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A perfect Hurricane Harvey response is impossible

But we do know what makes a good recovery.

Harvey Robert Gauthier / Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

As the floodwaters recede in Houston and the city grapples with an almost unfathomable amount of damage from Hurricane Harvey, the giant metropolitan area might draw lessons from a Midwest city of 50,000 people that has become a model for successful disaster response.

In 2011, an EF5 tornado ripped through the southwest Missouri town of Joplin, killing 161 people, damaging or destroying 7,500 homes and 500 businesses, and leaving $3 billion in property damage behind. It was the deadliest tornado in a half century, and the worst damage, as measured in dollars, ever.

But, helped by more than 92,000 volunteers, Joplin started to bounce back. Nearly 98 percent of the city found shelter within 25 miles. Within four months of the tornado, according to two researchers who reviewed the Joplin recovery, 69 percent of the affected businesses had either reopened entirely or were operating out of a temporary location. Experts consider it a near-perfect example of effective disaster response.

Hurricane Harvey presents a much bigger challenge: The path of the Joplin twister totaled 20 square miles; Harvey’s devastation is more akin to that from Hurricane Katrina, which devastated 90,000 square miles along the Gulf Coast.

“When you get to the scope and scale of a Harvey, a Katrina, a Rita, it’s guaranteed to be messy,” Jessica Jensen, who leads emergency management studies at North Dakota State University, told me. “The system can’t really be built to be a salve for every issue. It’s impossible.”

Still, experts say there are important lessons to learn from Joplin’s recovery. The town’s experience showed what can be accomplished if local institutions are strong, government officials are willing to delegate and limit bureaucratic hurdles, and the private sector, both for-profit and nonprofit, is wholly engaged.

In the wake of a massive disaster, all eyes are on the federal government. But what happened in Joplin shows that the most important decisions are made on the ground.

What Joplin got right in its tornado recovery

Among emergency management experts, the recovery in Joplin is revered. The city’s crowning achievement was a successful first day of school less than 90 days after the tornado, although its school district had endured $150 million in damage. Enrollment was 98 percent of what it had been a year before.

The underlying lesson of Joplin is the value of accommodation and coordination rather than central planning or a rigid chain of command. Each sector had a role to play: Nonprofit volunteers and local organizations were often the boots on the ground. Major companies like Walmart and Home Depot donated millions of dollars to the recovery. Government officials focused on the damage to public property as well as providing flexibility to the other sectors working to rebuild the city.

National and local nonprofits marshaled a remarkable number of volunteers. Local organizations spearheaded the response; one church, for example, mapped out one of the neighborhoods affected and combed through to check on the well-being of their residents. An existing donation program at the local schools to support needy students was repurposed for tornado relief. Within minutes of a family making a request for, say, shoes for their child, the program was able to match the family with someone to help.

Government officials, meanwhile, focused their efforts on rebuilding public infrastructure and facilities, accommodating the efforts that were underway in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors without trying to direct them.

The Missouri state government, for example, provided a two-year permitting waiver for a hospital that had been destroyed and had moved its operations to temporary units. The federal government’s support was largely advisory and financial: For example, FEMA paid for 90 percent of the debris removal.

“We need to put up ways that people can get things done instead of making them jump to get them done,” one city official said, per the researchers who published their findings in the Independent Review.

Bureaucratic flexibility is credited with speeding the school district’s recovery along as well: Plans for temporary schools were sketched on pencil and paper, for example, instead of the more formal building plans that would usually be required.

“The various agencies and entities (at all levels) and neighborhoods involved came together and developed priorities and plans that they then executed in tandem with one another,” Jensen said. “The result of their effort was a progressive, linear, holistic recovery process.”

The city benefited from a comparatively confined disaster zone, a community with a lot of existing relationships, and leaders who worked well together, she said.

Recovery should be concentrated at the local level

A near-perfect response like the one in Joplin almost certainly won’t be possible for Hurricane Harvey. The scale of the disaster is too different.

