Here is America’s weather-hazards policy in a nutshell:
- React at times when weather outlooks and forecasts indicate danger.
- Shelter in place where practical; otherwise, save lives through emergency response, primarily evacuation.
- Start with action at the local level. Call in state-level government if local purview or resources are inadequate; request federal assistance when and if state-level resources, approaches are insufficient.
- After disaster, rebuild as before.
- Provide resources for recovery from (private-sector) insurance claims and from government supplemental funding; determine level and allocation of the latter based on politics of the situation and exigencies of the moment versus any over-arching formula.
- Rely on public-private collaboration across all phases – mitigation, preparation, response, and recovery – while maintaining arm’s-length separation between sectors.
- Gather any needed information on the nature and extent of hazard losses ad hoc.
This policy framework hasn’t become our way of doing business through any particular political dogma. It’s grown organically while being repeatedly tweaked and reshaped over a few centuries of American experience. Unsurprisingly, therefore, every element has much to commend it; offers merit.
React to hazard? Evacuate? There’s certainly no need to respond to disrupt routine unnecessarily when staying put and business-as-usual are viable options.
Place-based focus? Surely that’s appropriate. Weather hazards are highly-localized. Those in harm’s way have the most to lose and at the same time best know their options, opportunities, and risks in the face of approaching hazard. “Listen to local officials” is the starting point for state- and federal answers to virtually every question. And should be.
Saving lives should certainly matter more than minimizing property or business disruption. Government and business leaders at every level reaffirm this priority at every turn.
Rebuild as before is what disaster survivors instinctively desire most after surviving such traumatic events; they want their pre-disaster lives back.
By its nature, politics is more local and adaptive, more flexible and responsive than cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all, rigid formulas. For most of American experience, the attitude of the American people and our leaders has been “those in a position to help the targets of this particular disaster could well be those in need the next time around – of course we’ll lend a hand.”
U.S. separation between public- and private sectors has proved the most effective safeguard against the corruption and conflicts-of-interest that afflict so many peoples worldwide.
And finally, because “disasters” are ill-defined, intermittent, and unique, efforts to estimate losses have varied widely from event to event.
Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, both individually and by dint of following one another in quick succession, have put this policy basket to a stress test.
The full stress-test results will take a long time to come in. But here’s what we already know:
- Weather outlooks and forecasts showed skill undreamed of just a few years ago. They indicated danger while both events were many days off – yet that still wasn’t enough lead time.
- In hindsight, both shelter-in-place and evacuation were seen to pose huge risks that were hard to anticipate, and generally underestimated, a priori.
- Rebuilding as before will not only take years but will condemn some number of Texans and Floridians to future repetitive loss.
- Only a small fraction of the losses represented by flooded homes and businesses will be covered by insurance. Moreover, the American tradition of extending a helping hand is compromised by the huge scale of the uninsured losses, and by recent history (especially Hurricane Sandy) that revealed a fraying of what had been considered a time-honored, solid social contract. Hardly any survivors will be “made whole.” Tragically, this is probably most true for the most vulnerable in our society – the poor, the elderly, ethnic minorities, etc.
- Public-private collaboration has been good throughout the events per se, but the arm’s-length separation of the sectors over prior decades has compromised pre-event planning and mitigation with respect to measures such as building codes, land-use, and resilience of critical infrastructure.
- The nature and extent of hazard loss figures suggested so far, even though they total $200B or more, look to underestimate considerably the likely final totals. And they only hint at a massive U.S.-wide vulnerability that has developed from a century or so of U.S. hazards policy – vulnerability that is ratcheting up, each and every day.
The Harvey-Irma stress tests don’t contain any new revelations so much as they confirm what scientists, engineers, planners, emergency managers, and many others have been arguing all along, to wit:
There’s considerable room for improvement with respect to each aspect listed above. Expect to see multiple national and international conversations on these topics in the months and years ahead.
 “In a nutshell?” To many LOTRW readers, that may seem synonymous with “outrageously oversimplified and possibly even misleading.” Please forgive me; had to start somewhere!
 And undoubtedly other aspects as well; please offer your additional points, or suggest a reframing of the list.
A few observations…
While I certainly agree we’ve come a long way in our predictive ability, Irma’s erratic path – and the erratic predictions predicated on that path – points out how far we still have to go. And it seemed to be rather late that the storm surge along the Atlantic coast was recognized as a potential problem, at least publicly.
We do need to improve our weather-hazards policy, first and foremost by recognizing the importance of acting before the disaster. Houston’s take on building codes is a dangerous joke; Memphis was just a step away from relaxing theirs; building codes are important components that need strengthening. Irma proved that in Florida. The mechanism to improve this is through state action (e.g. Texas is one of only four states that don’t have a model state code).
