Contrary to what President Trump says, we are not ready for disasters ahead. But emergency managers across the country are trying to drill us with a new rule: You should prepare for the worst — always. And then plan for the recovery to be even worse than that.
Maybe you’ll get lucky, but that hasn’t panned out in the past few years. It is shocking how many disasters the Federal Emergency Management Agency still considers open cases. Just look at Houston, where some residents still need assistance two years after Hurricane Harvey pummeled the city. In Florida, some areas are still in recovery after Irma hit in 2017. In fact, the storms of 2017 were so destructive, the names Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate have been retired.
Given the devastation of these storms, emergency managers are urging people to take these threats seriously. During my time at FEMA, we regularly advised people to stock up on enough food and supplies for 72 hours after landfall. Now, authorities are urging residents to have enough to last a week. Meteorologists are also quick to say that forecasting models can be unreliable and that viewers should be prepared regardless of the storm’s strength because severe storm surge can lead to a slower recovery. A core part of our message at FEMA was, and still is, that the agency’s role is not to replace everything that people lost. Instead, people should take an active role in preparing for the worst.
Emergency managers are sounding this alarm for several reasons. The first is climate change. Weather patterns are simply more unpredictable. In 2017, three of the top five costliest hurricanes on record hit. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated that the cumulative damages from weather and climate-related disasters in the United States totaled more than $300 billion in 2017.
We’ve also seen more 100-year floods, a term used to indicate that a flood of that magnitude has a 1% chance of happening in any year — which just goes to show that probability models aren’t keeping up with reality. Hurricanes are getting more intense and our preparedness efforts are not keeping up.
The second reason is that the population density along the Gulf and East Coast — areas prone to hurricanes — has increased since 1980. Meanwhile, income inequality is growing more pronounced, which can exacerbate recovery efforts. Hurricanes now affect more people living along the coast, many of whom cannot afford a ticket or gas to get out of town. So, even if a storm is not particularly strong, the damage can be extensive and recovery slow. Hurricane Sandy in 2012, for example, was only an “extratropical storm” when it made landfall, but it hit major cities along the northeast and became the fourth most expensive storm in the country since 1980.
Finally, the system is broken. FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security have no confirmed leadership. Instead of increasing money to prepare better for these disasters, money is being reduced and diverted to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. People who are undocumented are often afraid to ask for help for fear of deportation. This is hardly a recipe for successful survival and recovery, and the White House does not seem to prioritize those who are vulnerable to these dangerous storms.
Let’s take Puerto Rico. When Hurricane Maria was barreling down, all systems developed by emergency managers showed they were prepared. But the storm — and more importantly its aftermath — was worse than anyone predicted. The death toll is estimated at nearly 3,000, and recovery will be underway for years to come. Countless mistakes were made and certainly improvements are in order, but that’s no consolation to people in Florida today.
That’s the new reality. The smartest thing to do is to prepare for the worst.
Regardless of what President Trump is telling you, heed the advice of real experts. Emergency managers will always say “we are never as ready as we should be” because you can’t foresee everything. But the Trump Administration has not prioritized disaster preparedness, and despite the efforts of professional emergency managers, we have plenty of work cut out for us in the years ahead.
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