Bottom Line Up Front:
- Hurricane Florence is expected to make landfall along the North Carolina coast late in the day local time on September 13, with potentially catastrophic results.
- There are serious concerns about freshwater flooding inland, as the storm is expected to dump historic amounts of rain on already vulnerable areas.
- These storms test the resiliency of communities, first responders and governments, from local municipalities to the federal government.
- At every level, the U.S. needs to be better prepared and more resilient amid regularly occurring natural disasters that are no longer ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ events, but are instead occurring with greater frequency.
How governments respond to natural disasters is among the most tangible ways in which people assess the competence of their elected leadership. A clumsy response can increase suffering, while also eroding community resiliency, which has a direct correlation to the more difficult to measure, but still crucial, trust between the government and those it represents. This holds true at every level of government, from the local to the national and beyond. Government stability can ebb and flow depending on how state institutions and their partners prepare for, and respond to natural disasters. In the southeastern United States, government at multiple echelons will be tested again with the landfall of Hurricane Florence.
Each year, far more people are impacted by natural disasters in the U.S. than by terrorism, yet the funding priority and allocation of resources is dramatically skewed toward the latter in terms of defense and homeland security budgets. This imbalance—between funding badly needed infrastructure projects and improvements or next generation military aircraft—has existed for decades, but the consequences of deliberate underfunding of what is truly national security are now manifesting cumulatively, leading to devastating cascading effects.
With accelerated climate change—and more people living within urban areas dotted along coastlines—the ‘once in a lifetime’ events that stress communities and governments are likely to happen every few years. The consequences of this shift are difficult to overstate in terms of the need to increase preparation and mitigation measures for well-known hazards and threats—like flooding in low-lying areas such as New Orleans, LA and Houston, TX, with the latter still struggling to recover from Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Effective responses by federal agencies are crucial, yet planning to mitigate what are imminent challenges will have a greater positive impact over the long term.
How governments respond to disasters includes preparation, implementation and execution, but also a comprehensive analysis of lessons learned and best practices from previous responses. The federal government’s response in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in October 2017 was lacking, according to many, yet the president continues to portray recovery efforts as ‘an unappreciated great job’ and ‘an incredible, unsung success.’ Puerto Rico’s Mayor disagrees. The President’s assessment comes, even as the official death toll from the hurricane and aftermath was raised from an always-implausible 64 people to 2,975 lives lost. That death toll rivals the September 11, 2001 attacks in terms of numbers, yet the issue generates nowhere near a fraction of the focus on preparing for ‘the next storm,’ juxtaposed with the corresponding level of planning and resources that would be devoted to countering and responding to ‘the next attack.’ Such a disconnect between rhetoric and reality is more than a public relations issue since disaster preparation and mitigation efforts, coupled with response and recovery initiatives, are among the most indelible ways in which the government touches the lives of people.
Potemkin village assessments of actual and ongoing disasters are expedient ways for politicians to demonstrate they are ‘doing something,’ but more concretely, it is nearly impossible to quantify the devastation wrought by natural disasters on an already crumbling infrastructure.
The impact is measured in generations, with most people, towns, and cities never fully ‘recovering’ from a natural disaster in which loved ones, homes, businesses and communities were destroyed.