Emergency Management: Humanitarian Disaster Relief in the US Southeast

Introduction

The US Southeast is vulnerable to the adverse effects of hurricanes. Every time the calamities occur lots of property are destroyed and lives lost. The frequent humanitarian crises facing the inhabitants of the coastal region have attracted a lot of attention from the various stakeholders. A lot of resources have been mobilized and used to mitigate the impact of the storms. There are two perspectives from which disaster management can be looked at regarding the devastating hurricanes. The two angles are the measures put in place before the calamity strikes (the level of preparedness) and the post-hurricane rescue and relief activities. According to Pielke et al. (2003), the tornadoes do not bring inequities to a country. Rather, they only expose a country’s inequities in the form of unpreparedness. This paper explores the efforts by the various stakeholders in lessening the severity of the hazards resulting from the hurricanes and the role of information systems.

The general effects of hurricanes

 There are several aftermath effects of hurricanes. Firstly, the storms always come with the massive destruction of buildings and other facilities(Grunewald et al., 2000). Reconstruction of the houses is always among the immediate reactions from the public admistrastors. Whereas most of the reconstruction projects finish successfully, given the haste with which they are put up, there have been reports of further damages. According to Bakkensen and Mendelsohn (2016), the haste results in the use of cheap materials and poor designs. Consequently, the newly built houses become risky to the inhabitants.

            Another hazard that befalls the victims of hurricanes is the outbreak of diseases. The government’s response to such outbreaks has relatively been poor. Slepski (2007) notes that in most cases the government is only prepared to offer first aid services. However, in such disasters, there is a need for an intensified medical attention. Such diseases like cholera spread fast and widely when there are floods. The government should be pro-active. It is its responsibility to make sure that in case of a health crisis, the situation is put under control. Additionally, putting the appropriate structural measures in place will help the government not to make poor planning and resource allocation as a result of the tight spending deadlines that come with such disasters. Enough funding should also be availed to the healthcare providers.  According to Grunewald et al. (2000), NGOs’ healthcare services like the Red Cross’ are very critical in such situations.

            Lastly, the access to food becomes a significant challenge to the victims of damages resulting from hurricanes. Food security and agricultural rehabilitation should be a priority during the times of the disaster. Research shows that there are a few people who perish as a result of the inability to access the necessities like food and medication and not from injuries(Morris and Wodon, 2003).The government and non-governmental organizations however commendably distribute relief food in times of the calamities. What is disturbing is the fact that little has been done to offer lasting solutions regarding food securing. According to Pielke (2003), whereas most of the hurricanes bring the destruction of crops and farms, only the short-term feeding strategies that seem to be of interest to the public administrators. They recommend that an informed evaluation of how the food production and distribution works should be carried out so that the industry can be fully rehabilitated after the disaster.

The government’s role and preparedness

The federal government has several programs and agencies that are entrusted with managing emergencies. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) was established by the Senate in 1968 through the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968. The program’s objective is to relieve members of the public from the adverse effects of the damages caused by floods. It was established as an alternative effort in assisting particularly those whose buildings and properties were destroyed by floods. The program was doing very well and was able to sustain itself from the premiums. However, as from 2004, it started running in debt (Morris, 2003). Hurricanes Katrina and Hurricane Sandy were too severe that the program was forced to source money from elsewhere to pay the claims. In 2017, before hurricanes Harvey and Irma claims, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) was already in a debt of $25 billion.

There is yet another government agency established to deal with emergencies. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) came into existence in 1978. The agency’s primary purpose is to coordinate and support the public and the emergency response teams to develop appropriate strategies in preparation for, protecting and responding to all the types of hazards. FEMA is allocated a relief fund by the Senate. According to its records, from 2005 to 2016, 70 percent of the over $80-billion the agency spent on disaster relief was for hurricanes (Morris, 2003).

Apart from the active role that the government agencies play, they are also responsible for the creation of awareness. FEMA gives guidance for mitigating the hurricane damage in public facilities. It provides the local authorities and states with a variety of possible recovery and damage mitigation measures that can be considered for implementation during the reconstruction process. A handbook by the agency provides a list of the facilities that are prone to the wrath of the hurricanes and provides specific measures for each of them. It lists the roads and bridges, water control facilities and channels, buildings and their contents, utilities, water and sewerage systems, electrical power generation plants and distribution systems, recreational and marine facilities among others (Slepski, 2007).

            According to the agency, the hurricane destructions on public facilities are principally caused by three hazards. The first of them is surges. The coastal waves and the high tide effects can lead to inundation and destruction of the buildings along the coastlines. The second cause of damage is the resulting winds. The winds are powerful and blow at very high speeds. Their blow-in and suction pressures are capable of blowing out the external parts of structures including buildings’ rooftops. The exterior damage of the buildings will consequently result into the injuring of the occupants. The winds also carry debris with them which cause secondary injuries. The third cause of destruction is the heavy rains that characterize the hurricanes. The impact of the rainfalls is felt in the form of the damages caused by floods.

