If you weren’t directly impacted by Hurricanes Katrina, Wilma or Andrew, the haunting images of the days that followed those powerful storms may seem like a distant memory. In fact, you may be too young to remember them at all.
And it raises the question: Is the country prepared for a powerful tropical system, or have people become complacent?
It’s been more than a decade since a major hurricane made landfall in the United States. We are in the longest stretch in history without a Category 3 or greater striking the country since record-keeping began.
Before Hurricane Hermine in September 2016, the last hurricane to make landfall in Florida was Wilma in 2005. It was also the last major hurricane to have struck the U.S.
The National Hurricane Center, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other federal, state and local government agencies plan, practice and preach preparedness each year. However, many meteorologists and emergency managers now fear complacency.
Though a hurricane drought is a good thing, there is a concern that people have let their guard down or have never experienced a hurricane’s fury at all. Many coastal areas are quite transient, so newcomers may be strangers to storms of major magnitude.
How should you prepare?
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration recommends that you have enough non-perishable food, water and medicine to last each person in your family a minimum of one week. Power will go out, and officials recommend having a battery-powered flashlight, a radio and a portable crank or solar-powered USB charger.
“One thing that doesn’t change as we move into and out of the peak of the season is the need to be vigilant and prepared. It doesn’t matter whether activity levels are high or low; it only takes one storm to make it a bad year for you,” said Dennis Feltgen, a NOAA meteorologist.
“Every storm is different. That is one thing we tell our staff in being prepared. We are not going to be able to think of everything, but we try,” said Mark Dowdle, deputy superintendent for the Outer Banks Group of national park sites.
Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center, agrees: “While the US hasn’t experienced the landfall of a major hurricane — Category 3 or stronger on our wind scale — since 2005, there have been major impacts since then in this country, especially due to water, including from Ike, Irene, Debby, Isaac and Sandy. And just look at how close Category 4 Joaquin came to the southeastern US last year as it caused devastation in portions of the Bahamas. We are as vulnerable as we have ever been.”
Learn from the past
Dowdle said we have to learn from the past and prepare for the future. “We work very closely with our local and state partners. How we work together is crucial when a storm hits.”
It has been more than 10 years since Hurricane Katrina, and most Americans say the country is no better prepared for a major hurricane, according to a CNN/ORC poll taken last year.
“You have to plan for the worst and hope for the best. Right now, people are hoping for the best and not planning for the worst,” said Russel Honoré, a retired Army lieutenant general who is best known for coordinating military relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina-affected areas across the Gulf Coast.
Recently, he has been volunteering with the Red Cross, helping victims of the flooding in Louisiana.
“The levee system was built to protect from floodwater coming down the Mississippi River each year due to snowmelt from the northern states. It was not built to handle localized flooding events like what we saw in Baton Rouge,” he said.
“Let’s say a Category 5 (is) coming into New Orleans; we would have Katrina again, because the levee system was built for a Category 3,” Honoré said. “We have not managed water like the Dutch. Instead, we have tried to put a Band-Aid on it to deal with the last disaster.”
If anything positive came out of Katrina, it could be the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act. Before the devastating storm, FEMA had to go through a lengthy process before it was able to access a disaster zone. Many believe that if aid could have moved into New Orleans sooner after the storm, many lives would have been saved. But there has been a major overhaul, and now, the agency can move into an area within minutes, saving valuable time.
“One thing you don’t get back in disasters is time,” said Rafael Lemaitre, director of public affairs for FEMA.
FEMA can now deploy ahead of a storm. During this month’s Louisiana floods, the agency had personnel on the ground before it even started raining. When Gov. John Bel Edwards asked for national assistance, FEMA was in place to step in when President Obama signed a disaster declaration.
“Go big, go fast and go early. It is not a formal slogan, but it is our philosophy,” Lemaitre said.
Rebuilding after Sandy
While being early cuts down on response time, those affected by Superstorm Sandy will tell you it still takes time and money to rebuild.
McLoone’s Rum Runner Restaurant has been a landmark on the New Jersey shore since 1986. It was Bruce Springsteen’s rehearsal spot for the Tunnel of Love Tour as well as a special place for weddings, birthday parties and anniversary memories.
A week after the restaurant’s 25th anniversary, Sandy moved up the East Coast. Restaurant owner Tim McLoone said there was 5 feet of “angry water” in the restaurant, and half of his building ended up in the Shrewsbury River.
When faced with the decision to rebuild, he didn’t hesitate. He knew he would rebuild higher and stronger. In fact, he went 14 feet higher. The restaurant now sits on concrete pillars high above the water’s edge.
McLoone is confident, from a construction standpoint, that his restaurant can now withstand anything. But does he think America is prepared for a hurricane?
“You’re going to have a very short story,” he said. “No.”