November 27, 2017

Preparing for the Storm: Lessons Learned from a Year of Natural Disasters

House damaged from Hurricane Irma
House destroyed by Hurricane Irma

For those of us watching from afar as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, and most recently Maria tore through both urban and tropical landscapes, turning them into debris-filled rivers infested with balls of angry fire ants, social media quickly put a familiar face to the nightmare unfolding on our TV screens. In the age of Facebook status updates and live Instagram stories, the sight of a friend kayaking through the streets of Houston or a relative attempting to seek refuge amidst Miami’s cancelled flights and clogged roads was inescapable. Such personal accounts and raw images from loved ones make us realize just how close to home these disasters truly hit.

A few of us at Harvard Kennedy School learned about some of these scenes firsthand from Longwood, Florida, Mayor Joe Durso, an alumnus of the Emerging Leaders Executive Education Program at the Kennedy School and a current Mid-Career student graduating in May 2018. For Mayor Durso, Hurricane Irma meant a sudden extended trip home to Florida to provide emergency support to his 16,000 residents. While Mayor Durso describes scenes of chaos in Longwood, he attributes an overall successful emergency relief operation to great cooperation between local and state government. On top of Longwood’s permanent emergency management plan, the city also set up its own emergency management center before high winds hit the city. Public safety apparatus was in place, police and fire stations were staffed accordingly, and the city managed the state’s second largest sandbag delivery system.

Mayor Durso credits the Emergency Management team, started under former Governor Jeb Bush and Craig Fugate, administrator of Florida’s Emergency Management Agency, for the state’s effective emergency platform for hurricanes. This platform includes services such as FEMA’s Disaster Survivor Assistance Team, which canvassed impacted areas of Seminole County, where Longwood is located, to assist residents with FEMA Individual Assistance registration and information, and Operation Blue Roof, which provides temporary covering of blue plastic sheeting to help reduce further damage to property until permanent repairs can be made. Mayor Durso believes that thanks to the agency and other reforms, such as ensuring adequate public safety apparatus and police and fire staffing in emergency situations, Florida is better prepared than any other state for these kinds of natural disasters.

Mayor Durso emphasized the state’s ability to communicate the severity of the storm to Longwood residents through outlets such as local and state websites, media, and emails to locals as the key to the city’s success in evacuating people in time, boarding up homes, clearing yards, and ultimately riding out the storm with zero casualties. He noted the importance of basic pre-storm preparation, as during the peak of a hurricane, “a lawn chair can become a missile.” Mayor Durso also praised Governor Scott’s effective collaboration with gas companies, which ensured enough supply before and after the storm. In addition to preempting localities’ demand for gas across Florida, state authorities suspended tolls to allow for residents to evacuate more quickly and efficiently.

While the emergency plan was an overall success, Mayor Durso also noted lessons learned, such as shortages caused by supply chain issues. For example, while supermarkets could anticipate that consumers would need to stock up on water, buy a generator, and need other essential supplies, stores ran out of these items and did not replenish them quickly enough.

Even for cities like Longwood, life does not go back to business as usual overnight. Even once power is restored, stores restocked, roads reopened, and homes and surrounding communities repaired, full recovery can take months. New York City’s Open Data website shows the city received tens of thousands of calls even two months after Hurricane Sandy. The website reports calls related to the aftermath of the 2013 hurricane as recently as August of this year.

Although drastic storms such as Sandy or Harvey remain infrequent, they may be getting more powerful and threatening. Climate scientists are hesitant to attribute recent hurricanes to global warming, but in the case of Harvey, some speculate that warmer air is causing faster evaporation and that rising sea temperatures may have exacerbated the strength of the storm. At the time of the storm, sea-surface waters in the Gulf of Mexico were 2.7–7.2 degrees Fahrenheit above average

With the intensity and frequency of hurricanes unlikely to wane, what can local and state governments do to maximize public safety and mitigate the damaging effects of flooding and high winds? Behavioral economics offers some insight. People are not very good at predicting the probability of an event like a hurricane, and are more likely to purchase necessities like flood insurance after a storm than before. They are also more likely to stop purchasing insurance if a storm does not hit for several years, even though the probability of a storm does not change over time, according to this article (pdf) analyzing flood insurance take-up in the United States.

People assess risk differently depending on how long ago a flood occurred. In Figure 2 of the same article, we can see that right after a flood, there is a spike in the number of new insurance policies purchased. However, this behavior pattern changes over time. By the ninth year after a flood occurs, people are no longer influenced by the prior flood in their decision to purchase insurance.

There are simple steps governments can take to encourage residents, particularly those in higher-risk areas, to prepare ahead of a hurricane. Local and state governments can use opportune moments, such as the current media attention around hurricanes, to stress the importance of purchasing flood insurance. Showing footage from drastic recovery efforts periodically can maximize the chance that residents will place more value on purchasing the insurance to protect themselves from the aftermath of strong storms. Local and state governments can also encourage businesses to be prepared for such events. For example, creating a cash incentive for supermarkets to meet emergency preparedness benchmarks by carrying extra supplies of water, generators, and flashlights could alleviate the stresses of supply shortages and minimize moments that exacerbate chaos in times of emergency.

Meanwhile, cities like Longwood can commend themselves on their resourcefulness in the face of dire circumstances. Mayor Durso highlighted one of Longwood’s few silver linings gained from the storm’s ravaging winds and subsequent power outages: a baby safely delivered by the city’s firefighters during the peak hours of the hurricane. Rumor has it her parents are contemplating a rather fitting name to commemorate the occasion—Irma.

The views expressed in the Government Innovators Network blog are those of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, or of Harvard University.

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