By Adrian Johansen
The United States has, in recent years, had a less than stellar track record when it comes to dealing with natural disasters. Whether it is FEMA’s reaction times or the allocation of disaster relief funds, the federal government has shown that it has more than its fair share of difficulty anticipating and preparing for natural disasters. However, it is always possible to learn from past mistakes, and even local government entities can take action and put forward legislation to help get ahead of the next potential natural disaster.
Prioritizing Community Needs
One of the U.S.’s most recent failures to appropriately anticipate and subsequently manage a natural disaster also happens to be one of the most egregious. In late 2017, Hurricane Maria savaged Puerto Rico, a dependent territory of the U.S., which left many of the 3.5 million Americans living there without homes, power, clean water, or any hope of assistance. Meanwhile, the Commander in Chief made headlines when he tossed rolls of paper towels at beleaguered citizens, and then later made outrageous claims that Puerto Rico had received 91 billion dollars in federal aid when in truth the island has onlyreceived a small fraction of that quoted number. In a situation like the one Puerto Rico continues to face, ensuring that citizens are properly cared for should come far before squabbling about disaster funding. Making sure that access to clean water, electricity, and shelter after a disaster should always be the top priority for a community.
What Donald Trump’s administration should have done is assess the situation appropriately, then provided emergency response to areas that needed it most. Instead, the citizens of Puerto Rico were turned into political pawns, used to highlight what the administration saw as unnecessary spending, despite the fact that it may very well become the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. While the people of Puerto Rico continue to have their needs ignored, Donald Trump is planning on adding billions of dollars to a disaster relief bill to provide a second bailout to farmers who are suffering financial losses due to Trump’s own misguided trade war with China. While the macro community of the United States might not find themselves suffering due to the effects of destructive hurricanes, floods, earthquakes or wildfires, the communities that they affect need to have their own unique needs prioritized.
The importance of prioritizing and addressing community needs in the face of a natural disaster is perfectly exemplified by Trump’s paper towel throwing shenanigans. What the citizens of Puerto Rico really needed in the face of adversity was not faux compassion, but real social justice by sending engineers to ensure that they were provided access to clean water, quickly getting the power grid back online, and even simple recognition that what they had gone through was extremely traumatic. Unfortunately, the people of Puerto Rico were left wanting by the current administration.
Have A Clear And Actionable Plan
While it may be impossible to prevent natural disasters from causing billions in damage to personal and public property, putting a clear and actionable plan in place can reduce loss of life and speed up recovery after the fact. Communities can take matters into their own hands by taking small steps like becoming well-versed in FEMA and HUD assistance programs, as they are some of the largest pools of funding for post-disaster relief. Ensuring that a community’s record keeping system strictly follows FEMA requirements can speed up reimbursement times. Additionally, updating local procurement policies to adhere to federal procurement regulations that are required in order to obtain disaster relief through FEMA and HUD are more small steps that can pay off in the long run.
Though recovery is certainly important when it comes to natural disasters, preserving lives should take precedence over all else. One of the best ways a community can prevent the unnecessary loss of life, no matter its size, is to educate those within the community on what they should expect and how they should react to any potential disasters that the community might face. When people are given the appropriate information, they are often able to save themselves, circumventing the need for dangerous rescue missions to be performed.
Even more esoteric, long-term plans to deal with natural disasters can be effective. Climate change is undeniably affecting the planet, both through massive biodiversity loss on par with an extinction-level event, to a marked increase in flooding, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. One way to mitigate the damage caused by natural disasters is to introduce legislation to combat the effects of climate change, effectively reducing the frequency of future natural disasters.
Even the Greeks understood the importance of a properly functioning sewer system to the health of a city. Infrastructure is something that U.S.citizens rely on daily to not only make their lives easier, but healthier as well. When natural disasters like hurricanes or floods damage infrastructure like sewer systems, it can cause backup and flooding that results in a breeding ground for harmful viruses and bacteria like E. coli, Giardia, Shigella, and Salmonella that can end up causing serious damage long after a natural disaster wreaks havoc on a community. Taking steps to protect the infrastructure of a community from damage during a natural disaster can save lives and get a city back on its feet quickly.
However, not all of the infrastructure that is in need of protection is necessarily man-made. Healthy coral reefs provide vital flood protections for coastal communities to the tune of $1.8 billion dollars annually, while damaged reefs do little to protect cities from disastrous floods. Protecting the natural infrastructure that in turn protects communities is incredibly important, and should be made a priority for both sides of the aisle. It would be the ultimate win-win situation, as those who are environmentally inclined get what they want while those who are fiscally conservative can’t deny the long-term fiscal benefits of legislation to protect nature-based infrastructure.
It isn’t just coral reefs that help to protect against natural disasters, but wetlands and forests also work to prevent natural disasters, even slow-onset events like droughts. Natural infrastructure is woefully overlooked when it comes to policy discussion in natural disaster prevention, and in disregarding the potential that natural infrastructure holds in regards to prevention is foolhardy. Hopefully in the coming years politicians will see the true value in protecting these natural defenses as a way to mitigate the damage of natural disasters.
Preparation is key when it comes to natural disasters, and while all of the prediction and planning in the world can help to prevent damage, natural disasters are just a fact of life. When these disasters strike it is imperative that the government — both federal and state — prioritizes community needs after the fact, has a plan in place to prevent as much damage as possible while ensuring a speedy recovery, and focuses on protecting infrastructure both natural and man-made. Though there isn’t a way to completely remove the threat of natural disasters, there are certainly plenty of ways to prepare for them.