The U.S. emergency management and disaster response systems are desperately deficient, and cannot handle the onslaught of climate change-amplified disasters already besieging the nation. That’s the take-home message of Disasterology, the excellent 2021 book by disaster researcher Samantha Montano, assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy.
Drawing from personal experience, including a years-long stay in New Orleans in the aftermath of 2005’s catastrophic Hurricane Katrina, Montano explains why not enough is done to prevent or prepare for disasters, the critical role of media, and how current approaches to recovery are not designed to serve marginalized communities. In a section devoted to the COVID-19 pandemic – this generation’s most deadly disaster – she casts light on the many decisions made behind closed doors that failed to protect the public. Regarding climate change as a threat multiplier, she writes:
“Climate change is so insidious because it intertwines itself with our existing vulnerabilities and amplifies them. It further threatens what is already fragile and at risk. It takes these hazards that we have always had to manage—hurricanes, flooding, landslides, wildfires—and changes the way they manifest. These changes, interacting with other factors like population movement toward high-risk areas, poorly written and enforced regulations, social and economic inequality, decaying infrastructure, and poor development decisions, create our risk. In other words, climate change paired with these demographic, regulatory, and policy factors are literally a recipe for disaster. Our risk is continuing to grow, and so far, climate change is kicking our ass.”
The main strength of the book is in Montano’s descriptions of her years spent in New Orleans in the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina as a volunteer worker. She describes how volunteers and charities were still doing an astonishing amount of the response and rebuilding work 15 years after the hurricane. When homeowners, after years of delay, did manage to get a FEMA check, the Katrina average was just $7,000. “This doesn’t come close to meeting people’s needs and can make it feel like it isn’t even worth the effort,” Montano writes. As of 2019, the most someone can receive from FEMA individual assistance is about $35,500, but the average payout ranged from $1,400 – $8,000 for 13 major disasters between 2004 and 2016.
FEMA also supplies food assistance, unemployment benefits, and low-interest loans after a disaster. However, because of bureaucracy in getting FEMA assistance, years are often spent navigating the labyrinthine system. Veterans of the ordeal in New Orleans had enormous “Katrina binders” overflowing with the paperwork required. The stress of the “second disaster” – the recovery process – was likely a significant factor behind the tripling of suicide rates in New Orleans in the years after Katrina struck.
Disasters and disaster policy discriminate against the poor
Montano describes in detail how the poor and marginalized are disproportionately affected by disasters. They tend to live in less desirable low-elevation lands more subject to flooding, and have older homes that are not well-built. More than half of those who died in Katrina were Black.
After a disaster, the poor often receive less aid. For example, she outlines how post-disaster Small Business Administration (SBA) loans are handled: “The way the SBA disaster loans are approved is a good example of how systemic racism is built into US recovery programs. Loans are given out largely based on the basis of the applicant’s credit score, which, for many Black New Orleanians, was affected by the racial wealth gap created by decades of systemic housing, education, and policing discrimination. Across the country, SBA loan applications from people living in majority white areas are nearly twice as likely to be approved. An analysis following Hurricane Matthew found that in a majority Black area of Jacksonville, Florida, the SBA approved 26 percent of applicants compared to 84 percent approved in the majority white community of Ponte Vedra Beach.”
After Katrina, a disaster recovery effort by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, known as the Road Home Program, was established. “But part of the formula used to determine how much a homeowner would receive was based on the home’s pre-Katrina value, rather than the cost of actually rebuilding. This meant that homeowners in Black neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward were receiving less than homeowners in white neighborhoods like Lakeview, even when their home had comparable damage and costs to rebuild.” FEMA also disproportionately funds buy-outs of vulnerable properties in white communities compared to communities of color, since money is allocated based on a cost-benefit analysis that prioritizes more expensive properties. Wealthier communities may also have more resources to influence decision makers who decide who gets a buy-out.
In the wake of a disaster, it is also common to see “disaster capitalism” in action, with politicians making extensive changes to a city’s social infrastructure. After Katrina, officials moved quickly to privatize the city’s public school system and bulldozed public housing in New Orleans, much of which had actually escaped flooding. A Louisiana Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Richard Baker, said, “we finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” (A comment he later tried to walk back after facing criticism.)
The difference between an emergency, a disaster, and a catastrophe
Montano offers interesting observations about the scale of events that emergency managers have to respond to after a disaster strikes. An emergency can be defined as a damaging event that is fairly localized and does not cause enough widespread damage to merit a Presidential Disaster Declaration (PDD). Nevertheless, such events often overwhelm local resources, causing a years-long recovery process – or situations where communities never completely recover. A disaster is sufficiently serious to result in a Presidential Disaster Declaration, which allows FEMA to step in and offer federal assistance (only about 75% of all requests by state governors for a PDD are granted).
Montano writes, “While a catastrophic event immediately overwhelms the system, a series of emergencies and disasters can have a similar effect. Our approach to emergency management relies on help converging in from nearby towns, states, and the federal government, but what I have started to see is that this system is already struggling.” Climate change makes damaging weather events more severe, frequent, and different from past norms, and is largely responsible for this concerning situation. Montano presents her fascinating and depressing personal experience with such a situation in coastal Maine, where repeated storms in a climate with rising sea levels have caused a decades-long struggle to defend the coast, with no permanent solution in sight.
Katrina was no mere disaster, it was a catastrophe – a disaster so severe it incapacitated the local leadership, leaving them directly impacted, and lacking the resources to respond. Massive loss of life and destruction of homes often occur in a catastrophe, and local health care systems may collapse. By this informal definition, the U.S. has experienced four catastrophes in the past 50 years: New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Puerto Rico with Hurricane Maria in 2017, St. Croix (U.S. Virgin Islands) with Hurricane Hugo in 1989, and South Florida with Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
With more than 40% of the U.S. population now living along the coasts, the number of coastal residents has nearly doubled since the 1970s. At the same time, natural ecosystems that once provided protection from storms and rising sea levels have been destroyed.
“Shores that were lined with sand dunes, wetlands, and swamps, which took the brunt of storms and minimized coastal erosion, have been paved over, leaving no way for water to be absorbed into the ground,” Montano writes. “How and where we build, what our laws and regulations stipulate, the resources we have, and other decisions that we make before, during, and after the event manufactures our risk. Disasters happen when we fail to manage risk, and when decisions are made that increase our vulnerability.”
Montano gives a number of recommendations on how to improve the emergency management system. Chief among them is to make FEMA a stand-alone cabinet-level organization, as it was before the 9/11 disaster prompted the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which absorbed FEMA. “The government has failed to build an emergency management system to meet our growing needs,” Montano writes. “FEMA is a shell of an agency with a meager and insufficient budget, perpetual understaffing, and minimal authority. They are kicked around at the pleasure of the president and used by Congress as a scapegoat.”
A complete upending of the emergency management system is needed, Montano argues, leading to one that “centers justice, prioritizes our actual risks, and is driven by empirical research.” A similar message was delivered on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Sandy (October 31, 2022) by a group of Hurricane Sandy survivors and members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Providing aid to hurricane victims
The needs of the disabled are too often overlooked in disasters. This “Giving Tuesday,” November 29, offers an opportunity to support efforts such as the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies (formerly Portlight.org), the leading disaster relief charity for helping disabled people. Its current efforts are focused on victims of Hurricanes Ian and Fiona.
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