Editor’s Note: Jay Balagna is an assistant policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a Ph.D. student at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Aaron Clark-Ginsberg is a social scientist at RAND. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the writers. View more opinion on CNN.
Hurricane Ida’s landfall in Louisiana August 29 left at least 62 dead, more than one million without power, and hundreds needing rescue — horrifying measures of devastation, to be sure, as they played across our screens — yet it’s easy for onlookers across the country to forget this is a too-common sight.
Louisiana and its neighbors have been hammered by storm after storm, with a total of five storms just last year, including one as powerful as Hurricane Ida, all while dealing with a devastating Covid-19 outbreak. And with many seeking public shelter, there is danger the Covid-19 pandemic will only intensify in Ida’s aftermath. Communities in the region can’t catch their breath.
“Building back better” — and faster — would help mitigate the effects of this cycle of disaster. President Joe Biden’s campaign adopted the phrase as a slogan, but building back better has a 20+ year history that predates the current presidency. As described in the 2015 United Nations Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, building back better means focusing on recovery that not only restores damage from a disaster but also reduces future risk. To meet that goal today, we need to look at the ways our disaster preparedness and response systems actually create risk themselves, by reinforcing things like wealth inequality, systemic discrimination or access to crucial services. The practice of building back better not only avoids these paths, it addresses them head on.
The incomplete recovery from events like the pandemic and the five named storms that hit the state in 2020 has blended into the Hurricane Ida fallout. Covid-19 complicated evacuation efforts this time and left hospitals filled with pandemic patients struggling to handle the storm’s effects. Hurricane Laura hit the state a year ago, followed shortly after by Hurricane Delta, and residents of places like Lake Charles are still struggling through the long waiting periods and byzantine bureaucratic hurdles to access the federal aid they need to rebuild.
Last month, Lake Charles’ mayor pointed out $900 million worth of housing needs and $400 million of local school needs were still unmet following other recent weather disasters. Moreover, Lake Charles and other nearby communities saw three more weather disasters hit while they waited for aid to come through after Hurricane Laura. Disaster response and recovery happens on scales far exceeding a single community’s resources, with both official aid, and unofficial aid and assistance from neighbors. Had the recovery progressed further before Ida’s landfall, cities like New Orleans might have more help in the form of mutual aid at their disposal today.
With the state now shifting focus toward immediate need following Ida, and agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) overworked and stuck with systems and rules that perpetuate, for example, racial inequities in recovery efforts and funding, who knows how much longer the people already suffering from inequalities in wealth, housing, and more might wait for the funds they need to rebuild homes and livelihoods? Health systems across the state have been overtaxed since the first wave of the pandemic. How much longer will they struggle with unsustainable surges of patients now that the picture has been complicated by evacuations of multiple hospitals and the prospect of new patients arriving and no room left in neighboring areas’ hospitals?
Decades of research on building back from disaster point to several considerations as affected areas rebuild after Ida. First, state and federal programs need to provide sufficient resources to rebuild. Billions of dollars of upgrades to levee systems in much of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, seem to have shown their worth during Ida, holding back floodwater in the city; a success, but an incomplete one.
Other infrastructure remains in disrepair or in a delicate state, as widespread power outages and incomplete repairs from the 2020 hurricane season show. Investment in the grid, with options like the incorporation of microgrid strategies and technologies where the grid can decentralize and function autonomously; building “fatter,” more duplicative grids; and addressing supply chain and staffing resilience can all help keep the lights on longer and make repairs quicker. Federal disaster mitigation grants are starting to address this, but more funding and attention at all levels is needed.
Also crucial is where and how resources are directed. Instead of recovery that recreates the conditions that were vulnerable to disaster in the first place, rebuilding systems in ways that reduce future vulnerability for communities and the people in them — and doing it fast enough to show change on the ground before the next storm hits — should be a priority.
Some of this is about physical infrastructure, but that can’t be the only focus. The environment needs to be part of the equation. For example, bayous in the South provide critical protection from hurricane flooding by standing as a natural storm barrier. They should be protected from development, dredging and invasive species, and expanded through natural rehabilitation efforts where possible.
Building stronger communities means investing in making them more equitable. Hurricane Katrina showed the significance of communities supporting each other in mitigation, response and recovery; similarly, this recent disaster saw towns like Lake Charles, still recovering from past storms, serving as hosts to Ida evacuees. Investing in communities could support the crucial role of “everyday resilience” in disaster and these communities’ preparedness for large and small events alike. How can a system rely on a 72-hour emergency kit or reimbursable repairs to homes and long the focus of many preparedness and recovery plans, in a state with an economic prosperity marker that has been consistently ranked near the bottom nationwide even before the pandemic?
Finally, it may also be crucial to ask who benefits from building back better? Equity could take the lead in conversations about what recovery looks like, to ensure those most vulnerable and most impacted are provided the support they need to recover.
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While the principles behind these ideas are relatively simple, implementing them is not easy. Finding the money to do it in a way that will stand the test of time is a significant challenge, as the slow recoveries from last year’s hurricanes and the ongoing pandemic show. A congressional infrastructure bill might provide some of it, but more might be needed to support the environment and communities. Also required might be a rearticulation of existing policies and processes. Federal law permits FEMA to participate in building back better initiatives, which were carried out partially after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, though not to the extent needed to build true resilience. Still, FEMA policies may not sufficiently incorporate ideals of building back better into post disaster recovery and can struggle to deliver resources quickly.
It may be wise to recognize the capacity and knowledge of community members and partners and to figure out creative solutions for working with them. At the same time, community approaches are also no silver bullet: efforts could also be made to prevent disaster risk creation outside of the community, including addressing continued climate change, the factors that exacerbate vulnerability, and systems of external support.