Harvey and U.S. Hurricane History

I was too young to truly understand what had happened when Hurricane Katrina decimated the Gulf Coast. Most people attempted to explain to me that a huge thunderstorm had happened in the South, in states with names too long for me to spell, and that it made the moms and dads and even the kids like me who lived there very sad. They told me that since we weren’t affected, we had to help out as much as we could.

I remember neighborhood water bottle drives: pallets upon pallets of bottled water lined our driveway and yard for days. I didn’t understand why the people in Louisiana needed bottled water- if it had rained so much, wouldn’t they need water to be taken away? It made no sense, and I did not truly care enough to learn why we did it.

Of course, my perspective has changed since I was five years old, and with that change has come the awareness of just how much damage is caused by a hurricane of that magnitude, and what people who remain unaffected are obligated to do. Now, as Texas struggles to recover from Hurricane Harvey, Florida and the Caribbean islands are swamped in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. With Hurricane Jose looming in the Atlantic, it has become vital to reflect both on one’s personal responses to these disasters, as well as the reaction of the United States government.

So far, Congress and the President have taken vital steps to approve and enact much needed assistance. Only days after Hurricane Harvey made landfall, Congress approved to set aside almost $8 billion for disaster relief in an almost unanimous vote. This move signals to some that President Trump may be willing to collaborate on bipartisan legislation moving forward. After all, he went against the wishes of many Republicans to temporarily raise the government’s debt ceiling.

However, it is important to ask if this response is enough. Two prominent disaster response agencies—NOAA and FEMA—as well as the National Hurricane Center, are missing important leadership positions, some of which require nomination by the President and confirmation by the Senate. With hundreds of positions in the executive branch still missing appointees, it remains to be seen whether these agencies will obtain the leadership they need during this time of crisis. If they do not, it could stunt the relief effort within the United States.

With this in mind, it’s interesting to think back to the days after Katrina. The criticism of the Bush administration’s response to this particular disaster is cutting and widely known—no one is liable to forget “Heck of a job, Brownie,” any time soon. The government’s reaction to Katrina was characterised in large part by general mismanagement, poor resource allotment and botched timing of almost every declaration or document that needed to be released.

News articles from the days following Katrina blame this issue on a plethora of variables. Perhaps it was because of the demographics of the area and the perceived value of the region itself. When Hurricane Sandy, the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history, hit New York instead of Louisiana, the federal response differed: one New York Times writer describes the difference as “summed up in two images. One is the nightmare at the New Orleans convention center, where thousands were stranded for days amid inconceivable squalor, an outrage that all of America watched live on TV, but to which top officials seemed oblivious. The other is the scene in flooded Hoboken, with the National Guard moving in the day after the storm struck to deliver food and water and rescue stranded residents.”

I hesitate to attribute one cause to what was, essentially, a federal-level fumble. Some things are more obvious though: the Bush administration had selected poor leadership that was unable to step up when it was necessary. The trust of the administration- and, by extension, of the people- was placed on the wrong individuals. With this hurricane season already shaping up to be the most disastrous and costly in recent history, it will be interesting to see if the current administration manages to learn from the errors of the past.

Of course, the contiguous U.S. was not the only area thrashed by hurricanes in the past few weeks. Much of the Caribbean, including the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, was affected to varying degrees. The island of Barbuda in particular has received a lot of attention due to the fact that almost all of its infrastructure was destroyed. Like many other affected islands, Barbuda does not have the finances necessary to recover from the damages inflicted by this storm. This raises another question- should the U.S. take some responsibility in funding these nations’ recovery efforts?

As everything currently stands, it doesn’t seem likely that this will happen. The United States is currently consumed by an “America First” rhetoric that isn’t extraordinarily generous to other entities—including U.S. territories. So, while a Republican President will go so far as to work with Democrats for the sake of Texas and Florida, that same companionship may not extend towards lands that the current government does not recognize as “truly” American. In this case, it may be the generosity of individuals and non governmental organizations that accomplishes the recovery that FEMA and the NHC are too leaderless to enact.

Citizens of the United States often like to tout the claim that the country is a global leader, a positive influence on the rest of the world, a city shining upon a hill. This is our chance to prove that. Whether by encouraging the federal government to extend aid toward other affected regions or by leading in small scale relief efforts— neighborhood water bottle drives, for example—it is now our responsibility to demonstrate the American capacity for compassion in times of crisis.