Facing the Storm: Congress Must Ask Hard Questions Before the Next Disaster

U.S. Army Soldiers help evacuate residents affected by Hurricane Florence. (Photo: U.S. Army)

This piece originally appeared on The Hill.

Weeks after Hurricane Florence slammed into the Carolinas, floodwaters are receding and the devastation’s full extent is coming into focus. Millions were affected, lives were lost, and communities will likely endure the aftermath for months, even years.

The nation has an opportunity to study the challenges, successes, and failures in the preparation and response to this and other recent disasters, and apply important lessons learned before the next one hits. Florence should be a wake-up call for Congress to ask tough questions and prepare the nation’s response for the inevitable next disasters.

Lawmakers must recognize that large disasters are part of our new normal; indeed, the federal government’s own data shows increasing numbers, severity, and financial costs of major disasters over recent decades. It’s not a matter of if, but when we will suffer the next hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes, and the federal government must be prepared. 

Congress should demand that the administration detail its goals, timelines, and progress to date for meeting rising disaster challenges. 

In July, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released an “after-action” report on its response to the 2017 hurricanes, including Harvey, Irma and Maria. Importantly, the report describes how that year’s storms “stretched response and recovery capabilities at all levels of government” — including coordination and communication problems that resulted in delayed deliveries of lifesaving food, water, and medical care. A study commissioned by Puerto Rico’s governor put estimates of the death toll from Hurricane Maria at nearly 3,000.

In FEMA’s 60-plus page report the agency shares only scant outlines of its planned solutions, with few, if any, timelines or specific targets. And while the report repeatedly states the need to improve “coordination across critical infrastructure sectors,” the agency hasn’t updated its current planning documents to reflect this.

Keep reading on The Hill.