The hurricanes and wildfires of 2017 were another major wake-up call about disasters in the United States. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 taught us that we needed to improve our response immediately after disasters and improve our ability to relieve suffering. Superstorm Sandy in 2012 taught us not just to build back after a disaster, but to build back smarter. The California wildfires and Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria last year should teach us that disaster planning can’t wait until after disaster strikes.
Reforms are under way to the National Flood Insurance Program, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) recovery actions and assistance policies, and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) disaster block grant capacity. But these reforms have not sufficiently prepared the nation for what is to come.
We should have learned these lessons before. The increasing frequency of disasters overwhelms the disaster recovery system. But even when the system operates at its full potential, it falls short.
The system is not designed to address the intersection of our current housing and community challenges—such as racial and ethnic segregation or affordability gaps—with the expected impact of climate change. The poor integration of disaster planning into long-term housing and community development puts families in danger.
What lessons do we still need to learn?
To prepare for the next disaster, we need to integrate information on current conditions with likely and actual changes from disasters and to inclusively decide what our communities should look like based on that information.
Disaster programs and their data exist outside the world of housing and community development and its knowledge base. Housing recovery programs have focused on rebuilding and repairing to get back to predisaster conditions as quickly as possible. The collection and use of data after disasters supports this focus by describing the damaged homes and occupant households as a distinct population outside their community contexts.
These data limitations inhibit the ability of disaster recovery efforts to integrate with a community’s vision for its future housing stock. Instead, FEMA and HUD grantees use predisaster housing and demographic data to identify traits of disaster-damaged housing rather than as guides for how housing recovery should be founded on the condition of the overall housing stock.
Even HUD—the agency charged with housing recovery in the National Disaster Recovery Framework and whose mission is to provide safe, decent, and affordable housing for all Americans—rarely has Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery grantees’ action plans link to their consolidated plans, HUD’s long-term housing planning assessment tool.
On the emergency planning side, local recovery strategies have typically focused on long-term hazard mitigation qualities of an individual home (e.g., home elevations) and not on the needs or demographics of the household in the home.
Preparing for the next storm
Increased buyout programs, other mitigation strategies, and broader community resilience planning have become part of disaster recovery. HUD’s National Disaster Resilience and Rebuild by Design competitions provide funding to forward-looking projects that address resiliency and community needs as part of the rebuilding process. These programs encourage communities to think simultaneously about local revitalization needs and the long-term threats of climate change.
Federal agencies have also made advances in coordination, including HUD’s explicit funding of grant funds for disaster mitigation and planning and FEMA’s guidance on disaster planning. Communities’ housing planners and emergency managers have started speaking to each other, sharing data to prepare for and respond to disaster threats.
We still have many lessons to learn, particularly given the likely increases in future disaster rates because of climate change and increased urbanization.
Others have defined effective recovery as one “that provides the best fit between the needs of local communities, the funding and design of recovery programs, and the capacity of organizations at all levels of government and sector to harness the funding and program designs to meet communities’ needs.” But communities’ needs after a disaster often reflect their long-term problems.
To recover from disasters more quickly, communities will need to have better knowledge about housing, household conditions, and local housing construction and rebuilding beforehand and to start envisioning what their communities should be like after a disaster strikes. This includes integrating the needs of current residents and preparing to welcome new ones.
Placing reasonable requirements on communities and households to prepare before a disaster (including identifying vulnerable homes and families and asking how they want recovery to occur should the unimaginable happen) and then ensuring that effective resources are deployed for housing recovery after a disaster (including long-term housing assistance) will ensure that no American who has suffered through a disaster with slip through the cracks.
We’re in the midst of the anniversary season for past disasters. August 25 was the 1st anniversary of Hurricane Harvey making landfall in Texas. August 29 marked the 13th anniversary of Katrina’s landfall in Louisiana. September 10 was when Irma hit Florida last year, and September 20 was when Maria hit Puerto Rico. But despite these crises, we still haven’t woken up to the need to prepare better for these inevitable disasters.
How many wake-up calls will we need before we take meaningful action?