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FEMA avoids disaster in Houston — so far

By Editorial Board

August 31, 2017 at 7:19 PM

Evacuees seeking financial help consult with FEMA agents at a convention center-turned-evacuation shelter after Hurricane Harvey caused heavy flooding in Houston on Wednesday. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

THE GULF of Mexico coast is just coming to grips with the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, the remnants of which continued to pelt inland areas Thursday. Tragedy on this scale cannot be fully managed, and the response is only beginning. William "Brock" Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, warned before the hurricane hit that rebuilding would take years. Early damage estimates foresee costs ranging around or above $100 billion. Yet, given the effort so far, Harvey may not become synonymous with government mismanagement, as Katrina did.

Several things that occurred since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 have helped make the beginnings of the response to Harvey seem more orderly.

The George W. Bush administration had to wait for assessments and consultations with local officials before dispatching federal resources. This time, the federal government was able to deploy officials on the ground well before Harvey hit, and coordination with state leaders was closer. Federal military officials and state National Guard forces are working together in ways not seen in 2005.

New technology has been deployed. Drones have been surveying damage. Fast Company reports that electronic flood gauges have fed information to a website through which Houstonians could monitor the state of waterways near them. Snapchat's mapping feature has helped determine which places needed emergency attention. Facebook has served as a platform to spread information on dangerous conditions — and allowed people to report to their loved ones that they were safe. FEMA has "social listeners" who monitor electronic media and send the information they gather to responders.

Wired points out that Texas upgraded its 911 system after Katrina. Harvey still stressed Houston's 911, with some callers unable to get through at the busiest times. But it could have been worse. Meanwhile, cellular phone service appears to have held up better during Harvey than during Katrina, in part due to how mobile carriers planned for this hurricane.

President Trump hired a professional emergency manager in Mr. Long. He has projected calm competence throughout the crisis, a welcome contrast to the pathetic spectacle of Bush FEMA director Michael Brown seeming unaware of the misery in New Orleans's Superdome. Like Mr. Brown, Mr. Long and local officials have a big problem with the well-over-30,000 people displaced from their homes, many of whom are sitting in Houston's convention and sports centers. How and how quickly these people are moved into more respectable dwellings — their own homes if habitable or motel rooms if not — will be a key measure of how well these leaders are doing their jobs. So will how they handle dicey public-health threats, such as toxic chemical spills, acrid smoke and waterborne disease.

There are more tests ahead, of course. Much of FEMA's outrageous waste and mismanagement came well after Katrina's floodwaters subsided. Even as recovery proceeds, the nation must also learn from Harvey as it did from Katrina. Emergency communications could be hardened by getting 911 off outdated wired telephone lines, enabling wireless "mesh" networks that work when cell towers do not and allowing for more detailed emergency alerts. State and local governments should update building codes to make homes and businesses more resilient. And the Trump administration should rethink some of the budget cuts it proposed to agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which would make future dangers harder to identify and respond to.

Read more:

The Post's View: After Harvey, flood insurance needs reform

Christian Caryl: The political lessons Americans should learn from Hurricane Harvey

Vernon Loeb: Harvey should be the turning point in fighting climate change

Jennifer Rubin: Republicans could rise to meet the challenge of Harvey — or not

The Post's View: Harvey's heroes — the inspiring response to a terrible storm

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