By Dr. Kandis Y. Wyatt, PMP
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics
Hurricanes are the most violent storms on earth. While hurricanes occur both in the Pacific Ocean (where they are called typhoons) and the Atlantic Ocean, the greatest impact to the lower 48 states comes from the Atlantic storms.
According to researchers at the United States Global Research Program (USGCRP), “more than 50 percent of the American population—about 164 million people—live or work in coastal counties and help generate 58 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.” As a result, there is a need for developing communities capable of withstanding costly natural disasters such as hurricanes.
The Atlantic hurricane season extends from June 1 to November 30 of each year, with the peak storms occurring from August to October. Atlantic hurricanes are known for producing strong winds, copious amounts of rain, and a mixture of tornadoes and waterspouts (tornadoes that form over water). As of November 20, the Atlantic hurricane season has produced 21 named storms, making it the third most active Atlantic hurricane season on record.
Defining Storms and Their Names
While people use the word ‘hurricane’ to describe a large storm system, there are other terms that are equally important to understand as well. A named storm can evolve from a tropical disturbance, tropical depression or tropical storm to a hurricane; all of these terms can apply to the same storm system based on the strength of the winds.
In addition, a storm can intensify, diminish and then re-intensify. In addition, there are some tropical storms that have caused more damage than hurricanes because in addition to wind speed and direction, precipitation and lightning are important contributors to the overall damage.
The effects of one hurricane can be extensive. For instance, there can be structural damage to homes and businesses, power outages, interruptions in the services provided by key utilities, and flooding.
In addition, there are human health hazards. People can receive infections from standing water, become malnourished when they cannot get to food sources, and get injured or even killed from debris, drowning, or structural collapses.
Preventative measures are needed to help citizens and communities survive natural disasters. Hurricane preparedness usually falls into two categories:
- Information and preparedness
- Recovery and resilience
Information and Preparedness
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are several steps needed to prepare for a hurricane. These steps include:
- Making a plan – Many families fail to decide in advance how to handle emergencies. Proper planning includes securing an alternate location to live, locking up a home, and notifying relatives and friends of your family’s safety.
- Taking care of pets and elderly family members – In emergency situations, pets are often left behind or neglected. It’s important to provide proper food and water for four-legged friends. Similarly, elderly family members may need additional care and resources to help them before, during, and after a disaster.
- Being prepared to evacuate – Local residents should listen to officials and be ready to evacuate an area if there is a mandated evacuation order.
- Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 – Local shelters and recovery centers may require proof of one’s COVID-19 vaccination to enter and use their facilities.
- Preparing an emergency kit – Ideally, an emergency kit should include medical supplies, batteries, cell phone chargers, clothing and nonperishable food.
- Assembling important documents – There may be a prolonged period before you can return to your home, so have copies of important documents (medical records, birth certificates and mortgages) to provide to authorities, especially if power outages prevent you from accessing these documents via the internet.
While these suggestions from the CDC are helpful advice, several of these recommendations are cost-prohibitive for low-income families and low-income communities. For example, some communities do not provide emergency shelter before, during, and after a disaster, which forces residents to travel longer distances to receive aid. In addition, evacuation can be a problem if individuals do not have their own vehicles or commonly rely on public transportation.
Also, community businesses have been known for price gouging after a disaster. For low-income individuals, buying everyday essentials, such as food, gas, and a place to stay can quickly become cost-prohibitive.
Finding affordable short-term housing when one is on a limited income can be challenging, and some residents may choose instead to shelter in place and “ride out” the storm. When residents refuse to evacuate, local communities should not only focus on evacuation procedures, but also have measures to assist individuals who chose to stay.
Recovery and Resilience
There are some coastal communities in North Carolina, Georgia and Florida that experience a hurricane every two years. The damage from these hurricanes can be very expensive for communities. For instance, NOAA reported that over 28 hurricanes caused over $1 billion in damage from 2018-2019.
The cost of hurricane-related damage is projected to increase in the future. Consequently, preparedness, recovery and resilience measures are key for all coastal communities.
While hurricane preparedness is essential, it’s also important for communities to understand how to bounce back after a devastating natural disaster. Planning for a hurricane includes the creation of restorative measures in community planning and ensuring that resources and aid are equally distributed among communities, so that low-income communities get the help they need.
There also needs to be state and national efforts to promote and enforce resiliency programs. Here are a few of my suggestions to improve the resilience of coastal communities:
- Education is key – Educational resources should be provided to residents via the internet and paper documents to citizens, places of worship, community centers, and businesses. These documents should contain information on what to do and who to contact when a disaster strikes.
- Improve communication before, during and after natural disasters – Individuals should be provided with various methods, such as phone numbers and internet websites, to check the status of power restoration and other aid. This information will help displaced individuals to understand the best time to return to their homes and businesses after a disaster.
- Community planning should be more extensive – Community planners need to focus on building resilience before establishing new communities and must also shore up existing communities. This work includes developing parks and common areas with water retention features to prevent inland flooding. In addition, sea walls and building codes need to reflect the latest technology to protect citizens and businesses.
- Better natural and manmade barriers should be created – Coastal communities should allocate resources toward developing natural barriers to disasters, such as dunes, wetlands, seagrass beds and oyster reefs. In addition, artificial coastal protection structures, such as seawalls and revetments, are needed to protect homes and businesses close to rivers, streams, and the ocean. Developing low-cost community programs to fortify buildings and homes may be costly initially, but they could save communities time and money in the long run.
- More flexible work and leave policies could be implemented – Companies should develop plans to allow employees to work remotely, depending on their jobs. Many companies suspend operations after a disaster, which directly affects an employee’s pay, livelihood and resiliency. Companies should be more flexible to employees who are affected by a disaster and may not be able to work for some time.
- Business should develop better backup plans – Many supply chain disruptions are a direct result of weather-related disasters. As a result, companies should develop backup plans to keep employees safe and to continue operations before, during, and after a storm. In addition, companies should have alternate sources to obtain necessary resources to maintain company operations during all phases of a natural disaster.
It’s impossible to stop a hurricane or any other natural disaster. Ultimately, it’s not a question of if a natural disaster will occur, but when the next natural disaster will occur.
Ensuring the resilience of low-income coastal communities needs to shift from just prevention to providing resources before, during, and after a disaster and supporting critical infrastructure upgrades and repairs. Understanding all of the components of coastal resilience is key to ensuring that preparedness, information, and resources are equally provided to all communities so they can be ready for the next natural disaster.