EMERGENCY PLANNING and multi-agency response efforts helped mitigate some of the catastrophic impacts from Hurricane Harvey, yet the devastation caused by the storm will be felt in south Texas for years to come. Arnold Howitt, adjunct lecturer and senior adviser at the Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, and Herman B. “Dutch” Leonard, Baker Professor of Public Management at Harvard Kennedy School and Snider Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, founded and co-direct the Program on Crisis Leadership at HKS. With David Giles, they are co-authors and co-editors of Managing Crises (CQ Press, 2009) and Public Health Preparedness (APHA Press, 2017).
We asked Howitt and Leonard to provide their perspectives on Hurricane Harvey, the massive disaster response efforts that it spawned, and the prospects for recovery in the region.
Q: Disaster relief teams are working around the clock in and around Houston. How are they doing?
Generally very well, but the job is a really tough one. Texas has one of the strongest emergency management capacities of any state in the nation; they have done careful planning, have well trained and provisioned responders, and are operating with great dedication. In a disaster of this scale, however, responders can’t achieve precision or perfection in their response—and public expectations should take account of that. The novelty of such disaster conditions means that however good the pre-prepared plans for hurricane response are, they will prove incomplete or inadequate in some ways. Not everything will go well. Responders thus have to improvise creatively to deal with the unexpected dimensions of the crisis—and that may not always look pretty. But the efforts of various responders in Texas—emergency managers, rescue teams, firefighters, the police, the National Guard, emergency medical and public health workers, humanitarian professionals and volunteers—have been extraordinary. While there will surely be lessons learned from the Harvey experience, the responders are demonstrating commitment and the usefulness of strong preparation as the basis of adaptation to the conditions they actually face.
Q: What are the most difficult challenges surrounding inter-agency coordination in disaster relief efforts on this scale, considering so much damage to infrastructure and communication networks?
Coordination is a very challenging problem. Many responders from the disaster area and from places sending help assemble and start operating—hopefully in tandem. They come from different professions, jurisdictions, agencies, and levels of government. Most have never worked together, and even their leaders may have no prior relationships. Their work is urgent but very hazardous to themselves as well as those they are trying to help. They often confront widely varying problems in different geographic sub-areas across a wide landscape. They have to struggle to get information about the dynamic conditions in the field, making the achievement of good “situational awareness” highly problematic. Figuring out how to function and mesh their efforts is tremendously complex. But inter-agency coordination and coordination across levels of government has improved substantially in the United States with the development and implementation of the National Incident Management System (NIMS), beginning in 2002 and accelerating after Hurricane Katrina. NIMS provides a template for organizing response in complex disasters. It isn’t a detailed plan for any particular type of event but rather a way of structuring operations, planning, logistics, and administration when various groups of responders—who have never worked together or even met each other before—have to collaborate under extremely dangerous conditions. NIMS doesn’t solve the problems of destruction of infrastructure and failure of some communication systems, but it does mean that crucial elements of an effective response can be put in place quickly, that people have a blueprint of how to divide up tasks and implement them, that they have trained and exercised that blueprint, and that through an iterative, structured planning process while the disaster is in progress they can anticipate what they have to accomplish, not just in the here-and-now but in the hours and days ahead. We’ll learn more about how well this worked in Texas; but there is no question that responders there are far better prepared to coordinate their efforts than was true in earlier decades.
Q: What lessons from Hurricane Katrina are being applied in these current response efforts?
A few things can be mentioned. There is far less conflict and recrimination among political leaders at different levels of government than was true in the relationship among New Orleans, the state of Louisiana, and the federal government in 2005.
Recognizing what happened in Katrina, hospitals, nursing homes, and other institutions caring for vulnerable people have done much more sophisticated planning for disasters, although the challenges they are facing are still daunting. Many are still located in vulnerable areas.
There will be continued debate about whether the Houston metro area should have been evacuated in advance of Harvey, but planning and thinking about the realities of evacuation, particularly targeted evacuation, has become much more sophisticated than it was in 2005. FEMA, which did “lean forward” in advance of Katrina, has become even more proactive in this regard, partly because of changes in federal law and the development of the National Response Framework, and also because of FEMA’s enhanced recognition that advance steps are often crucial for effective response.
