June 4, 2018

This Hurricane Season, Embrace Community Responses

Stefanie Haeffele

Deputy Director, Academic and Student Programs

Anne Hobson

Program Manager, Academic & Student Programs

With hurricane season officially starting on June 1, it's worth remembering that last year's destruction once again proved how vulnerable we are. Forecasters are predicting an above average season: seven hurricanes and three major storms of Category 3 or higher. Before we batten down the proverbial hatches, we should also remember how valuable community disaster resilience has been -- and make sure we allow for more of it in the future.

Disaster resilience is a community's capacity to adapt and recover after an adverse event. It requires agility and flexibility on the part of governments, community leaders, and individuals. Critically, it also requires leaders on the ground driving the recovery process.

This can come from different places. During Hurricane Harvey last year, local mattress store owner Jim McIngvale opened up his business to neighbors in need of shelter and sent his trucks into flooded areas to assist in rescues. Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard and the local Harris County Sheriff's Office successfully coordinated to rescue thousands of residents.

However, this type of community resilience doesn't always mesh well with our centralized approach to disaster relief. Flexibility, agility and communication suffer when federal agencies are structured as top-down hierarchies of authority, complete with hard-and-fast rules and procedures.

During Hurricane Katrina in 2006, a lack of flexibility at all levels of government resulted in inadequate warnings, failed evacuations and delays in getting key resources to survivors. Communication failures paralyzed command centers, an example of what economist Gordon Tullock calls "whispering down the lane" -- wherein a message is transformed or lost in translation as it flows up and down the hierarchy of command. The children's game of telephone can happen even in the direst of circumstances.

While we rightly focus on rebuilding physical infrastructure, governments often ignore the importance of "social infrastructure" -- particularly community organizations and local leaders. In fact, a bipartisan committee formed to investigate the response to Hurricane Katrina found that government not only failed to react adequately, it actively undermined leadership efforts by individuals and community organizations on the ground. Take Doris Voitier, the superintendent of St. Bernard Public School District, who faced an investigation into the misuse of federal property for attempting to use two FEMA trailers as overflow classrooms.

Thankfully, this failed approach is changing. In 2011, community resilience became a national goal under Presidential Policy Directive 8. The Federal Emergency Management Agency introduced the "Whole Community Approach," which emphasizes engaging with a broad range of community organizations to manage disaster risk. The Department of Housing and Urban Development also urges communities to consider social infrastructure and the way it interacts with economic and physical systems.

It's a step in the right direction. Yet it is one thing to use the right language and another to change the actual policies that underpin federal disaster response. Even after the hard lessons of Katrina, response and recovery have been fraught with challenges, including attempts to restrain local-led efforts. In the aftermath of flooding in 2016, proposed statewide legislation threatened to subject the "Cajun Navy" -- a group of Louisiana volunteers who voluntarily mobilize their own boats for rescue operations -- to formal CPR or boating safety certifications.

It is important to shift some authority away from rule-bound federal agencies to local communities and residents. The resilience approach requires supporting diverse, on-the-ground efforts that emerge from disaster conditions.

Hurricanes Maria, Irma and Harvey accounted for a majority of the $309.5 billion in damages from weather-related events last year. If the United States encounters another trio of deadly hurricanes in 2018, communities will need to be ready. Disaster response and adaptive resilience require a mix of planning and spontaneity. During the calm before the storm, let's carve out a space for community leaders.