Road damage after Hurricane Maria to coastal Route 3 between Humacao and Naguabo in Puerto Rico. (Andrea Booher/FEMA)

Extreme Hurricanes Deliver Powerful Lesson on Mitigation, Readiness, Resiliency

Emergency management officials still dealing with the after-effects of hurricane season’s wrath on Puerto Rico six months after the storms emphasized Friday that resiliency conversations need to be happening from community households to the federal level.

At a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Forum on the challenges posed by extreme hurricanes, Red Cross Vice President of Disaster Operations and Logistics Brad Kieserman underscored the importance of “talking more effectively about the value of mitigation — which, frankly, has not been a sexy topic in emergency management, and yet reasonable readiness and mitigation would have alleviated so much suffering in the last nine months across the country, Puerto Rico to American Samoa.”

Jose Sanchez, deputy director of research and development at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and former director of the Puerto Rico Power Grid Restoration Program, said about 90 percent of the island’s power has been restored since Hurricane Maria’s brutal September wallop.

Sanchez said the disaster has shown the importance of expectation management and communication – “make sure that people understand regularly, constantly what’s going on, facts-based.”

Some of the challenges in helping Puerto Rico recover, he said, have included the island’s complex topography, depletion of materials and inventory due to multiple hurricanes as well as wildfires in California and the earthquake in Mexico that meant manufacturers could not keep up with the demand, politics surrounding fiscal constraint on the island, and the condition of infrastructure before the hurricane. “The power was never reliable; there’s always been issues in that system,” said Sanchez.

And whereas states usually bear the initial disaster response burden and call on the federal government for help, the feds were needed as a first step in Puerto Rico, he added.

Former FEMA Deputy Administrator Richard Serino noted that “during a disaster the people affected in a community are also the responders.”

“We have to bring together the whole of community,” he said, including federal, state, local and tribal governments, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, businesses, and households to share in the responsibility of disaster prep and management, “as well bring in new technologies that can help us prepare and save lives.”

“It doesn’t always have to be the federal government,” Serino said. “…It’s time to change the paradigm of how do we respond to this disaster” and “develop that culture of preparedness all throughout that community down to the individual level.”

A first step is “understanding where you are geographically and what you need to be prepared” as one “builds to have a resilient country.” And when crisis does strike, Serino noted, it’s “an opportunity to rebuild better than you were before.”

One example is the net benefit, he argued, from making permanent repairs to people’s homes versus relying on manufactured housing to shelter the displaced.

“Building resiliency is not just rebuilding to what was; it’s rebuilding better,” Serino said.

Kellie Bentz, head of global disaster response and relief for Airbnb, talked about her company’s programs to activate available housing with waived fees in a disaster-struck region like Puerto Rico, as well as helping disseminate disaster information to the public and helping promote a devastated region as it gets back on its feet.

Kieserman was asked if he was surprised by the past year’s onslaught of crises, and he quickly replied that he was not.

“The fact that I don’t think that we should be surprised by it is not a criticism of readiness or anything else; it’s more of a global issue that we’re seeing this unending, relentless pace of natural disasters,” the Red Cross official elaborated.

Kieserman boiled it down to three “A”s: first, “we’re seeing a far more aggressive disaster risk than we’re seen in previous years.”

Studying the data, he said, reveals the spate of crises “looks like it started about 2015” and “we’re seeing more frequency, more intensity.”

“It’s not just natural disasters, either; we’re seeing more and more human-caused disasters,” he added, noting October’s Las Vegas mass shooting as an example.

On the natural disaster front, mudslides and nor’easters have joined the hurricanes and wildfires, and last month Cyclone Gita in American Samoa left more than 15 percent of homes destroyed.

“I think the fact that there’s a more aggressive pattern here, I think the evidence presents that,” Kieserman said.

The next “A” is “aging,” and Puerto Rico’s dilapidated infrastructure “is not the only example.” He noted the tainted water in Flint, Mich., “far from the only place in the country that has aging water infrastructure leading to water concerns.”

A year ago, residents around the Oroville Dam in California were hastily evacuated when it was at imminent risk of collapse due to the failure of a spillway during inundating rainfall.

As infrastructure ages, “that creates risk” in an “intersection between natural risk and aging infrastructure,” Kieserman said.

The third “A” is “asymmetric expectation,”  like when social media drives “very, very intense demands for service that, quite frankly, they’re not reasonable.”

“Catastrophes destroy the very resources you need to response to them. That’s what happened in Puerto Rico. That’s what happened in Harvey,” Kieserman noted. He stressed the importance of private and government entities being informed, planning ahead, and taking action to be ready for what’s coming.

“Focus on what your high-consequence, high-probability risk is,” he said. “If I live in Texas, I need to be ready for floods. If I live in Florida, I need to be ready for hurricanes.”

While FEMA currently is responding to more than 20 active open disasters and the Red Cross has 25 open disasters — with scant, if any, media coverage — “people do need to take action,” Kieserman said. “If the media is not covering it, it doesn’t mean it’s not happening.” And if volunteer organizations “don’t have the resources when disaster strikes, you’re behind to begin with.”

On the importance of resilience conversations, the Red Cross official said his fear “is that they’re not happening fast enough — the pace of natural disasters is moving faster than our acceptance of the fact that we need to build back better.”

“Even though we’re seeing an extreme increase in natural hazards, we’re not necessarily seeing a commensurate increase in public infrastructure damage or home damage where there were levies that were built in areas that were flood zones, where there was mitigation that the Corps took,” said Kieserman.

Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a weekly columnist for the New York Observer and a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and Washington Bureau Chief for PJ Media. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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