Time to hit the reset button on American weather-hazards policy?

Here is America’s weather-hazards policy in a nutshell[1]:

  • 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[2]. Expect to see multiple national and international conversations on these topics in the months and years ahead.


[1] “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!

[2] And undoubtedly other aspects as well; please offer your additional points, or suggest a reframing of the list.

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