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Disaster Response: When Speed Matters Most Friction Stands In The Way

No sooner than hurricane Harvey’s nuclear rain bomb devastated Houston and parts of the Gulf, strained disaster response and recovery resources turned to hurricane Irma. Irma, a monstrous category 5 storm that wrought havoc across the Caribbean, the entire Florida peninsula and parts of Georgia and South Carolina, shattered records as the most powerful (and persistent) Atlantic storm ever recorded. With Irma’s direct hit on the water-logged Florida panhandle and the particularly vulnerable Florida Keys, Irma’s storm surge and rain proved to be a more severe danger than her fearsome winds. Anticipating a major catastrophe that will likely exceed the damage wrought by hurricane Andrew 25 years earlier, Florida’s officials were right not play chicken with this storm, ordering record setting evacuations across much of the state.

At all phases of disaster preparation and response, friction plays a major part in how to effectively mitigate the impacts of these events. From the uncertainty and discomfort of emergency response decision making, which usually sees city and state leaders on camera exhorting their citizens to take heed. To the process of determining how scarce aid is disbursed after the fact, friction needlessly weighs down preparation and recovery efforts at a time when people are most vulnerable. Indeed, the fact that FEMA’s financial response was imperiled but for an 11th hour line of credit granted by Congress speaks to the challenges of clearing financial hurdles at all layers of disaster preparedness. Similar financial hurdles or friction stood in the way of the massive citizen exodus from parts of Florida and in the ongoing recovery efforts in Houston. In both cases, millions of affected people are facing a long road to recovery and the mechanisms, such as insurance and disaster relief, that are supposed to get them back on their feet labor under slow, high-friction operating models.

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