MIAMI — The astonishing hurricanes of 2017, Harvey and Irma, have provided a sobering lesson in the power of nature, along with some modest reassurance about how Americans respond when calm blue skies turn a violent gray.
The next test could come sooner than anyone wants. This stormy hurricane season is a long way from over, and there are ominous stirrings in the Atlantic, which has a history of brewing tropical cyclones that spin toward the United States. Hurricane Jose has been loitering in the Atlantic and might be preparing a run toward the East Coast this week. And Hurricane Maria is expected to hit the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean on Monday.
While Texas and the Southeast pick up after significant wind and flood damage, the welcome news from the Harvey and Irma hurricanes is that, in a crisis, neighbors help neighbors. The government did not stumble and bumble as it did initially during the Hurricane Katrina disaster of 2005. Improved storm track forecasts gave millions of people and civic leaders time to prepare for tornadic winds and biblical flooding.
But the storms were not without moments of confusion and chaos, as well as tragic mistakes.
In Texas, first responders were overwhelmed, leaving many flood-related rescues to a nomadic corps of volunteers with boats. In Sarasota, Fla., the American Red Cross struggled to staff emergency shelters because many of its local volunteers are snowbirds who don’t arrive in Florida until October or later, said Jacqueline Fellhauer, who manages one of the Red Cross shelters.
“We were just trying to grab people out of the sky,” she said.
Perhaps the biggest lesson from the storms was driven home by the shocking images of flooded nursing homes in Texas and eight deaths at a facility for the elderly in Florida last week: In emergencies, communities and their government officials need to be much more effective in protecting the most-fragile members of society.
The episode in South Florida, where the facility grew dangerously hot after losing air conditioning in the storm — along with multiple instances in Texas where entire residential populations of the infirm and wheelchair-bound required boat rescues — has prompted advocates and state authorities to finger-point and soul-search.
Advocates argued that all nursing homes should be marked as top priorities in both state evacuation and emergency response strategies. Better enforcement of existing codes — such as ensuring that generators are functional and up to date — might also be necessary.
“The lesson learned is, when you lose power you have to get the frail elderly out of the nursing homes,” an outraged Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said in a telephone interview, remarking on the deaths at a Hollywood, Fla., facility. “The nursing home is right across the street from the hospital.”
In Houston, scores of people died in flooding that, although historic in scale, was predicted by meteorologists many days in advance. Harvey would strike the Gulf Coast and then inundate Southeast Texas with days of rain, they warned. Yet many residents were unprepared to see their homes and belongings lost suddenly to floodwater, and thousands needed to be rescued from the tops of homes or cars, sometimes after making ill-advised ventures out into the fast-flowing current.
A number of observers have applauded Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s decision not to evacuate the city. The flooding, in the end, caused fewer deaths than the evacuation of Houston ahead of Hurricane Rita in 2005. But the days before the storm were filled with conflicting official messages, stirring elements of panic, confusion and hand-wringing among Texans. Gov. Greg Abbott (R), for example, encouraged coastal evacuations, while Turner (D) told residents to shelter in place.
In the aftermath of the storm, the state’s highly decentralized system of government meant that casualties were slow to tally and the desperate needs of local jurisdictions — like Beaumont, a city that languished without running water for days — appeared to get lost in the morass of competing cries for help.
“You never have one clear distinctive voice,” said retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who helped prop up the federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
By contrast, Allen said, Florida benefited from the clear leadership of Gov. Rick Scott (R): “The governor was out front, he was the voice of the state, he was transparent, he was credible, he emoted.”
The volunteers who flocked to the rescue efforts in Houston were a source of pride for many Texans, and an illustration, many said, of what went right during the crisis. But the citizen heroes of Houston learned some lessons as well. The flooded streets of the city and its suburbs contained dips and hills, deep water, shallow water and dangerously rushing water, and the amateur rescuers were sometimes woefully ill-equipped.
Air boats and john boats were good for city rescues but often became treacherous in strong currents, they found. Bigger boats could handle the current, but were useless in shallower water, and problematic when curbs, cars, mailboxes and other obstacles got in the way.
Charitable efforts after the storms also saw a tide of donations mismatched to needs: too many clothes and would-be rescuers, and too few cleaning supplies and ready laborers to help with the unglamorous task of dragging moldy furniture out of wrecked homes, local church leaders said.
Rising coastal populations
Hurricanes expose the flaws in infrastructure. And in some instances, the airing of those flaws has sounded like a broken record.
Earlier warnings against Houston’s unchecked building explosion have come back to haunt it yet again, environmentalists and civil engineers said this month, attributing part of the flooding to the city’s lack of adequate drainage and excessive building in areas of known risk.
