Hurricane Recovery Takes Longer Than We Think

Editor’s note: This piece is part of our Hurricane Sandy Guest Blog Series.
Hurricane Sandy was a terrible storm – much larger and more powerful than Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005.  But even though it was more powerful, Sandy caused less damage. Hurricane Katrina killed 1,800 people and caused $108 billion in economic losses while the deaths in the United States from Hurricane Sandy were fewer than 100 and the economic costs are estimated in the $50-65 billion range. Of course, for those affected by Hurricane Sandy, it’s not much comfort to note that it could have been worse, but there are some lessons to be learned.
Most of the damage incurred by Katrina was due to the breaching of the levees and the flooding of the city of New Orleans; quite simply, if the levees had been maintained and had held against the storm surge, the destruction would have been far less. The message here is that natural disasters are always the product of human action (or inaction) and a natural hazard. Human action in preparing for and responding to Hurricane Sandy was simply better than it was in the case of Katrina with the result that lives were saved and costs were less.
Partly as a result of its disastrous performance with Katrina, FEMA has gone through seven years of reform, re-structuring, and leadership change. Today it is a different organization than it was in 2005 – as evidenced by its strong performance in responding to Sandy.  But it wasn’t just FEMA that accounted for the lower loss of life in Katrina. Political leaders at all levels acted quickly and effectively to take measures to reduce the impact of Hurricane Sandy. President Obama signed disaster declarations before Hurricane Sandy struck to ensure a rapid response.Mayors and governors took the hurricane warnings seriously and worked effectively with the federal government in preparing for the storm. As many as 850,000 people were evacuated before Hurricane Sandy struck. The lesson here is that politics matters in preparing for, responding to and recovering from disasters.
But lest we feel too smug about how much the response has improved, fuel shortages and power outages lingered longer after Sandy than after Katrina.  The process of actually allocating funds to support people who had lost everything was painfully slow. What we have seen with our research on disasters in rich countries is that the economic costs of disasters are much higher and fatalities are lower in developed countries than in developing ones, but that political leaders everywhere have difficulties to mobilize the necessary investment to reduce the risk of future disasters.
And in spite of the fact that the United States is a wealthy, well-governed country, there are common themes between Sandy, Katrina and disasters occurring in other, far poorer, parts of the world. When a disaster occurs, people are displaced and need a place to stay.Temporary shelter and long-term replacement of housing are universal needs after disasters – and they are much tougher to provide than food and water. And in almost every disaster, people who rented housing – rather than lived in homes they owned – face a much more difficult time.
Another common theme in almost every disaster is that recovery takes a long time – much longer than people expect. According to the Associated Press, almost 40,000 of the 161,000 displaced New Jersey families were still waiting to return home at the end of April. For people affected by disasters who have lost everything and are living in limbo, normal bureaucratic procedures seem endless. Community groups and the private sector are often able to act more nimbly in responding to the needs of those affected by disasters. A major issue in all disasters is how to maintain interest and momentum after the television cameras have moved on.

Elizabeth Ferris

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