Critics have faulted the current approach by the government in offering relief funds (Morris, 2003). They argue that FEMA should change the way it pays out money. Instead of the current system, a deductible and credit system to counter the damage caused by the disasters should be adopted. Presently, the federal government pays about 80% of the total relief funds with the local governments paying the rest. Under the new system, the states will have to give the bigger percentage of the reliefs.  There is also a need to issue the local governments with credits for use in resilience and mitigation strategies at the state level.

            Hurricanes’ effects directly affect the government’s expenditure in that it uses the emergency and relief funds to search for the victims, rescue and provide temporary basic services. However, the cost of running social programs significantly rises as well. According to research, the direct relief costs averages at $155 to $160 per capita when a hurricane strikes.  On the other hand, the social costs hit $780 to $1,150 per capita for a 10-year period after the storm (Slepski, 2007). A hurricane sustains injuries for the victims, causes the death of the breadwinners in a family and destroys the workstations. All these effects increase the social burden on the government.

            There is a risk that the costs of the hurricanes will continue to hit harder on the people. There are two main reasons for this conclusion. Firstly, the climate continues to change over the years for the worse. Gradually, the severe effects of climatic change become evident. An example of the global climate change effects is the rise of the sea levels (Pielke et al., 2003) Consequently, when the storms come, the impact is immeasurable in the coastal regions. The second pointer that the fatalities and destruction caused by Hurricanes will be severe in future if appropriate measures are not taken is the rapid economic development witnessed along the coastlines. The increased construction activities and development attract a higher population in those areas, which have been identified to be prone to hurricanes (Bakkensen and Mendelsohn, 2016). The two factors will only increase the number of people who are vulnerable to the disaster.

Additionally, the government and other stakeholders have been blamed for failing to provide accurate flood maps. Many people have been caught by floods unaware due to wrong or outdated data on the areas prone to floods. Some of the regions marked safe in the current flood maps have been heavily stricken by the storms. This brings the need for the updating of the flood maps. Flood mapping also suggests to the public the effective ways of protecting themselves against the waters (Basolo et al. (2009).

The role of insurance companies

The insurers play a very critical role in mitigating the damage resulting from hurricanes in the Southeast. According to Grunewald (2000), nationally, the claims of damages arising from hurricane Harvey amounted to $160- to $190-billion. This was one of the most expensive hurricanes in the US history. Such expenses lead to the question what the country could do to avoid the devastating damages that occur every time there is a hurricane. There is a need for a more pro-active approach rather than a responsive one. The impact of the hurricanes has led to many insuring and reinsuring companies to shut. In particular, hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Wilma, and other storms in 2005 left many of the companies folded (Bakkensen and Mendelsohn, 2016). However, after the extremely expensive seasons, many more investors brought in money in the insurance sector. This significantly increased the insurance sector capacity to pay the disasters’ claims. However, in 2017, more devastating storms left the companies and the people hopeless.

Weather Forecasting

            Weather forecasting is an essential tool in mitigating the damage brought about by hurricanes. Over the last several years the accuracy of the weather predictions has significantly improved. In 2004 and 2005, where there were a series of hurricanes, the NHC 12–72 h forecast accuracy was very commendable (Slepski, 2007). The issuance of hurricane warnings is a program that brings together various bodies. The National Hurricane Centre within the National Weather Service has the overall duty of giving tracking and intensity forecasts. However, the regional forecasters play a very crucial role in providing appropriate weather warnings. The local National Weather Service offices within the Southeast states use their knowledge of the regional meteorology, oceanography, topography, and population demographics to give accurate figures of the expected wind speed and direction, rainfall and storm surge. There are still uncertainties in hurricane tracking and intensity predictions nevertheless. In several instances, there have been conflicting forecasts from the government and private forecasters. However, there is need to appreciate that these uncertainties are there. It is almost impossible to give 100% weather and climatic predictions. According to Bakkensen and Mendelsohn (2016), failing to appreciate the uncertainties and poor communication of their implications will result in conflicting official guidance, public confusion, and weak response.

Cooperation and information systems

Slepski (2007) acknowledges that recently the coordination between the government agencies and NGOs in times of disasters has significantly improved. That notwithstanding, there has been witnessed some elements of lack of cooperation and competition among the various stakeholders. When the hurricanes strike, it seems like the multiple stakeholders are acting independent of each other. But if the NGO’s, the security personnel, the healthcare providers, the insurance companies, the local authorities and the federal government among other key players were to join hands and harmonize their operations, rehabilitation would be made easier. Some people argue that when hurricanes strike the speed of response is critical. But according to Pielke et al. (2003), whereas this is true, it is evident that the agencies’ self-interests come to play at times.