Old sewage systems in flat landscapes that require the pumping of wastewater need backup plans when the power gets knocked out and the facilities flood, as much of Central Florida has discovered. The power grid turned out to be so vulnerable to windstorms that 16 million people across the southeastern United States, most of them in Florida, lost power from Hurricane Irma, a U.S. record. Some still haven't gotten it back.
And then there are the basic needs that come with the basic facts of living on or near a coast.
“We need better generators, we need to require generators at shelters, and they need to be beefy enough to sustain lights, food service, and a semblance of air-conditioning and fans,” said Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin.
There were “glitches” in the shelter plan in Miami-Dade County, Mayor Carlos Gimenez admitted as the storm roared toward Florida. He had insisted that the county open enough space for 100,000 people. But the Red Cross had trouble mustering volunteers amid difficult travel conditions, and many shelters were short-staffed.
In 1960, when Hurricane Donna rode up Florida, a peninsula that juts directly into Hurricane Alley, the state had fewer than 5 million residents. Today it has more than 20 million, and an average of roughly 1,000 people move to the state every day.
The Houston metropolitan area’s population, estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau to be about 6.6 million, has similarly boomed during the past few decades, adding more than 100,000 people from 2014 to 2015 alone.
Along the packed U.S. coastlines, these waves of humanity are meeting a rising sea. Climate change intensifies deluges, and warmer water can supercharge a hurricane.
But trying to stop the population growth would be unrealistic, experts and officials say.
“People are going to come to Florida,” Sen. Nelson said. “So we have to use the best scientific evidence about hurricanes and wind speeds and drainage and water and so forth, so that we have smart growth, not irresponsible growth.”
Robert Gilbert, a professor and the chair of the civil, architectural and environmental engineering department at the University of Texas at Austin, echoed that view for geographical “bathtubs” like Houston and New Orleans.
Instead of rebuilding homes with the kind of materials that will require the large-scale stripping of drywall every time there’s a flood, communities should build with the reality of floods in mind, Gilbert and other experts said. They recommended using materials that hold up better in water and considering drainage. For example, in many frequently wet parts of the world, homes are made of concrete, he said.
“Saying we’re not going to let people move there is naive,” Gilbert said. “Maybe a better way of looking at it is how to build better, so that people can get wet but not lose their houses and not lose their jobs.”
And instead of offering flood insurance to only those in arbitrarily marked flood zones, face up to the reality that flooding is a pervasive risk that warrants broad protection in the United States, he added. “The way we deal with flood insurance in the United States is broken.”
Others think it might be better to throw in the towel in some spots.
In Houston, Mayor Turner said Thursday that rebuilding low-income apartment complexes in areas like Greenspoint, a frequent flood zone on the north side of the city, might not be wise.
“Quite frankly, we’ve already had a conversation with FEMA because it may not be the best thing to rebuild in those locations,” he said at a news conference. “Otherwise we’ll find ourselves in those conditions again.”
In Bonita Springs, in Southwest Florida, flooding from a late August storm had not dried up by the time Hurricane Irma hit last week, submerging the area in four feet of water a few days later.
The low-lying city has been involved in a years-long legal battle over whether to allow development on its east side. It’s vacant now and absorbs rainwater during major storms.
Mayor Peter Simmons thinks it’s time to consider buying out dozens of homeowners and letting the river do what it wants to do, an idea he said he discussed this week with Gov. Scott.
“No matter what you do, Mother Nature is always going to win,” Simmons said.
William “Brock” Long, the FEMA administrator, has had two epic storms in his first three months on the job, and what he’s seen affirms his philosophy that the United States needs a fundamental change in disaster preparedness.
“We don’t seem to learn the lessons over and over again from past hurricanes,” he said. He cited the many people who refused to evacuate from storm-surge zones, “which blows my mind.”
He said he believes the 10,000 people who didn’t evacuate the Florida Keys “got lucky, and don’t realize that a shift of that storm track, just a few miles west or east, could have had devastating impact.” Likewise, a slightly different path could have sent storm surge rampaging into Tampa Bay, or widespread devastation along Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Americans need to save money, Long said. They need to recognize that disasters will happen.
“We need a true culture of preparedness,” he said.
Sen Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) echoed that sentiment after touring damage from Irma.
“You live in the tropics, you live in South Florida, you’re never more than 10 days away from a hurricane,” Rubio said.
In Miami, where authorities have yet to finish clearing thousands of downed palm trees and power lines, humorist Dave Barry — who lived through Hurricane Andrew in 1992 — offered his own lesson learned from Irma:
“Never fall into the trap of thinking it won’t happen again. But also never fall into the trap of thinking, while it’s happening, that you should have moved to Oklahoma. No offense to Oklahoma, there’s a reason you live in Florida. And in the end, it’s worth it.”
Sullivan reported from Houston and Bonita Springs, Fla., and Hauslohner reported from Houston. Roy Furchgott in Sarasota, Fla., contributed to this report.