Observations from Harvey

I can’t stop watching TV coverage of Hurricane Harvey (and couldn’t avoid it if I wanted to). It’s simultaneously terrible, tragic and heartwarming.

The good news us that we’re seeing a learning curve in responding to disasters after the missteps of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Public agency screw-ups made Karina an even bigger disaster, but government seems to have its act together this time around. People are getting rescued, shelters are up and running, and state and federal resources are coordinated. We’re getting better at this, and will continue learning from the inevitable mistakes in the Harvey response.

We’re also learning that government can’t do everything. Every newscast shows ordinary folks rescuing people in boats, and volunteers distributing clothing and food at shelters. The Cajun Navy drove in from Louisiana. A brewery shifted production from beer to bottled water.

I wish they’d stop giving big storms innocuous human names. That’s unfair to the actual people whose parents named them Harvey, Sandy and Katrina. How about aggressive names like Godzilla, Kraken, Sasquatch or Chupacabra?

Environmentalists blame global warming, but eliminating fossil fuels and bankrolling the Paris Climate Accord won’t prevent the next storm and the one after that. Long-term efforts to reduce emissions need to continue, but mitigating severe weather is a more immediate priority.

One factor in the impact of natural disasters is poverty. Destructive storms in the U.S. destroy property but kill fewer people than in poor countries: 230,000 were killed in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and 160,000 Haitians died in the 2010 earthquake. Closer to home, the poverty rate of 23% in New Orleans (and associated breakdown in local institutions) may have contributed to the death toll of 1,833 in Hurricane Katrina. Houston, with a poverty rate of 14.6%, looks like it will fare better.

Living in a place that has decent infrastructure, a functioning economy and a competent government makes people less vulnerable to severe weather. A storm probably will kill you in Bangladesh, but in Houston someone will rescue you.  And your cat, too.

Prosperity is important because we need to spend big bucks on infrastructure: coastal seawalls like the ones in the Netherlands, reservoirs and diversion channels in flood-prone areas like Houston. If the U.S. economy grows at an annual rate of 3% or better we can afford this. If we settle for the lower growth of the past eight years, we can’t.

We also need to re-think local development and growth policies. Paving over floodplain farms with subdivisions and shopping centers makes floods more severe. Federal flood insurance needs to be overhauled: not only to adequately compensate homeowners and small businesses, but also to eliminate perverse incentives to build and rebuild in vulnerable areas.

If a neighborhood gets flattened or flooded every few years, perhaps federal insurance should help residents relocate instead of rebuilding the place yet again. That’s how folks coped with climate change in the days before federal insurance. In Shawneetown, IL, for instance, residents moved the entire town a few miles inland after the Ohio River flood of 1937.

The most important lesson of Hurricane Harvey has nothing to do with government policy. What makes the TV coverage compelling is the spontaneous outpouring of support, compassion and courage: first responders in helicopters, neighbors in small boats and the shelter volunteer who just had to come and help. Contributions are pouring in and the entire nation is cheering them on.

So while pundits bemoan the nation’s divisive politics, the news cameras are revealing that Americans really can come together. For a while, anyway.

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