The Texas National Guard and guardsmen from other states have been called up in large numbers for response. Should it prove necessary to augment them with active-duty “regular” military as well, we now have much better ways of meshing their efforts—such as the creation of the “dual status commander” role to lead both contingents.
In making the comparison with the Katrina response, moreover, it should be noted that Texas has more resources and capabilities than Louisiana had in 2005; hence, it needs to rely less than Louisiana did on outside help—although that help for Texas has been very useful.
Q: What can people do to help?
There is a natural inclination for generous people to send supplies of all sorts—diapers, canned goods, clothing—to the disaster area. However, we don’t know exactly what displaced people need, and the task of unpacking, sorting, and routing various items that randomly arrive in the disaster area is usually well beyond the constrained capabilities of the aid providers on the scene. Often these goods sit unused in a depot somewhere. It is far better to support the relief organizations working in the disaster area by sending money that can be used to make targeted purchases of things that are truly in short supply.
As recovery gets underway, there may be a need for volunteers to help with cleanup, repair and reconstruction of housing, and other tasks; but we need to wait for the rain to stop, an assessment of needs to be made, and some form of organization put in place before volunteers can be most useful.
Q: Once the rain stops, what are the biggest challenges facing the city in the months and years ahead?
There will be many challenges of different types. Displaced individuals and families will need temporary housing, meals, and medical care, sometimes for months or even years for housing. Huge amounts of debris will have to be cleared: fallen trees, damaged vehicles, massive amounts of soil, sodden building materials, furniture, and appliances from inside and outside homes and other buildings. Some infrastructure—roadways, bridges, utilities, and telecommunications—will need immediate repair or replacement. With the new school year just starting, educational continuity will be a prime concern. Some schools will be unusable for extended periods, and many children will relocate away from their former school districts. Public facilities will have to be repaired, and many public employees will be facing their own crises as they try to get their homes and families back as near to normal as possible. Where there has been damage but not destruction, individual households and businesses will need to do cleanup and repair; and community associations and informal neighborhood groups are likely to take initiative in their own residential areas. And these are just a few of the challenges that lie ahead.
Q: How best can post-Harvey recovery efforts be sustained over the long term, considering the massive resources and time that will be required?
After a major disaster, sustaining recovery efforts long-term is always a challenge. A disaster of Harvey’s scale may take a decade or more for anything near full recovery.
In the early going, government funds and private contributions will cover important elements of the recovery, including infrastructure repairs; emergency shelter, medical assistance, and food programs for displaced families; and some subsidies for repair and reconstitution of businesses and private homes.
Pledges of assistance will come from all levels government, humanitarian organizations, community groups, and concerned individuals nationwide. Many follow through generously, but usually there is a gap—frequently a large one—between what has been promised and what can be delivered. As weeks, then months and years go by, news coverage inevitably dies down, and other issues or problems gain the spotlight; there is competition for resources and political support. Attention moves on; and it gets harder and harder to mobilize support for outside help.
Moreover, early recovery efforts as well as later ones often generate tensions about goals and methods. Should government reinvestment in infrastructure or subsidies for home repairs and business restarts be instituted quickly or wait for a careful (i.e., time-consuming) planning effort to ensure that the region “builds back better”? Should those who have lost more, get more aid, whatever their income levels, or should aid be provided according to some (likely contested) definition of “equity”? How should renters who do not own their homes be helped, if at all? Should flood-prone areas build back “familiar” or more “safely”? Such questions often create divisions among political leaders, professionals, community groups, the displaced, and less-affected taxpayers who may think “enough is enough” in terms of help to recovering areas.
Most of the resources for recovery therefore will come from private sources: insurance will cover a good deal (though many homeowners will lack flood insurance); many businesses will also borrow to reinvest; families will draw down savings, borrow from relatives, get bank loans, or use “sweat equity” to repair or rebuild. But some businesses will never reopen, jobs will be lost, some homeowners will be wiped out financially, families will relocate to other areas in search of employment or to be closer to relatives, and renters will move on within the region or elsewhere. Houston’s status as an energy hub for the nation should increase the likelihood that recovery resources will materialize in some measure. After such a disaster, however, the Houston metro area and other affected parts of Texas will never be the same, and the future will unfold slowly and in many ways unpredictably.