One of the obstacles that have been identified to act against quality response and emergency recovery strategies is lack of good quality information. However, though there is room for improvement, good information systems have been developed to counter the damages caused by hurricanes and other similar calamities. These systems include inter-agency information sharing networks, dedicated disaster-monitoring platforms by agencies and the various mechanisms of collecting data from the public. Many government agencies and NGOs have hotlines through which one can contact them to report an emergency or ask for assistance (Grunewald et al., 2000).

There is a need for real-time and dependable information systems. A good information network aims at two critical goals. Firstly, it looks forward to improving the quality of decisions made prior, during and after emergencies. This is facilitated by the ease of access and the availability of valuable data. The recent technological and computing advancements have significantly contributed to the sharing of timely and reliable information. Unfortunately, at times, unreliable information has misled the rescue teams. Sometimes exaggerated or wrong information has been reported (Basolo et al. (2009). Another goal that such a system targets is efficiency and effectiveness. Given that emergency relief is a multi-agency activity, there is need to have a system where proper coordination is enhanced. A good information network will facilitate such coordination. This will make sure that there is no duplications or repetitions.  The systems also help in mitigating the damage in the sense that the government can remotely monitor the activities going on in the affected areas remotely.

As already mentioned, useful information in the disaster relief activities is reliable, real-time and easily accessible. This means that whatever facts that are being given about the disaster are free from errors, are timely and are readily available to whoever needs them. Other qualities of useful information include relevance, clarity, and accuracy. Additionally, it must be complete and addressed to the right person or authority. (Bakkensen and Mendelsohn, 2016).

The involvement and the role of the public

To mitigate the effects of the hurricanes, there is a need for public participation in the design and development of various relief programmes. Involving the potential victims of the calamities brings more insights. The relief projects aim is to restore the usual way of life. In several cases, the victims have complained of housing projects for relief put up in locations far away from their places of work. Slepski (2007) notes that some have even declined to take the houses and instead opted for alternative solutions including living with relatives.  

Seeking for donations from well-wishers has also become a common way of mobilizing resources to support the victims of the hazards. Due to the severity of the damages caused by hurricanes and the acute shortage of funds, there has been the need for direct involvement of the public in the emergency relief efforts. When Hurricanes Maria and Irma hit, many non-governmental organizations called upon the people to make their contributions in the form of donations. Among the organizations that ran the donation programs include the American Red Cross, AmeriCares, Salvation Army and the Convoy of Hope.

            Individual preparedness is also a critical aspect to look at. According to Basolo et al. (2009), many households look upon the third parties for assistance in times of calamities. This mainly is a result of overconfidence in the government preparedness. Others claim that it is solely the responsibility of the government to take care of its people in times of disasters. For this reason, many of them are unprepared for any emergency at a personal level. They thus fail to take individual measures to prevent the adverse effects that come with the hurricanes. However Basolo et al. (2009) say that research shows that for about the first three days the victims of such calamities are forced to fend themselves. Simple personal measures such as having the necessities in store should therefore be encouraged. Having enough food supplies, first aid tools and safety attire such as boots and safety jackets are some of the things that experts say one should have ready when warnings of the storms are given. It is also their responsibility to keep themselves updated about the hurricanes.

Conclusion

Significant steps have been made by the government and non-governmental organizations in preventing the destruction of properties and deaths caused by hurricanes in the US Southeast. All the same much remains yet to be done. More mobilization of resources and coordination is still necessary. Of much importance, however, is the need for civic education among the inhabitants of the coastal region so that the can take the necessary precautions before the public administrators come in.

References

Bakkensen, L. A., & Mendelsohn, R. O. (2016). Risk and adaptation: evidence from global          hurricane damages and fatalities. Journal of the Association of Environmental and        Resource Economists, 3(3), 555-587.

Basolo, V., Steinberg, L. J., Burby, R. J., Levine, J., Cruz, A. M., & Huang, C. (2009). The           effects of confidence in government and information on perceived and actual             preparedness for disasters. Environment and Behavior, 41(3), 338-364.

Grunewald, F., Geoffroy, V. D., Lister, S., Van Brabant, K., & Foley, M. (2000). NGO    responses to Hurricane Mitch: Evaluations for accountability and learning (No. 34).            Overseas Development Institute; Humanitarian Practice Network (HPN).

Morris, S. S., &Wodon, Q. (2003). The allocation of natural disaster relief funds: Hurricane          Mitch in Honduras. World Development, 31(7), 1279-1289.

PielkeJr, R. A., Rubiera, J., Landsea, C., Fernández, M. L., & Klein, R. (2003). Hurricane             vulnerability in Latin America and the Caribbean: Normalized damage and loss       potentials. Natural Hazards Review, 4(3), 101-114.

Slepski, L. A. (2007). Emergency preparedness and professional competency among health           care providers during hurricanes Katrina and Rita: pilot study results. Disaster       management & response, 5(4), 99-110.

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