Another key area is land use. Too much is being built in harm’s way. Again, state action can help communities grow a backbone.
You also allude to a key part of this equation – sketchy data on disaster losses. We know too little about what works and what doesn’t. The National Academies call for more systematic damage data collection has apparently gone unheeded.
We must demand “Build Back Better.” In the past, FEMA’s (mis)interpretation of the Stafford Act was a huge barrier to this. Now that that seems to finally have been resolved, Congress should take action to make this a condition of federal assistance.
Finally, you talked about the politics. The Age of Politics is passing – recent history indicates that neither party can govern alone. We must acknowledge that we’re living in the Age of Influence; and look to governance not Government. Those historically insulated from decision-making processes have to be brought in on decisions that will affect their lives. The private sector must bring its resources to share the burdens of communities, but must also be allowed to influence how resources are used. In this regard, our identity politics are a huge impediment – we must come together to make hard decisions instead of throwing insults back and forth across the barricades that separate us.
🙂 Thanks, John, for this quick response. Not only quick, but thoughtful, insightful, and well articulated. Typical of the Plodinec brand…
I certainly agree the economic loss from Harvey and Irma will be huge; some of which we will learn in retrospect was preventable. Here we are in agreement.
But, as is too often the case when meteorologists review disasters these days, we seem to miss the point that our warnings saved literally thousands of lives. This is not even mentioned in your piece, even though the topic is “weather hazards policy.” If the news reports are correct, the total death toll from Irma’s trip across the Caribbean, Cuba and the USA is a stunningly low 69. While each of those is a tragedy to their friends and family, that toll is tiny compared to the thousands an unwarned Category 5/4 (Caribbean) and USA (4/3) would have killed given today’s population density had it arrived without any warning.
Recently, I commented on the lack of value much of the public places on the storm warning system: http://www.mikesmithenterprisesblog.com/2017/09/what-i-believe-to-be-unfortunate.html Since Irma, I have read multiple pieces in various publications by atmospheric scientists bemoaning what they believe is the underfunding of meteorological research. My question: If we do not tout the value of the warning system in saving lives, how can we expect the public to understand and value it?
I continue to believe that we must promote and explain the value of modern weather science on every possible occasion.
Many thanks, Mike. A point you’ve made before, and eloquently, in your excellent book(which I heartily recommend for just that reason),Warnings, how science tamed the weather. Continuing best wishes…
Yes, we owe thanks to you and all those who gave us warning time and warning systems that saved life and property in Irma. And to those who gave us the great advances in Florida’s building code and management systems. It is heartening that so few deaths have been reported so thus far.
But there is cause for alarm in the weakening of building codes, regulatory systems, and management funding, in Florida and elsewhere.
Irma and Harvey recovery should be based on forward thinking, understanding that future hurricanes will be combined with rising seas to require retreat from the coasts. We are accustomed to rewarding short-term thinking and rebuilding as quickly and cheaply as possible. The politics of this recovery will be hard, for anyone trying to do the right long-term thing, and any leader demonstrating political courage deserves our whole-hearted support.
Thank you for supporting, in your eloquent way, the need to build back better and to enact other wise policies that can create a safer and more secure nation.
🙂 thanks, Ann! Well said.
Maybe one more item to add to the “What we know” list is the triumph of the human spirit shown in how communities did not hesitate to come together to not only rescue those in danger but share resources with those in need. The rescue efforts would have been much more difficult after Hurricane Harvey if people didn’t take initiative to take their boats and other means of saving lives and helping people of all backgrounds evacuate from flooded homes regardless of of labels and demographics, in the spirit of caring for our fellow humans (and pets, too).
The post storm relief efforts, particularly the charity efforts have been very encouraging. Tens of millions of dollars donated to multiple charities, and maximizing the potential donations using modern technology such as social media, texting, smart phone apps and traditional media events. The generosity of society and elimination of labels and demographics was on full display during and after these disasters and is likely a considerable factor in increasing the resilience of society in the face of future disasters. Society chose to take the initiative to take control of certain aspects of disaster response and relief rather than deal with the uncertain waiting times for other sources of relief.
The more we can encourage and strengthen the spirit of initiative and empowerment to independent action the more we can harness such efforts into affecting priorities for communities to collectively solve vulnerability and resilience to future disasters before they happen. Communities can have more control over defining their goals and how to reach those goals if they commit some of their own money and time.
By the way, my mother-in-law lives just southeast of the Naples, FL airport and told me and my wife about the utter mayhem she experienced in the eyewall, where the unofficial wind gusts of 140+ mph occurred. Her house was nearly undamaged due to the house being built to code years ago.
Thanks for all your great essays.