There are many lessons to learn from Harvey. I'll be discussing in a series of posts current disaster policies in the U.S., what it means to build resilient communities and the impact of disasters on environmental justice populations.
The American West is on fire. Tens of thousands of acres of forested and residential land is engulfed in flames in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. The blazes of these fires have destroyed numerous structures and continue to threaten homes, buildings and the air quality of residents.
In addition to the damage from Hurricane Harvey in Texas, we’re also watching cleanup efforts in Florida, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Caribbean caused by Hurricane Irma.
Now, we’re praying for Puerto Rico and Dominica because of Hurricane Maria.
And as is often the case, there are regions of the country that have not received news coverage. Last month, counties in Michigan and West Virginia were declared federal disaster areas by President Trump due to severe flooding, landslides and mudslides.
What we’re seeing is not normal. These are no longer naturally occurring disasters. The wildfire seasons are growing longer and we’re continuously experiencing record-breaking rainfall. Entire communities haven’t even had a chance to catch their breath before the next storm rolls through. How are citizens and local officials supposed to handle this year after year?
While Congress was arguing over how they would vote on an aid package for Harvey, three more hurricanes were on their way. President Trump praised the federal government’s emergency response in Texas, completely ignoring the policies he dismantled that are needed to help with recovery and mitigation.
We cannot forget there are four stages to emergency management:
The United States places the emphasis of disaster recovery on FEMA and national insurance schemes, instead of prevention. Year after year, cities continue to rebuild in the same way and in an unsustainable manner, forgetting the last storm that happened. And we expect residents to make those decisions on how to rebuild, instead of local and state governments investing in building resilient cities. Cities across the U.S. aren’t even preparing the same way for extreme weather events. It's as if we don't realize these disasters happen annually.
Currently, residents who don’t have insurance in federally declared disaster areas can apply for FEMA’s Disaster Assistance or a low interest loan through the Small Business Administration. These applications require having a current mailing address, insurance information, statements to show total household income, banking information, and a working telephone number; not the easiest items to pull together if your home has been demolished.
But this is only the first step in a long road to recovery. When roads are cleared and businesses reopen, residents are still expected to show up for work, take their kids to school, and take care of relatives, even if they don’t have electricity, food or running water. People with no place to live are still expected to pay rent and make mortgage payments, and file inordinate amounts of paperwork to ask for lenience. There’s a sense of urgency to return to normalcy even though normalcy involves pollution, poor public health, inequitable housing and hazardous risks for vulnerable populations.
The gap in income equality widens as under-resourced communities struggle to move forward with basic necessities, and our nation’s political leaders ignore the needs of constituents on the ground.
The management of resources after a storm is directed by federal agencies, and may not reflect the needs of local residents. In fact, coordinators on the ground may be excluded from the conversation altogether. Even though Congress created a mandate to establish the National Disaster Recovery Framework after Hurricane Katrina, most of the attention remains on post-disaster funding and not pre-event investments. And there’s still a lot of debate amongst city officials when they receive federal grants because they don’t have an adequate recovery plan.
Disaster recovery is a complex process that encompasses restoring and rebuilding the physical, economic, social and natural environment through planning and action. Not only is it shaped by what happens after an event, it’s also shaped by the investment, policies and capacity building that takes place before an event happens. The U.S. continues to be unprepared because there’s no national plan, or coordinated funding, to guide cities on addressing these risks. In the end, we’re left with disproportionate outcomes for different communities.
Elected officials must assess what recovery means for Americans, especially our vulnerable populations, during an era of climate change. Our governments need to invest in capacity building and planning, and improve the distribution of funding before and after events. We cannot continue to keep rebuilding the same way. The financial and emotional burden of those impacted by the disasters cannot continue to be overlooked.
Environmental advocate. Communications professional. Sports fan. I love television and press conferences.