There will be problems and mistakes in the recovery from Harvey. But the lessons of Joplin provide some ideas that emergency management experts say should help the recovery run more smoothly — particularly the importance of a local-driven response.

Much attention is paid to the role of the federal government, especially after the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans was largely laid at the feet of the George W. Bush administration and FEMA. The president often makes a dramatic visit to the site (President Donald Trump is heading to Texas on Tuesday), which further reinforces that perception.

But the reality, experts told me, is that an effective recovery is founded at the local level and works outward, with the state and federal authorities providing support and resources, but not dictating the process.

“All of the emergency management research tells us that it’s really important to have local people overseeing and managing the recovery process,” Samantha Montano, who has a doctoral degree in emergency management and writes about disaster response at Disasterology, said.

Houston should start with a leg up on that front: Last year, after damaging spring floods, Mayor Sylvester Turner appointed a “flood czar” to help prepare for the next disaster and figure out how to mitigate flood risks. The state government has advised municipalities on sound strategies for long-term recovery. This is an area with a good deal of experience in natural disasters.

Beyond the high-level coordination, which is sometimes formalized at emergency operating centers where local, state, and federal officials can meet and hash out their responses in real time, the responsibility for response and recovery falls in all the usual places. Transportation departments work on roads. Public works departments pick up trash. Health departments respond to public health risks. Education departments help schools.

“Every area of our life, day to day, is distributed to various agencies. In disasters, it stays the same,” Jensen said. “The problem is that all of these problems need to be solved in synchronicity. They’ve all got to be working together.”

The federal role is important, but it’s not what you think

So despite the overwhelming focus placed on federal response, experts say Washington’s role is remarkably simple: Offer support and then stay out of the way. Researchers blame central planning for the widely derided response to Hurricane Katrina.

Montano summarized it this way when discussing what Trump, ideally, should do during the initial response: Sign an emergency declaration. That’s it.

“That’s his primary operational responsibility,” she said. Otherwise, federal personnel and resources should be put at the disposal and discretion of local authorities.

After the response and during the recovery, the federal government takes on a somewhat bigger role, but the same principle applies: Responsibility should start at the local level and work outward.

FEMA runs individual and public assistance programs, which provide funding (after a fair bit of paperwork) for people to rebuild their homes and for cities and towns to rebuild damaged public facilities. The National Flood Insurance Program partially reimburses homeowners with flood insurance for damage to their homes. The Housing and Urban Development Department’s community block-grant program usually becomes an important source of funding for local rebuilding.

“For a flood of this size, it is likely that every federal agency will end up being involved in some way,” Montano said.

Congress is also likely to approve some kind of supplemental recovery package that provides tens of billions of dollars to Texas to help the state recover from Harvey. But while the federal government has a role to play in providing resources (usually money, but also things like food and water) and tactical support, federal officials aren’t usually the ones running the show.

That means that Trump’s failure to staff key positions in his administration, a frequent criticism as Harvey bore down on Houston, might not end up mattering as much on the ground. Experts emphasize that these agencies are still staffed by career workers who aren’t dependent on having a political appointee in charge in order to do their jobs.

“From my perspective, it’s not the most important thing that I’m thinking about right now,” Montano said. “Not having a head of [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] right now isn’t great, but it also doesn’t prevent us from monitoring a hurricane in the Gulf.”

Of course, sound leadership is always useful in making sure that the federal bureaucracy runs smoothly. Recent reports have cast doubt, for example, on HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s capability to run his agency.

“What the heads of agencies do that is really important is set the vision for that agency and set the culture for that agency,” Montano said, which is “important in making that agency operate coherently.”

So Harvey will be a challenge for the otherwise untested cabinet officials and others across the administration. And while many of the most crucial decisions are made at the local level, in the end, the voters will also hold federal officials responsible.

“If the buck stops somewhere, it stops where it always has: the chief elected official at local level, the state governor, and the president of the United States,” Jensen said.

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