Devastating storms are the new normal — we need to be ready

Devastating storms are the new normal — we need to be ready
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Mother Nature is trying to teach us a lesson — it’s time we learned it. 

Last week, we witnessed the heartbreaking devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey. Simultaneously, we were inspired by the bravery and selflessness of first responders and Houston residents who came to the aid of those in need.

Today parts of the country are starting the long recovery to the damage caused by Irma.

While it is painful to know that people have suffered such profound loss, as a nation we could take inspiration from how the country stood with Houston by either working directly on rescue efforts or by contributing food, clothes and money to try to support the storm’s victims.  The early response to Irma indicates that an equal level of generosity is being shared with victims of this latest storm.

Through our response, human nature rose above what Mother Nature threw at us. 

But as proud as we should be about our response, we should not ignore the storms’ message. In storms like Harvey and Irma, Mother Nature has some lessons for us, and, for the sake of public safety, we need to learn them.  

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First, when it comes to massive natural disasters, this is the new normal. After Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy — now Harvey and Irma — raging wildfires in the West, and other large scale natural catastrophes, we need to appreciate that when it comes to these types of events, it is no longer a question of if they will happen, but a question of when. 

 

It is also more and more likely that the impacts of storms like Harvey and Irma will be increasingly severe. We have never had as large a population as we have now. We have never lived in such densely populated areas as we do now. We have never had as many residential communities in vulnerable locations as we do now, and our national economy has never been as interdependent on our major cities for our collective well being. Taken together all of these factors add up to more damaging storms, fires and floods. 

Second, this new normal demands a new approach. Specifically, we need an approach that emphasizes foresight, not hindsight. We need to move away from solely evaluating our response to these disasters after they happen to also evaluating our preparation for them before they have the chance to cause widespread devastation. 

We can start by asking the tough questions about what took place in Houston: how could the fourth largest city in America be flooded with trillions of gallons of water without sufficient flood protection? How could truckloads of needed food and supplies destined for Houston be unable to gain access to the city during the emergency? If a city as large as Houston cannot be evacuated with more than 24 hours notice, why weren’t there greater flood control measures in place for the vulnerable people who clearly lived in floodplains? How could we allow this one event to cause disruptions to our national oil and gas supply? And how could we allow an industrial plant with known hazardous material face potential explosions due to flooding? 

By analyzing the answers to these and other similar questions, it should start to be obvious that with appropriate planning and consistent infrastructure investment, the damages could have been minimized before the hurricane hit our shore.

Investment in infrastructure is expensive, and it is most effective when the investment is sustained over time, but it can and must be done. And we have examples of good planning and investment. London invests in the Thames Barrier, one of the world’s largest movable flood prevention barriers. Japan invests in an early earthquake warning system, providing residents advanced noticed of earthquakes so they can protect themselves.

Closer to home, the City of Los Angeles is another prominent example. Working with earthquake experts, private engineers and the business community, city leaders developed a strong earthquake plan to retrofit LA’s concrete building structures and minimize the damage they could cause in a large earthquake. 

Minimizing the impact of catastrophic disasters, however, is not a problem that can be effectively solved by any one city. This is a national problem requiring national attention, leadership and, above all, investment. 

If we want to avoid another disaster on the scale of what we have just witnessed in Houston, we must be as strongly committed to preparation as we are to recovery and relief efforts. That’s Harvey’s final lesson. It’s time to heed it. 

Eileen M. Decker is the former United States attorney for the Central District of California, and the former deputy mayor for Homeland Security & Public Safety for the City of Los Angeles (for both Mayor’s Villaraigosa and Garcetti). As deputy mayor she was responsible for the city’s response to and preparation for emergencies, including developing the City's earthquake plan. As United States attorney, she led the federal response to the San Bernardino terrorist attack.