On August 12, meteorologists began sounding the alarm that a low-pressure weather system would deliver about 24 inches of water to communities on the Louisiana coast. Had it been a hurricane, more advance warning would have been possible to give people more time to evacuate. But this storm was harder to predict — and so it took the region largely by surprise.
The extensive flooding that ensued has left 13 dead and 60,000 homes damaged across 20 parishes in the state. Tens of thousands of people were stranded as the water rose, requiring the National Guard, Coast Guard, local first responders, and groups of citizens including the "Cajun Navy" to do water rescues over the weekend. More than 10,000 people were moved to shelters.
Though smaller than the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, this latest flood reminds us of what a changing climate has in store for us: Places that have flooded before will flood again, and places that haven’t in the past will do so for the first time.
These disasters are the new normal — several other states are currently recovering from disasters of their own. What has become painfully clear is that the "emergency management system" in the United States does not have the capacity to address all the needs. The systems we have in place to mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from these events do not have the ability to deal with so many disasters at once. We can do better.
The strain on the US emergency management system
In the past year, a number of flood events have ravaged communities all over the United States: South Carolina, West Virginia, Maryland, Texas, Louisiana, Texas again, and now Louisiana again.
The size of these disasters ranged from impacting a few towns to multiple counties -- from hundreds of homes damaged to hundreds of thousands. Recovery operations are ongoing in Louisiana, Texas, West Virginia, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, and others. In addition, Texas and Oklahoma continue to recover from tornadoes, and California and other parts of the West have ongoing wildfires.
We have significant experience and knowhow to respond to these events. In the 1950s the United States began to establish what we know as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Along with FEMA there are state-, county-, and city-level emergency management agencies.
Other federal agencies and local governments oversee the rebuilding of roads, bridges, schools, and hospitals, along with other community-level infrastructure. Corporations like Walmart and Home Depot, as well as local businesses, restock so the community can buy what they need to recover. Utility companies bring workers in from out of state to get electricity and cell towers back up and running. Nonprofits ranging from nationwide disaster-specific organizations, such as Rebuilding Together, to small, local nonprofits with no disaster mission deploy resources toward the community recovery process.
The culmination of these groups and their programs is what makes up the "emergency management system." It is no small task to coordinate everyone involved, especially when they are competing for resources (personnel, volunteers, funds), limited media attention, and community buy-in. Moreover, local communities often find they do not have recovery plans in place, nor do they have the experience to manage recovery.
Unfortunately, these constraints mean the emergency management system does not have the capacity (in terms of resources, knowledge, and coordination) to address all the needs that communities face after a disaster. In the best of circumstances recovery is challenging, but in a year with so many disasters it starts to become unmanageable. Given what climate change is bringing, it is difficult to imagine how this system will ever be able to handle more.
The case of Louisiana
We are about to see the consequences of this lack of capacity unfold in Louisiana.
As the flooding continued throughout the weekend, government agencies, disaster nonprofits, and individuals from all across the country moved into the impacted areas. Local community organizations have been working nonstop to meet the vast and growing needs of the community. Individuals have organized their own search, and rescue missions and donations are pouring in from New Orleans and beyond.
It’s worth waiting to see how the response goes before calling it a success or a failure. Nut tensions have been running high online as individuals search for missing family members, seek information on which neighborhoods are flooded, and monitor ongoing evacuation notices.
It is no easy task to coordinate all of the groups involved in such a large-scale response. Regardless, the response is just a fraction of what the emergency management system does. It is the recovery, which is already underway, that will last for years and highlight many of the inadequacies of the system.
Why recovering from disaster can be as bad as the disaster itself
Though response is a trying experience, it is the recovery that is especially arduous and requires the dedication of resources and personnel to be sustained over a long period of time. Survivors often call recovery "the second disaster" because of how difficult it is.
Many people in Louisiana are returning home to find their belongings ruined by floodwater. Little will be salvageable, especially when exposed to the humidity. Mold will grow quickly.
Most people do not have the resources to pay out of pocket for their own recovery. A recent survey found that 63 percent of Americans cannot afford a $500 emergency. They will turn to friends and family for assistance, or for a place to stay while they make repairs.
The generosity of friends and family, though helpful, will likely be insufficient. In the affected communities, entire families live on the same street and likely have all been impacted. Many will not have the resources to help each other to a full recovery.
Few people have flood insurance (regular homeowners insurance does not cover flooding). Yet even for those who do, as an episode of PBS’s Frontline recently explained, receiving payouts for flood insurance is not an easily or quickly navigated process.
FEMA will provide some assistance in many of the affected parishes. Here, too, individuals will be forced through a complex process that many homeowners have described as a full-time job. At most, residents will receive around $30,000 – barely, enough to fully rebuild and cover the expenses incurred in the meantime (for example, the cost of evacuation and taking time off work).
At this point, many homeowners turn to recovery nonprofits. The United States has many national recovery nonprofits such as St. Bernard Project, All Hands, and Rebuilding Together. Many rebuilding groups, like St. Bernard Project, got their start after Katrina. Those that are still working on recovery in New Orleans (11 years later this month) will likely direct aid toward Baton Rouge and surrounding communities. The combination of efforts from these groups will play out over the next several years, largely in the form of donations and volunteers.
We need to avoid a perpetual state of response and recovery
Because so many communities are still recovering from past disasters, the entire system is taxed, and disaster recovery groups, in particular, need help. Many have been talking of donor and volunteer fatigue throughout the summer.
During and immediately after disasters there is an influx of donations and volunteers to help with tasks such as running shelters, delivering aid, conducting search and rescue efforts, and cleaning out houses. That help is valuable, but so are the volunteers that come months and years later. In fact, they are especially needed after the immediate response is over and national news coverage stops. These volunteers bring a renewed hope and motivation to the people living and working in communities experiencing recovery.
For most disasters, especially smaller ones, the system has been functional. The realization that the system is also easily taxed when a series of smaller disasters occur is cause for serious concern.
What those changes are have not been fully thought of or agreed upon, nor is it clear how such changes would ever be implemented.
At this rate, communities across the country will be in a perpetual state of response and recovery. We need to find way to lessen the impact of these types of disasters and better prepare. Local governments need to lead the conversation on community-wide mitigation projects like flood control systems and zoning laws. Individuals and households need to buy hazard insurance. Communities must create disaster plans in advance and tell the local community about their hazard risks and what to do about them.
We need to find ways to fund and maintain public interest for mitigation and preparedness to be successful. This all needs to happen while simultaneously creating a system that allows communities to recover quickly and fully.
Samantha Montano is a doctoral student in emergency management at the Center for Emergency Management Education & Research at North Dakota State University. She blogs at Disasterology. If you would like to donate to the recovery, she recommends Foundation Beyond Belief and Team Rubicon.