As Brookings points out in an excellent post, the flooding in Texas is another cruel opportunity to learn lessons about how the United States reacts to weather disasters at the local as well as national levels. One of the lessons is that disaster recovery should be designed to make communities more resilient.
I have some experience in this. In the late 1970s I proposed and helped a village in Wisconsin move out of its floodplain and rebuild on higher ground as a solar community. In the years after the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1993, I organized small teams of sustainable development experts who held community-wide meetings to let disaster victims know about their opportunities to build stronger and safer homes and businesses, as well as buildings that were energy efficient and powered by renewable energy.
One of the most important lessons we learned was that there is a very small window of opportunity in which disaster victims are willing to consider more resilient and sustainable reconstruction. When the people who can help arrive too early, they look like carpetbaggers. Victims are still mucking out their homes and grappling with the insurance paperwork and applications for disaster relief. Their water-logged possessions are still piled up on the curb waiting to be hauled away. Families are still in shock with their world and their financial security turned upside down.
But there comes a moment when disaster victims resolve that they will never go through that kind of experience again – that something has to change. In that moment, they may be ready to talk about rebuilding in ways that make them more able to avoid or withstand future weather extremes. They might also be willing to consider other local improvements to make their communities more livable and their living expenses more affordable.
Before long, however, a different psychology sets in. Families and businesses just want to get their lives back to normal. They want their kids back in school. They want to be back in their homes before next Thanksgiving or Christmas. They want to go back to work. They want to reopen their businesses. They want to regain their financial security. They want normalcy so badly that they are content to simply patch up their broken homes and neighborhoods and to move back into what could well be the path of a future flood.
Like so many ocean-side and riverside residents before them, they will decide that the last disaster was an anomaly rather than a sign of things to come.
If outside experts are insightful enough to arrive at the right moment, then another set of lessons becomes important. They should offer their help only with the blessing of community leaders and they should involve the entire population in planning the recovery. Without the whole community’s support, plans for a more resilient future will go off the rails as the teachable moment passes and people revert to what’s familiar.
As Shalini Vajjhala of Brookings points out, there are some hard lessons that federal policy makers must accept, too, about how to help with recovery and how to prevent the need for it in the future. I’ve written about the folly of President Trump’s recent decision to revoke an Obama order that federal infrastructure projects should not be located in floodplains, and the fact that the nation’s flood control dams and levees were not built to hold back rainfalls intensified by climate change.
That is what Houston found out during Hurricane Harvey when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to make flooding worse by opening floodgates on two 70-year-old dams built to protect the downtown, and when a levee breach forced a mandatory evacuation of residents in Brazoria County.
Learning from the Harvey experience can be a small silver lining in the clouds that dumped on Texas and Louisiana. It’s true that some of the steps to better protect lives and property will be expensive. But they will not be nearly as costly as the damages that will occur if we assume that Ike, Katrina, Rita, Wilma, Sandy and Harvey, all within the last 13 years, were anomalies rather than a new norm.