As initial search and rescue operations in Houston, Texas, following Hurricane Harvey shifted to recovery efforts, three CNA experts discussed the various challenges metropolitan areas face during, immediately after, and throughout the long-term recovery from a large-scale disaster. Drawing on their 40 years of collective experience, panel moderator Monica Giovachino, Jason McNamara, and Dawn Thomas shared perspectives on a wide range of disaster response and recovery topics.
Described briefly below, these topics continue to resonate in discussions of Hurricanes Irma and Maria and add to the general conversation of how the nation responds to and recovers from disaster
Responding to Massive Flooding
Although Harvey’s winds and storm surge damaged Gulf Coast areas of Texas and Louisiana, the days-long rain associated with the storm caused the most serious impact to population centers. As such, Harvey highlighted the response and recovery challenges that come with excessive flooding, which will continue to be an issue as weather patterns change and flood plains are repurposed.
Considering Evacuation Versus Sheltering-in-Place
After weather events of Harvey’s nature, the media and residents often question the decision to evacuate versus sheltering-in-place. The panelists discussed why this decision is so difficult (including the human and economic cost of evacuation), and whether a metropolitan area the size of Houston would have been able to conduct a safe and effective evacuation of a larger population with the time and resources at hand.
Acknowledging Federal Improvements in Coordination & Speed
Those involved in disaster management over the last 20 years have seen significant improvements in local, state, and federal coordination, the integration of the private sector into response activities, the speed with which federal resources are deployed to impacted areas, and the ability of the Department of Defense to work outside its normal procedures to support disaster relief missions.
Anticipating Short-Term Recovery Challenges
The panelists noted two major issues prominent during short-term recovery efforts: providing mass care/housing and ensuring that disasters such as Harvey do not lead to ongoing health issues (e.g., disease spread, environmentally caused illness, and decompensation of vulnerable populations) over the coming weeks and months. To move people out of mega-shelters, jurisdictions affected by disaster need both interim/temporary solutions for those whose homes require repair, and long-term housing solutions for those whose homes are total losses. In addition, there are numerous issues – including mass care living situations, people returning to their homes before they are safe, decompensation of those who require medical support, and the upcoming flu season, which experts need to focus on to prevent a secondary public health crisis in the affected areas.
The panelists addressed a range of topics on how Houston and the country can use the lessons of Harvey to improve disaster response. These topics included: planning for larger catastrophes; defining and analyzing ways to truly “build back better”; understanding the economics of federal disaster response; and defining key indicators that show that Texas is returning to a sense of normalcy.
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Dawn Thomas is an associate director in CNA’s SAS Safety and Security division. She has contributed to the analyses of real-world operations, including two presidential Inaugurations, Democratic and Republican National Conventions, Superstorm Sandy, Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Irma, and the Moore, Oklahoma, tornado. She has also worked with state, local, regional, and federal entities in preparing for and responding to catastrophic events.