I spoke with my sister and my parents yesterday. My sister and her family live in southwestern Florida (Ft. Myers), along the predicted path for Hurricane Irma. My parents live an hour east of them, maybe 10 miles from the Atlantic in Boynton Beach. Note the word “Beach.” Neither is currently in a mandatory evacuation zone so they’ve been told to stay in their houses and, literally, batten down the hatches. Authorities ask them NOT to migrate away and clog vital freeways. All of them have been through hurricanes before and came through relatively unscathed.
But this time they’re worried. They’ve done everything they should do to prepare but they’re still worried. As my sister put it yesterday, they have “36 hours to wait.” I literally cannot imagine what that wait must be like. And it makes me worried, of course. Just like everyone with friends and family in Florida is. Just like everyone with friends and family in Texas was last week.
While waiting, I can’t help but think about how natural tragedies bring out the best in people but that it’s often short lived. And how hypocrisy and short-sightedness seem to coexist with love in the hearts of men.
My parents are in their mid 70’s. My mom said that neighbors helped them put up the storm shutters over their windows because the relatives that helped them last time had died of old age. Their front door is made of ornate glass, very common in their complex and very vulnerable. A young man walked the neighborhood and put some kind of barriers up in front of such doors. By the time my dad came out to pay him, he had already left and moved on to the next house.
Immediately after Hurricane Harvey, Congress passed an $8 billion relief package after some welcome action from President Trump. Sadly, $8 billion will barely make a scratch at the recover but it’s a start and was done quickly without too much political bickering. In contrast, relief for Hurricane Sandy was met with political fighting that stalled the aid and materially hurt people. Ironically, many of the politicians who opposed aid for Sandy saying that it was “filled with unrelated pork” are in Texas and now are strongly advocating for massive federal dollars — as they should. The “pork” comment, by the way, was widely debunked. Maybe we’ve learned something since Sandy. Or maybe not.
For those in affected areas of Texas and Florida, the next months and years will be hard. I don’t live there so can’t quite grasp it. Thankfully. But I do want to offer some thoughts on what to do to lessen the odds of similar events happening in the future and I invite everyone to add their thoughts and ideas. We have to prevent future tragedies from happening, not just pray afterwards for those hurt. Our pets can sympathize with us when we’re hurt but only humans can take proactive steps to prevent them from happening again. Time to stand upright and be human.
First, when tragedies happen, respond immediately with assistance. That means being prepared to do so. There is much to this but making sure that FEMA is well funded and well managed is a start. This is the easy part. The next parts are harder.
Flood insurance needs to be about recovery and prevention, not about politics. In 1968, the federal government set up a program to help people whose houses were damaged or destroyed by flooding. The 1960’s were the height of new social programs in many ways. Since that time, Congress has not properly funded the program, has not been actuarially efficient, and has not taken the obvious steps to run it soundly. For example, in 2012, Congress took action to raise premiums for those in dangerous areas. It made sense but was not popular so Congress rescinded the changes in 2014. Not only that, an astonishing $5.5 billion has been spent rebuilding and rebuilding and rebuilding the same 30,000 homes — sometimes five times per home in just a two or three year period! That’s insane. While I feel for those home owners, I don’t want to subsidize their stupidity with my tax dollars. When you build in an area that is prone to flooding, you shouldn’t get five tries to figure it out. Live somewhere else.
Building codes and land use ordinances need to take the long view, not favor quick profits for builders. After 1992’s Hurricane Andrew devastated Florida, Florida wisely enacted much more stringent rules to ensure that new construction withstand high winds and flooding. Florida has seen many hurricanes and floods since and has come through them well. But memories are fleeting and Wall Street is unforgiving about quarterly profits so Florida just started to relax these regulations. I don’t know the specifics and am not an expert but with some vested interest in Florida, it doesn’t make me happy.
While Florida seemed to have generally learned from their mistakes, I’m having trouble finding anyone saying that Houston has. Rather the opposite. Again, I don’t live there and could easily be wrong but there are lots and lots of stories, many predating Hurricane Harvey by months or years, that predicted just such a disaster given the local ordinances. The one I just cited was from the Texas Tribune, a non-partisan, nonprofit news organization, not a bastion of spotted-owl tree huggers that hate development. Apparently wetlands are supposed to be wet and pavement doesn’t drain well.
And why must oil refineries be put at the most vulnerable locations possible? Places like Seattle have great ports with no risk of hurricanes. For the record, some say that the refineries are in exactly the right place. The problem with that story is that the logic is circular. It says that the refineries are there because the oil industry is there. Duh. Maybe the oil industry should be somewhere safer? I’m sure lots of states would love a chance to offer a new and safer home to the industry. By putting them along the Gulf coast, tax payers and gasoline buyers get to subsidize and bail out the oil industry when predictable disaster strikes.
Science is good; it’s not fake news. There I said it. For the last hundred years, science has propelled this country forward with innovation and genius that has made the world jealous. It has been a key reason for the strength of American industry and the ascendence of America in general. But now it’s under attack from politicians who call it fake and ignore or even bury its sound conclusions. Yes, human activities have dramatically affected our climate and the effects will get exponentially worse as the ocean’s ability to absorb our carbon dioxide dwindles. That means temperature increases, sea levels rising, and more flooding. Dead people, billions of dollars of damage. Don’t take my word for this; as some politicians like to say, I’m not a scientist. But do take the word of the 97% of environmental scientists who have spent their lives studying it. Oh, it’s these same people who give us the exceptional storm prediction algorithms that have and will save thousands of lives during hurricanes. The same people. No one has been questioning their conclusions about the storms yet some politicians question their conclusions about climate change. While climate change didn’t cause the recent storms, the increased ocean temperature has made them worse.
I don’t claim to have the answers (well maybe a few) but a lot of good people are thinking about preventing the next disaster. That’s great. We need it.
If you have thoughts on how to prevent or mitigate these kinds of disasters, please share below and, more importantly, with your elected representatives.
In the meantime, about 15 hours until Irma hits Florida. My love, hope, and prayers are with them and I’m sure yours are as well.