The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
January 17, 2018

Three lessons that can help improve disaster relief efforts

In 2017, disasters affected more than 25 million Americans—almost 8 percent of the US population—and cost more than $300 billion in damage. It will take a long time to fully understand the scale and scope of these disasters for American communities, but we can already glean a few lessons.

Relief and response is just one part of the disaster management process.

In the latest episode of the Urban Institute’s podcast, Critical Value, senior fellow Carlos Martín explains why we need to look beyond headline-grabbing actions, such as search and rescue or food delivery, and invest in mitigation and preparedness.

Only 1 percent of homeowners in Puerto Rico had flood insurance before Hurricane Maria hit, and only half had wind insurance. This lack of preparation draws out the recovery process, especially for people who are financially vulnerable and lost assets that weren’t protected.

Most people are not aware of their personal risks.

Many communities do not know enough about the damage that can result from a disaster in their area. Policymakers can help educate the public about personal property risk and the dangers posed by climate change. As Martín says in the podcast, our collective lack of foresight may stem from “deeper-seated issues that … are behavioral and psychological in terms of who we are as Americans and not wanting to think about the bad things that have just happened or that may happen in the future.”   

Local communities are crucial to disaster management.

Important decisions about land use, development, and community planning are made at the local level. These decisions can have significant ramifications when disaster strikes. For example, in Iowa, where flooding often occurs along rural riverbanks, several communities converted flood-prone areas into public parks. Now, flooding from heavy storms affects fewer homes and businesses.

We have seen these facts play out in disaster after disaster. But in the midst of competing priorities, it is often hard to muster the resources and political will to prepare for the worst. Federal, state, and local governments must work together on mitigation strategies and land use reforms to protect Americans from future disasters.

Critical Value is hosted by Justin Milner and produced by Vicky Gan and Yifan Powers. To reach the podcast team, please email criticalvalue@urban.org.

A car sits amid property damage in San Juan, Puerto Rico the day after Hurricane Maria made landfall, September 21, 2017. Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images.

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