While many Americans are still in the disaster response or early recovery phase from Hurricane Harvey, another part of the U.S. is looking anxiously at the approach of Hurricane Irma. At present, the storm could travel up the entire Florida peninsula. What does it mean for the U.S. to face two devastating storms in rapid succession? Can the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) handle it?
It’s a complicated picture. On the one hand, as a wealthy country, the U.S. has vast resources to devote to disaster response and recovery. But just as significantly, mobilizing those resources in a timely way is always a challenge.
Consider the structure of the U.S. emergency management system. Primary responsibility for disaster response and recovery rests with the states and localities, and it’s their capacities that first come into play. For all its notoriety, FEMA’s main function is as a contractor, leveraging the assets of other larger and more powerful organizations. While FEMA can requisition food and water and other supplies, its main job is facilitation and coordination. Marshaling resources from across the country can take days. In fact, the emergency management “system” is more like a network—formed by many in the government, private, and nonprofit sectors—that is switched on when a disaster threatens. Delays as these organizations ramp up and travel to the affected area are not unusual.
We can expect intense local capacity challenges, such the ability of hospitals and nursing homes to protect those in their care. Evacuating these facilities is a technically demanding task, requiring ambulances or other specialized transport. Not only are these vehicles in short supply, but experience shows repeatedly that facilities often have mutual aid agreements with the same transportation contractors, who in turn are rapidly overwhelmed. This means that facility administrators have to reach out further and further away for resources—and that increases the timeframe for evacuation. There may be no hospital or nursing home beds for many miles, and those nearby may be threatened themselves.
Much of disaster recovery depends on the marketplace. Housing and building materials will be in extremely short supply. While most people prefer not to stay in shelters and will stay with family and friends for as long as possible, that is not a long-term solution and may not be available in a catastrophic impact. Affordable apartments will fill up rapidly, driving people further away from their jobs, friends, and other support systems. And if they need to repair their homes, travel back and forth will fatigue them. For some, FEMA Manufactured Housing Units may be the alternative, but those too take time to transport and establish with utilities. Even for people whose homes are not destroyed, flooding will ruin electric and plumbing systems and, as seen after Hurricane Sandy, electricians and plumbers will be needed to prepare homes for these lifelines when those services are restored. As with Sandy, there will be shortages of those certified with these skills. Often survivors will face weeks or months of standing in line, sweltering in heat, in need of child care, and pushing their way through perplexing bureaucracies to access both their own insurance and government aid programs. For some, it will be years of persistent stress and frustration.
In the coming months and years, the residents of Texas, Florida, and other impacted states will look to state and local governments, private organizations in their neighborhoods, and their own personal networks for help. Perhaps most importantly, they will have to rely on their own stamina to contend with the difficult recovery ahead.
James Kendra is a professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration and Tricia Wachtendorf is a professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware. They are the directors of the Disaster Research Center and authors of American Dunkirk: The Waterborne Evacuation of Manhattan on 9/11.