Have we learned our lesson from Hurricane Harvey?

Have we learned our lesson from Hurricane Harvey?
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Hurricane Harvey hit Texas at approximately 10 p.m. local time on Friday, August 25, between Port Aransas and Port O'Connor. The Category 4 storm degraded to a Category 1 by late Saturday morning, packing winds of 75 mph before Harvey stalled generally on the greater Houston area midday Saturday. By Sunday, it was downgraded to a tropical storm.

The United States has been hit by six billion-dollars storms since Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Those hurricanes and their total estimated damage estimated by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Centers for Environmental Information are:

  • Hurricane Katrina with $165 billion in damages
  • Hurricane Harvey with $127.5 billion in damages
  • Hurricane Maria with $91.8 billion in damages
  • Tropical Storm Sandy with $72.2 billion in damages
  • Hurricane Irma with $51 billion in damages
  • Hurricane Rita with $24.4 billion in damages

In the response phase, FEMA provided more than 6 million meals, more than 1 million gallons of bottled water, more than 18,000 tarps for affected homes and businesses. They opened more than 294 shelters with a peak capacity of more than 42,000 individuals.

The recovery phase was similarly massive, effective and costly.

In the recovery phase, FEMA spent $1.2 billion on housing assistance, provided more than 1,000 travel trailers, 1,500 mobile housing units. The Small Business Administration provided almost 40,000 home loans totaling $2.94 billion. Likewise, the SBA provided 3,877 business loans totaling $445 billion. FEMA also provided $930,000 in community disaster loans. 

Damages and government spending have become the yardstick for measuring the “size” or “intensity” of a hurricane. But what too many people fail to recognize is the human toll behind those figures.

How do we measure the human toll? 

We measure the human toll of any disaster by looking at lives lost, businesses destroyed, lives uprooted, neighborhoods destroyed, or property destroyed.

We simply cannot quantify the effects of Hurricane Harvey without understanding the anecdotal stories of survival, resilience, recovery, and attitude. And for those measurements, we oftentimes draw an incorrect causal link between one anecdotal story and quantification of results.

What do I mean?

We receive anecdotal stories more often than not from the media — social media, television networks, radio programs, newspaper reports, online news sites. Those anecdotal stories are intriguing, heart breaking, up-lifting, depressing, and oftentimes, singular.

They are the stories of an individual, a business owner, a first responder, a government official, or, ironically, from a reporter emotionally affected by the physical surroundings and human suffering they are witnessing. 

My perspective of Hurricane Harvey at the one-year anniversary is simple. It is based on conversations with government officials, local residents, reporters and others both at the time the storm was wreaking havoc, and since it made landfall.

The one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey is encouraging, and disheartening.

I am encouraged because I have heard and read of stories of neighbors helping neighbors. There are the stories of people still struggling, but still finding compassion and help from others. Locally there are stories of businesses that made decisions to help their community through acts of charity. And of course, there are the stories of individuals who came from neighboring states to volunteer and help through churches and charitable organizations. These are the stories of the America at its best, showing its true heart.

I am discouraged on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey because we still fail to learn the lessons of previous disasters. For example, Tropical Storm Allison hit Houston in June 2001, shortly after I became FEMA’s general counsel and later deputy director. That storm left 30,000 residents homeless, flooded over 70,000 houses and destroyed 2,744 homes. Downtown Houston was inundated with flooding, causing severe damage to hospitals and businesses.

I specifically remember the extensive damage to the University of Houston Medical Center complex. Labs below ground level without flood mitigation structures were destroyed. The cost to the taxpayers was amazingly expensive. Allison caused approximately $8.5 billion in damage making it the costliest tropical cyclone that was never a major hurricane on record in the Atlantic basin.

One year after Hurricane Harvey, and 16 years after Tropical Storm Allison, there are still stories of lack of flood control measures. Stories of homeowners underinsured are rampant. Even worse are the stories of homeowners without flood insurance. The lessons of Tropical Storm Allison were in large part ignored. 

Some homeowners and business, and even some state and local governments, did take note of Tropical Storm Allison and made appropriate preparations for a future Tropical Storm Allison, which came as Hurricane Harvey. Those stories are encouraging because it means individuals recognize the risks posed by Mother Nature where they live and work. 

Finally, on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, we can also, sadly, realize that Americans still do not take natural or man-made disasters seriously. In every single disaster I handled as the director of FEMA and undersecretary of Homeland Security, I heard at least once, but more often many times, the phrase “I never expected it to happen to me.” 

“I never expected it to happen to me” is the lesson on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. Yes, it can happen to you. Whether you are a business owner, a homeowner, operate a small business or large corporation, do you have the proper preparations, adequate insurance, a communication plan, an evacuation plan? Are you prepared for a flood, hurricane, a wildfire, an extended power outage?

If you can answer yes to those questions, then you have learned the lessons of Hurricane Harvey — or any other natural or manmade disaster. If you answer no to those questions, you will end up a victim, and one of the anecdotal stories I hear of people still suffering from Hurricane Harvey.

Michael D. Brown served as general counsel, deputy director, director of FEMA and as undersecretary of Homeland Security for President George W. Bush from 2001-2005. He is the author of “Deadly Indifference – The Perfect [Political] Storm.”