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America Is Not Ready for This (Again)

Hurricane season begins in two weeks, but little has been done since last year's devastating storms to make vulnerable communities more resilient.

A satellite image of Hurricane Irma on September 07, 2017. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

With hurricane season only two weeks away, I asked Dr. Irwin Redlener, the director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, if communities struck by last year’s devastating storms were prepared for another pummeling. His reply: “It’s unfortunate that we can’t stop time.”

For thousands of Americans in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria have barely faded from memory. Yet on June 1, conditions will be ripe for Helene, Isaac, and Michael—just a few of the names in line for tropical cyclones that form in the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico in 2018. This year is expected to be a “normal to above normal” season, according to a study released last week by the Hurricane Genesis and Outlook Project, better known as the HUGO outlook. And it may even start early; there’s a small chance that Florida will get hit with a minor tropical cyclone this week, according to a report in Earther.

The HUGO outlook predicts that anywhere between 11 to 18 named storms will form this year, with approximately seven becoming hurricanes and three becoming major hurricanes. Whether any of the storms that form make landfall is anyone’s guess, but The Weather Company, Colorado State University, and North Carolina State University have each predicted above-average activity. The National Hurricane Center—part of the U.S. government’s National Weather Service—is due out with its seasonal forecast on May 24. But it’s impossible to predict whether a storm system this year will do the kind of damage suffered by Puerto Rico last year. “The predictions are nice to know,” said Erik Salna, the associate director of the Florida-based International Hurricane Research Center, “but it doesn’t change how much we should prepare.”

If being prepared means stockpiling food and water, ensuring there are working electricity generators in hospitals, and practicing evacuation plans, both Redlener and Salna said that recovering communities in Puerto Rico, Texas, and Florida look prepared. But if it means fixing the weaknesses that made last year’s hurricane season the costliest in U.S. history, then those communities aren’t prepared. “Yes, we’ll have more ability to rapidly distribute humanitarian aid,” Redlener said. “But no, we have not fixed the underlying major problem, which is an utterly non-resilient infrastructure that at the end of the day will determine how much suffering there is after a large storm.”

In Puerto Rico, much has been done to prevent some of the problems with last year’s response. According to The New York Times, warehouses have been stocked with food, water, and plastic sheeting, and all hospitals now have emergency power generators. The Federal Emergency Management Agency intends to keep 70 recovery centers open throughout the season, and 2,800 employees on the island. The hope is that, if another big storm hits, the island won’t have to wait two weeks to receive basic aid personnel and supplies from the mainland.

But approximately 30,000 people there still lack electricity. Redlener, who just returned from the island, said nothing has been done to fortify the island’s electricity system after Maria destroyed it, causing the largest blackout in American history. “This is very unsettling, that more hasn’t been done to do a deeper and more successful or effective upgrading of the power system,” he said. “What has been rebuilt is an unfortunate replication of the fragile, non-resilient system that caused a lot of the ongoing problems from Maria.” The inaction has been due, in part, to incompetence: The Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority controversially awarded a $300 million contract to rebuild the power grid to a two-person company in Montana (then canceled the contract two weeks later). But it’s also due to a lack of prioritization by the federal government, which in March scaled back the number of contractors working on rebuilding the grid while 100,000 people were still without power.

Trump tosses paper towels at a distribution center in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, on October 3, 2017.

Salna described a similar situation in Florida. He says residents are more motivated to prepare their households for this hurricane season, but suggested the state could be doing more to prepare for the new normal: stronger, more frequent hurricanes. “There’s a longer range issue of how are we going to deal with all these areas that are prone to storm surge,” he said. “There’s a question of whether there should even be neighborhoods and local communities in some of these low-lying areas.” Instead of seriously grappling with those questions, however, most destroyed buildings in those places were rebuilt. And last week, The Tampa Bay Times reported that the Florida legislature “failed to pass many of the bills they identified as essential” to lessening the damage from future storms. No bill was passed to address Florida’s decrepit sewage systems, which saw mass overflows after Hurricane Irma’s flooding—but a bill was passed to allow companies to dump treated sewage into drinking water sources.

The Florida legislature takes a myopic approach to hurricanes, preferring to allocate money for immediate recovery—to repair beaches and farms, or for displaced students who evacuated to Florida from Puerto Rico. But spending money only on immediate recovery ensures that money will have to be spent again and again, every time there’s a severe hurricane season. As Republican State Representative Jeanette Nunez told the Times: “Sometimes it’s just easier to throw money at a problem than it is to take a thoughtful and diligent approach to policy making.”

That criticism also applies to President Donald Trump’s administration and the Republican Congress, which has allocated more than $140 billion for hurricane relief since September, most of it for humanitarian assistance and rebuilding infrastructure. Last week, FEMA Administrator Brock Long visited Louisiana and Texas to urge residents to start preparing for the 2018 hurricane season. It’s good advice, but it comes as the administration has rolled back hurricane resilience policies that would take the burden off individuals. Last year, Trump shelved two rules requiring new construction projects be built with flood protections in mind. After the damage wrought by Hurricane Harvey, Trump said he would reinstate those rules. With another hurricane season coming on June 1, they remain shelved.

“We keep calling these storms a wake-up call, but they keep turning into snooze alarms,” Redlener said. “When the cameras go away, we slip into complacency.”