Energy & Environment

Five reasons not to underestimate Hurricane Florence

As Hurricane Florence approaches the East Coast as a major hurricane, there is also a collective sigh of relief among many that the route of the storm avoided areas like Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico that are still recovering from the 2017 hurricane season. However, Hurricane Florence is still a monster of storm, the likes of which haven't been seen in the Carolinas and Virginia for decades, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Here are five reasons why Florence, and any major hurricane, should not be underestimated:

1. It's not just the coast that needs to be concerned.

With more than 1 million residents ordered to evacuate, along coastal areas, the storm's impact is massive before it even reaches shore. Storm surge could be greater than 12 feet in some areas, with rainfall of over 20 inches and in excess of 30 inches in some areas.

Significant effects could also be felt as far inland as parts of Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama and West Virginia. This could lead to flash flooding and damaging winds further inland. Additionally, an influx of people evacuating from the storm or traveling for supplies could lead to temporary shortages of fuel and other necessities, as has been seen in the aftermath of other storms. Even in the best of circumstances, supply chains, hotel rooms and roads will take time to get to full capacity while simultaneously servicing the needs of the survivors and the responders.

2. The most vulnerable before the storm, will be the most vulnerable after.

We see time and time again that those most in need before a disaster strikes are the most vulnerable afterward. Whether the elderly, those living with medical dependencies who rely on community services and infrastructure, or those living in poverty with limited resources to draw on even in the absence of disasters, disruptions will impact them more than others. Children are particularly vulnerable and often overlooked in disaster management. 

Special attention to these groups pre- and post-storm is required as their needs are not always visible to the response nor are they empowered to advocate for themselves.

3. Federal resources are already stretched thin.

The 2018 hurricane season began on the heels of already stretched federal resources, both in terms of cost and human resources with ongoing disaster response and recovery. The 2017 hurricane season was the costliest on record, stretching federal resources to their breaking point. This led to three emergency supplemental appropriations from Congress totaling $120 billion, as well as canceling $16 billion in debt to the National Flood Insurance Program. 

A recent Government Accountability Office report described how the sequence of hurricanes last year led to staffing shortages, requiring the use of staff who would not normally be placed in key roles, complicating response efforts. 

For Florence, disaster declarations have been made and some federal resources are already mobilized. But in an environment of finite resources and many disasters, this will require the whole community to respond and recover and not just the federal government.

4. Indirect deaths may greatly outnumber direct deaths.

The largest cause of direct deaths from hurricanes is usually from the water rather than the wind. In particular, the storm surge, which accounts for about half of all deaths. But the direct deaths are often just the tip of the iceberg of hurricane-related fatalities. 

The prevalence of chronic health conditions, the stress of the storm, and the lack of access to care make a deadly combination that can exceed the direct deaths from the storm. And while official death counts will never capture the full number of direct and indirect deaths, many more are likely to be killed after the storm than during it. Special attention to the status of health-care systems and access to resources is necessary, as well as public health outreach on hazards in hurricane clean-up will be critical to mitigate some of this.

5. Recovery will outlast our attention.

Hurricane Florence will likely be another billion-dollar weather event, with recovery in some areas taking as long as a decade, or more. But attention for disasters is fleeting, and covering recovery often takes a backseat to the more pressing news of the day, with the exception of the obligatory disaster anniversary stories.

This can starve the recovery of additional attention that feeds political action and donations necessary for the recovery. And help that is promised can end up taking longer or never coming to fruition once the spotlight fades from the response. This can lead to unmet needs that are not even knowable in the early phases of recovery when attention and donations are at their peak. Long-term commitments for recovery will be needed to ensure building back stronger.

The good news is that the federal, state and local officials appear to recognize this and proactive steps are being taken, leaving little to chance in anticipation of the storm. Disaster declarations, preparations and evacuations have been underway for some time now and we have good reason to expect that the area to be impacted by Florence is as ready as can be reasonably expected. But there are always hidden hazards and unmet needs after disasters and underestimating the hazards and vulnerabilities is usually the first step in the making of a disaster.

Elsewhere, in the Atlantic we are monitoring Hurricane Helene and Tropical Storm Isaac, as well as Tropical Depression Paul in the Pacific. Hurricane season is far from over, so no matter where you are relative to Florence, it is a good idea to check your own preparedness for whatever may come next.

Jeff Schlegelmilch is the deputy director at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Earth Institute. Follow him on twitter @jeffschlegel. 

Irwin Redlener is the director at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Earth Institute. Redlener is professor of Health Policy and Management at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. He is the author of "Americans At Risk: Why We Are Not Prepared For Megadisasters and What We Can Do Now," published in 2006. Follow him on Twitter @IrwinRedlenerMD.

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