guidance. The result? Despite dramatic improvements in hurricane forecasts, the extensions in lead times are barely keeping pace with the growing needs of emergency responders. At best, we’re on a treadmill.

In Florida, Irma exposed additional limitations to evacuation. Instead of quickly traversing a small segment of the state, Irma’s path took its time grinding along Florida’s entire north-south length, crunching away at communities and coastlines for many hours. Evacuees found themselves hopping back and forth across the state from coast to coast in (often vain) efforts to dodge shifts revealed hour to hour.

Following both Harvey and Irma, evacuees found themselves in an even more chaotic situation – trying to get back home. Authorities, aware that critical infrastructure – electrical power, water, and sewage had been dangerously compromised – barred the way back. New, unanticipated dependencies were revealed. Electrical repair crews couldn’t get into the evacuated areas – because no one was there to clear debris. They’d all evacuated. And so on. Getting back in was more confused than leaving. Tempers flared. And too many returned not to home but to complete devastation and loss. Anger was replaced by grief.

This back end of evacuation is only in its initial stages. Evacuees are just now beginning the process of working with (those proverbial) bankers about who still owns what property, is entitled to what relief, owes what money, and more. After Katrina and Sandy, settling these issues delayed rebuilding homes and businesses for many months. This year’s experience promises to be little different.

It doesn’t end there. Across the full extent of the Caribbean, first Irma and then Maria demonstrated that evacuation doesn’t work on islands, which offer no place to evacuate to. In the days since, Barbuda’s entire population has had to be relocated to Antigua, but that could be accomplished only after the fact. Moreover, at this writing the fate of millions of Puerto Ricans hangs in the balance as emergency responders work desperately to meet the population’s basic needs for drinking water and food. With restoration of power nowhere in sight, many Puerto Ricans may be relocated on the mainland. It doesn’t help that the territory had been flirting with bankruptcy prior to the disaster.

Lastly, evacuation seems attractive when framed as a temporary expedient. But it looks far less attractive when viewed as something permanent. And evacuation will prove permanent for many survivors of this year’s hurricane season, whether islanders or mainlanders. Past experience suggests that the financial losses, degraded physical health and well-being, and PTSD will also persist for years or a lifetime.

4.The simple articulation of shelter-in-place is deceptive. To most of us, shelter-in-place seems a high bar. To build a house strong enough to survive wind and gale, and on ground high enough to be safe from flood? Sounds expensive, prohibitively so. But the true requirements for shelter-in-place are hidden, and more stringent still. Harvey, Irma, and Maria make clear (if indeed we needed any prompting) that defensible housing is more than a well-engineered structure situated on suitable land. In the year 2017, shelter-in-place still means keeping the roof on and the ground-floor dry. But today it also requires continuity of essential services: electrical power, communications, water, sewage, roads, and more.

More? Yes, essential services mean the entire food-supply chain, schools, police and fire, hospitals and health care. If that sounds like almost everything, that’s because it is. Today, shelter-in-place ultimately means maintaining the integrity and functionality of every aspect of community and business life.

This is the point of the argument where most professionals, whether in emergency management, local government, large or small business, engineering, or urban planning, throw up their hands and say such a goal can never be achieved.

Perhaps not. But that brings us to the fifth and sixth points.

5. We incrementally ratcheted our way into our present predicament. We need to ratchet our way out. Our present vulnerability wasn’t an act of will. It isn’t the result of any single decision, in any one location, or economic sector. It’s the cumulative result of thousands of decisions, actions, and small compromises and shortcuts made by individuals and institutions over many years. And those decisions and actions had in turn been embedded in a larger universe of the daily, monthly, and annual choices that added together have shaped our national culture and ways of doing business over centuries.

We’re not going to work our way out of our brittle, fragile lifestyle into a resilient alternative overnight or even in a single decade. But we can accomplish this feat over the next half-century, especially if we harness new tools such as artificial intelligence and its close kin, environmental intelligence; if we innovate in the ways we construct homes and buildings and plan entire cities; if we build an added measure of resiliency into each of our critical infrastructures; and if we learn-from-experience instead of rebuilding-as-before. This latter is the overarching key to success. As discussed frequently in LOTRW posts, we have an example of such success before us: the National Transportation Safety Board.

Which brings us to

6. Some disasters occur at a worldwide scale. Under these scenarios, evacuation is not a viable prospect. There’s no place to run! For example (to pick one possible hazard out of many), suppose this planet should become too warm. NASA will be unable to move large numbers of us to a cooler planet any time soon.

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Have the feeling your back is to the wall? So do I. So let’s be strong! Let’s commit to making shelter-in-place work. And since we’re all in this together, let’s act it. Let’s extend a helping hand to those displaced who need relief now. Let’s put aside our pre-existing differences with each other, no matter how longstanding (discarding that discord on the same trash heaps now lining the streets and roads where the hurricanes came through), shake hands, and partner-up. We can do this.

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[1] You might have a modified or completely different list. If so, please let us hear from you!

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