Lessons past hurricanes have taught us about how to respond

Weather

FORT MYERS, FLORIDA – SEPTEMBER 30: Members of the Texas A&M Task Force 1 Search and Rescue team look for anyone needing help after Hurricane Ian passed through the area on September 30, 2022 in Fort Myers, Florida. The hurricane brought high winds, storm surges and rain to the area causing severe damage. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

(NewsNation) — In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian in Florida and the southeast, state, local and federal officials are scrambling to respond.

Historically, hurricanes have been among the most catastrophic events for coastal communities. The 1900 hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas, for instance, was one of the deadliest natural disasters in American history — due in part to poor policy choices by government officials. In this century, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans spurred national outrage at the incompetence of the government response.

Over the years, public officials and disaster relief specialists have learned from these catastrophes to better prepare for future hurricanes. Here’s some of what they emphasize:

Improve building codes

One way governments have responded to hurricanes is by changing the standards for building structures, requiring them to be more resilient.

Alice Hill, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who previously worked at the National Security Council, has spent years studying natural disasters and government responses to them.

She pointed to 2017’s Hurricane Harvey as helping spur reforms to how Houston tackled hurricanes.

“Houston, which has notoriously allowed a lot of building … essentially without a building code, put in place building codes saying we have to build higher now going forward,” she said.

Hurricane Andrew in 1992 helped spur Florida to change its own building codes, making structures more resilient against hurricanes.

“Bottom line: it’s possible that buildings in the current storm may perform better than they did during Andrew in 1992,” said Tom Birkland, a professor of public policy at North Carolina State University who has studied disaster response.

Earlier this year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency launched an initiative aimed at pushing for stronger building codes across the country.

Better TECHNOLOGY AND communication

One of the perpetual issues in responding to hurricanes is alerting people in harm’s way about the dangers of the storm.

Improvements in technology have made it easier to predict the path of a hurricane.

“If you look at the history of storm forecasting and track prediction of hurricanes over the last two or three decades, our forecasts are much more accurate,” Birkland said. “So we’re able to provide people with information they can use on when to evacuate … If you look at the long-term history of fatalities and injuries from these sort of storms, the trend generally is downward.”

“If you think about 15 years ago it might’ve been the radio you would’ve heard [alerts] but you wouldn’t have it right at your fingertips. So that’s a leap forward,” Hill said.

But persuading people to leave can also be a challenge.

Hill noted that people often have an “optimism bias” that leads them to believe they’ll be OK even if they don’t leave.

“We may think, ‘Hey I’ve been through three hurricanes in the last two decades … I won’t be troubled by them … I’ll just stay even though they’re telling me to evacuate,” she said.

She suggested one of the ways officials can communicate more effectively is by eschewing what she called “bureaucratese” and using more plainspoken language.

“There have been efforts to make it much plainer speak. I think you’ve seen some of that in this Hurricane Ian … I’ve seen some emergency managers say, ‘It’s time to get out. Don’t wait.'” she said.

PLAN FOR THE FUTURE

It can be easy to think about natural disasters as rare events that have to be responded to instead of prepared for. But specialists who’ve studied disaster response emphasize the importance of perpetual planning.

“I think the big takeaway from the last two decades or more is … the need for long-term planning ahead of disaster. And certainly, there’s been a lot of work to make headway there and a lot of communities [are] doing that,” said Daniel Teles, a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute.

There have been “improvements over evacuation plans, long-term investments in infrastructure that are more resilient in the face of disasters, and the idea of having something like a recovery coordinator after a disaster or a resiliency officer full time, and somebody in city or county government whose job it sort of is to be thinking about this, if not a full office,” Teles said.

Jacksonville, Florida, for instance, brought on a chief resiliency officer last year. One of her early tasks has been preparing the city for flooding and urban heat.

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