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Climate Change

Florida’s Hurricane Shows How Climate Can Severely Hurt Disaster Response

As Hurricane Ian makes its way toward Florida, people are on edge. Will it lose strength and become a “no big deal” storm? Will it pick up strength and blow people’s houses down? Or, will it dump more rain than expected, and do unusual damage for a storm that’s technically a lower category based on wind speeds?

What many readers may not know is that there are hundreds and perhaps thousands of people doing a lot more than worrying about the storm. There’s a whole national system in place meant to respond to these storms. It’s centered around state and local governments, but it’s able to bring in global resources as needed to respond to and recover from disasters. And it’s kicking into gear as I write this.

To understand the system, let’s look at something that creates less widespread damage than a hurricane. Let’s look at something like a large car accident on a local freeway.

When the first law enforcement officers, paramedics, and firefighters show up to take over and relieve any spontaneous volunteers who were already on the scene, a whole national framework for responding to emergencies kicks in. Typically, the agencies that first arrive on the scene take care of everything, though, so it doesn’t look unusual at all. But, everyone is trained in what to do if an emergency unexpectedly expands beyond what they alone can handle.

An Example Of This Kicking In On A Smaller Scale

A great example of how this system works (or, how it can go very, very wrong) would be the response to the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, earlier this year. The initial responding officers weren’t prepared for a mass shooting, and the local school district police chief (who wasn’t properly geared up for police work) called for additional help on his phone. At this point, the Incident Command System and the National Response Framework kicked in.

Under these national response plans and strategies, the local authority stays in charge of the incident, but is supposed to use standard procedures to ensure everyone coming onto the scene is at least roughly on the same page. Local “ten codes” and other jargon is supposed to go out the window in favor of plain language that everybody can understand, for example.

When a mass casualty incident grows, local resources like an Emergency Operation Center open up as needed to bring decision-makers together for rapid action and request resources from outside of the local area as needed.

The Uvalde response failed largely because an incompetent local leader with aspirations of getting into politics remained in control of the incident, but claims to not know he was in charge. This led to indecision, inaction, and further tragedy that was likely avoidable. The situation was only resolved when a group of federal agents reportedly broke protocol and ignored commands to not enter the room with the shooter.

Zooming Back Out To Bigger Incidents

Despite the failure of the system in Uvalde, the Incident Command System and related national frameworks, strategies, and systems do exist for very good reasons. After the 9/11 attacks, it became clear that some responses to the attacks did far better than others. For example, the Pentagon response went far better than the response in New York City. Lessons learned from this and future disasters like Hurricane Katrina led to what we have today, and these systems will continue to evolve as we identify weaknesses in them.

In Uvalde, local resources were fairly plentiful. Being near the US border with Mexico, there were many federal agents, state troopers, Texas Rangers, and more who could arrive fairly quickly. The whole incident did take too long to resolve, but it was resolved and moved to the recovery phase within hours.

When something bigger like a hurricane, major earthquake, or other large-scale disaster comes along, it can overwhelm a lot more than the limited resources of a small town. At this point, requests for aid go up to the county level Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and the county’s emergency manager. If county resources aren’t enough, requests for further aid go up to the state EOC, and further resources from the whole state can be mobilized.

But, sometimes it’s more than a state can bear on its own. At that point, there are two systems that come into play: EMAC, and requesting resources from the federal government (through FEMA). EMAC (the Emergency Management Assistance Compact) is an agreement through which a state can request resources directly from other states, how they can pay other states back for the resources deployed, and how certifications and credentials from other states for people like police, EMS, doctors, etc can be recognized in another state during an emergency.

But, state governments all have fairly limited resources. States can’t run deficits or adjust monetary policy the way the federal government can, so in many of these cases, a governor uses the Stafford Act to request that the President of the United States declare a disaster and free up federal funds to help the state get out of the bind it’s in. This may or may not happen, and sadly requests are often denied or approved for political reasons, as the law gives ultimate authority to the President.

Beyond the federal level, there are international agreements, too. Foreign governments often render aid to each other to assist with disasters through these agreements.

Resources Aren’t Unlimited

As you can probably see, there are ways to escalate a situation and get help from higher and higher levels of government, or laterally from other states, to bring in the resources needed to respond to disasters. But, that doesn’t mean that the system can handle unlimited disasters.

Getting help from other states assumes that the other states aren’t under siege themselves. Even Uncle Sugar eventually runs out of money, and has to make hard decisions, like going even deeper into debt or firing up the money printers, to respond to widespread emergencies (the COVID pandemic is a great example of this). There are both practical and political limits to what the federal government can do to help the states respond.

When everyone gets hit at once, or everyone gets hit too often, the system isn’t designed to handle all that. If the United States and other countries with similar systems start taking on too many emergencies too often, it will stress those systems and perhaps even break them.

Adapting To Climate Change

The only way the system can survive is to make it so that there aren’t too many disasters that sap its resources. The obvious big picture answer is to stop contributing to climate change and stop the growth of the disasters it fuels, but that’s not something that we’re on track to do as of now (but something to keep working on).

The next best thing to do is adapt. Prevention and mitigation measures can turn disasters into routine events. Flood control projects, moving vulnerable structures out of areas that get increasingly frequent flooding, adapting cities to allow for flooding without getting hurt, building codes that make structures stronger when faced with flooding, wind, or earthquakes, and a variety of other things can keep the system from being frequently overwhelmed.

But, doing any of the above in this final section takes the political will to achieve, and personal willingness to spend more to be more resilient at the personal and family level. That’s a whole lot easier said than done.

But, these disaster situations, such as Hurricane Ian, give us an opportunity to talk about all of this with family, friends, politicians, and others we have pull with. We don’t want to be like vultures and disrespect those hurt by such storms, but we do need to use our influence and our voices to call for improvement while being tactful and diplomatic in our approach. That’s how we can all help to keep the system working and thriving.

Featured image provided by FEMA (Public Domain).

 
 
 
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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to explore the Southwest US with her partner, kids, and animals. Follow her on Twitter for her latest articles and other random things: https://twitter.com/JenniferSensiba

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