As Hurricane Florence intensifies in the Atlantic Ocean and is expected to arrive on the Southeast coast of the U.S. as of strong category 4 or category 3 hurricane, the mix of threats from wind, storm surge and rain make this a catastrophic weather event. People in this hurricane’s path, in coastal or low-lying areas, should heed evacuation warnings from local and Federal officials and not tempt Florence’s wrath. Looking at hurricane models, Hurricane Florence’s real threat, once the immediate landfall abates, is the potential for record-breaking, Hurricane Harvey-like rain fall, especially if the storm system stalls.
Hurricane Harvey marked the opening salvo of 2017’s truly catastrophic hurricane season by dropping the most rain recorded in the U.S., largely over the city of Houston. In this weather event, Houston, the fourth largest city in the U.S. and a chokepoint for the U.S. oil and gas industry, saw the emergence of a citizen flotilla to rescue stranded Houstonians. The prospect of city-level paralysis due to complex natural, man-made and emerging threats is becoming all too frequent catching people, first responders, local and national emergency response authorities flatfooted. The possibility of a parallel level of flooding as a result of Hurricane Florence seems likely and can prove to be the most dangerous peril of Florence’s trifecta. Against these threats, households, businesses and communities are largely on their own, proving that people are indeed the first link in the chain of a resilient society.
With more than 1 million people under an ordered evacuation and 20 million more in Florence’s path, Hurricane Florence is also beginning to resemble 2017’s Hurricane Irma, which saw one of the largest ordered evacuations in U.S. history along the Florida peninsula. This late blooming Atlantic hurricane season now has 3 potential perils in Hurricanes Florence, Isaac and Helene swirling towards the weather-worn Caribbean, which is still recovering from Hurricanes Maria and Irma, and the U.S. East Coast. These 3 storms are joined by 6 other named cyclonic systems forming a ring around the world from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Sadly, this onslaught of catastrophic weather events is being increasingly politicized in the U.S. and scored like a grade school exam, which misses the fact that nature is indiscriminate and politically agnostic. Meanwhile, little is being done at a strategic level to shore up national resilience for a pattern of complex risks that are not only gaining in their frequency, they are gaining in their severity. Politicizing disaster response and preparedness based on electoral alignment or disenfranchisement, which was emblematic of Puerto Rico’s botched Hurricane Maria aftermath claiming nearly as many lives as 9/11, will be a dark mark on the country’s history.
Financing recovery and reconstruction efforts after Florence, not unlike the experiences in responding to last year’s hurricane season wherein FEMA had to go to Congress for an emergency line of credit and insurance proved to be a notional form of protection, will be complicated and slow. This same dilemma holds true today and the stress to the national flood insurance system as well as the insurance protection gap that most homeowners and communities face (85% of Houston households do not have flood insurance) will only be laid bare in Florence’s aftermath. Sadly, the other matter that will be laid bare in this devastating storm, is the dueling challenge of building back better, while contending with whether we should build back at all. Here too, principles of indemnification in the insurance and post-disaster finance worlds, hold that a destroyed structure is restored of like kind. This results in more potentially vulnerable “brick and stick” constructions, rather than incentivizing the development and use of weather-ready human habitation.
Above all, as Hurricane Florence is slated to wreak havoc along the Carolina coast and drop a potentially unprecedented amount of rain triggering deadly inland flooding after landfall, affected communities will have to find solidarity in disaster. This much was evidenced in Houston’s citizen flotillas and in Puerto Rico’s community-based response and will be needed to help people get back on their feet following Hurricane Florence. Once the aftermath clears, the real strain on communities is to combat disaster-fatigue, which presents itself after the waters subside, debris is cleared, and insurance and Federal aid are long gone. At this stage, communities are left to fend for themselves and the true economic vulnerability of a country where nearly half of its citizens cannot afford a $400 emergency are felt. Godspeed to the Carolinas and the people in Hurricane Florence’s path.