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Amid chaos of storms, U.S. shows it has improved response

  • Author: Richard Fausset, The New York Times
  • Updated: September 12
  • Published September 12

FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Team members search a damaged neighborhood on Big Pine Key Fla., in the Keys, Sept. 12, 2017. (Sam Hodgson/The New York Times)

ATLANTA — The two massive storms brought death and suffering and damage that will be measured in the billions of dollars. They left millions of residents cowering in their homes to ride out pounding rains, and left evacuees — hundreds of thousands of them — scattered across Texas and the Southeast.

At the same time, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma may have revealed a largely unnoticed truth often buried under the news of unfolding tragedy: The United States appears to be improving in the way it responds to hurricanes, at a time when climate scientists say the threats from such storms, fueled by warming oceans, is only growing more dire. For all the chaos, the death toll of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma remained surprisingly contained: about 85 thus far in Florida and Texas.

"There's no doubt that we're doing better," said Brian Wolshon, a civil engineering professor and evacuation expert at Louisiana State University. "The stuff we're doing is not rocket science, but it's having the political will, and the need, to do it."

Across much of Florida and the region Tuesday, stressed and exhausted families were assessing damage from Irma, or just beginning the arduous journey home, often grappling with gasoline shortages, sweltering heat, and power and cell service disruptions in addition to downed trees and property damage. At least 12 people were reported dead in Irma's wake.

The pain was felt where the storm hit hardest, like the Florida Keys, where an estimated 25 percent of homes were destroyed and bleary-eyed residents contemplated a battered landscape of destruction.

And the pain was felt far away as well: in Jacksonville, Florida, where there was still major flooding from epic storm surge, heavy rains and rising tides; in Georgia, where at least 1.2 million customers were without power Tuesday; and in Charleston, South Carolina, where Irma's effects coincided with high tide, causing some of the worst flooding since Hurricane Hugo, which devastated the area in 1989.

The political will Wolshon cited has arisen, in large part, from the two defining and very different, disasters of the century: the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, and, four years later, Hurricane Katrina, whose floodwaters put most of New Orleans underwater and left more than 1,800 people dead.

The terror attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania revolutionized the way government coordinated disaster response. Katrina stimulated a new and robust conversation about the power of natural disasters and, more specifically, forced Americans to rethink the growing threats from floodwaters.

These issues have become central themes for government in recent years, and Richard Serino, a former deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said he was not surprised that the response to the storms thus far had gone relatively well.

"It's no accident," he said. "We've been training people for this for the last 16 years."

These events, and other disasters before and after, have fed into the collective knowledge of how a modern nation should respond to hurricanes, serving as catalysts for improvements in weather forecasting, evacuation policies and hurricane-resistant building practices.

Experts said all of them likely played a role in keeping the death tolls lower than expected in the past few weeks. The planning and response also benefited from a few lucky turns in the weather, the growing sophistication of personal technology — the iPhone did not exist when Katrina struck — and a public dialed in to the internet and tuned into 24-hour television news.

The deadly problems posed by hurricanes are at once ancient and rather new: Hal Needham, a coastal hazard scientist who runs a private consulting business in Galveston, Texas, notes that it was not until after World War II that populations began to soar in the hurricane-vulnerable states of Texas and Florida. The rise of satellite-based meteorology only came in the 1960s. Before that, hurricanes could still come as a surprise.

Today, lawmakers enjoy better weather forecasts but are now faced the problem of what to do with millions of people who may lie in a storm's path. Wolshon does not agree with all the evacuation decisions made in the face of Harvey and Irma, but he said they were made with an evolving and increasingly sophisticated understanding of the challenges.

In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner and other local officials decided not to call for a mandatory evacuation before the arrival of Harvey, in part because of the nature of the threat to the area. Harvey, by the time it reached Houston, was not expected to bring storm surge or high winds, so much as pounding, extended rains. In this case, it was difficult to know which areas would flood and which would not. So officials decided to encourage people to stay put.

It was a marked difference to the strategy of Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who announced Thursday to 6.5 million people: "Leave now, don't wait."

Needham said that the move was probably the right one. "When Irma was bearing down on Southeast Florida it did appear several days out that we could potentially see Category 5 winds in the metro Miami area," he said. "When you have a massive flood event, if you can you just go up, if you're in a condo or an apartment."

But in whipping, hurricane-force winds, sheltering in place probably would not have been as safe as hitting the road. Evacuation also made sense given the threat of huge storm surges, experts said.

Miami did not end up experiencing extreme winds, although much of South Florida did take a beating. Lives may have been saved due to the dramatic overhaul of South Florida building codes after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. That massive storm damaged or destroyed 125,000 homes in the area, and the new codes have forced developers to build structures that could better withstand hurricane-force winds.

Houston, too, has learned from its tragic past. In July 2001, southeast Texas was hit hard by Tropical Storm Allison, which caused serious flooding. It prompted officials at Houston's Texas Medical Center, billed as the largest medical complex in the world, to undertake a $50 million upgrade program that included installing flood doors and putting generators high enough that they could not be inundated.

Needham said that these changes probably helped keep the death toll down in Texas. "If the power goes out in a hospital with premature babies and elderly people on ventilators, you can really see an increase in the loss of life," he said.

Both Texas and Florida likely benefited from the growth and sophistication of the federal Department of Homeland Security, and the training that even tiny communities have undergone since 9/11.

The storms also unfolded at a time when government disaster response has grown more sophisticated, an evolutionary process that did not necessarily begin with the Sept. 11 attacks: James Witt, the FEMA director under former President Bill Clinton, recalls going to Congress to fund a modern operations center after discovering what passed for one at FEMA headquarters up to that point.

"The operations center was so bad that they had telephone wires hanging out of the ceiling and foldup chairs and tables," he said.

But the federal disaster-response system grew dramatically after 9/11. And while Homeland Security has been criticized for being expensive and bloated, it has also ensured a system in which local, state and federal officials are accustomed to the idea of working and communicating together.

Still, few observers were openly celebrating the government response to the storms in the U.S.: The damage was too vast, not just in Texas and Florida but in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands as well. The response continues, with the rebuilding likely to last years. And everyone knows that Texas and Florida had some good fortune beyond the scope of human influence: The big winds never hit the major urban areas, and in Florida, capricious Irma did not deliver a storm surge as devastating as some had predicted.

"While thankfully the impact on people injured or killed was low, this is largely a factor of luck," said Ahmad Wani, CEO of One Concern, a California-based company that seeks to use new technologies to create "next-generation disaster response" systems.

Serino said that Harvey had introduced another cutting-edge idea: relying on residents, not just government workers, to make significant contributions to hurricane response. "Now we've seen images of neighbors helping neighbors," he said. "They're the real emergency medical workers."

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