A casual viewer of the Weather Channel could be forgiven for thinking that the past few months have signaled the start of the biblical apocalypse. Natural disasters are nothing new, of course, but it certainly feels like they are occurring at a vastly increased rate. Hurricanes in particular have dominated recent news coverage; in the United States alone, the past couple months have seen the landfalls of 3 major hurricanes (Harvey, Irma, and Maria) and a narrow miss by a fourth (Jose).
These hurricanes happened in such quick succession that media coverage of each aftermath seems to have been swallowed up by coverage of the subsequent storm. The purpose of this article, therefore, is to follow up on the relief and rebuilding efforts for each hurricane– we will look at the various damage assessments, the progress that has already been made, and the roadblocks that are still impeding recovery from going forward. Also attached are links to reputable organizations to which you can donate if interested in aiding with the relief effort.
Harvey made landfall in southern Texas on August 25th as the largest hurricane to hit the United States since 2005. It had already wreaked considerable havoc on the islands of the Caribbean, and quickly proceeded to lay waste to major portions of Texas and Louisiana, with most of the infrastructure damage taking place in the population center of Houston. Authorities have confirmed at least 82 deaths, and initial damage cost estimates are on the order of $100 billion.
Recovery efforts are progressing; most infrastructure has been restored to working condition, and the main issue that remains is the restoration of thousands of homes and other buildings that were damaged by flooding, most of which lack flood insurance. Congress passed an emergency funding bill for hurricane relief on September 8 in response to Harvey, providing an extra $15 million to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (F.E.M.A.) for disaster relief. However, that money is not specifically earmarked for Harvey relief, and will undoubtedly be utilized in responding to Irma and Maria as well. All this to say, it is essentially unavoidable that more funding will be required soon.
Recent news about the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey has focused on a disagreement between Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Texas Governor Greg Abbott. Texas, like most states, has a $10 billion ‘rainy day’ reserve fund for emergencies, and Mayor Turner has requested that the fund be tapped to aid in recovery efforts. Governor Abbott contends that it would be fiscally irresponsible to use the funds without authorization from the state legislature. However, the Texas state legislature only convenes once every two years, and would not be in session to authorize any use of these funds until early 2019– clearly, a bit late to be of much use to Houston.
Like Harvey, Irma terrorized the Greater Antilles and tore across the Caribbean before making landfall in the United States, hitting Florida early in the morning of September 10th. Various countries have reported 124 deaths in total, and while full cost estimates are not yet completed, they are expected to exceed $80 billion.
Since the nation was already in hurricane-response mode after Harvey, the immediate response in Florida was comparatively swift and well-organized. Thousands of National Guard troops were called out, and Navy ships were immediately sent to aid in recovery. While the damage from Hurricane Irma was obviously extensive, there was relatively little flooding in the aftermath, and infrastructure damage was therefore not nearly as severe.
Again, some emergency F.E.M.A. funds were approved in the aftermath of Harvey, but it is very apparent that both areas will need much more financial assistance moving forward. It remains to be seen what proportion of the cost will be covered by the federal government, and what will be covered by the state of Florida.
Puerto Rico, less than two weeks after enduring a severe battering at the hands of Irma, was smashed with another, larger storm: Hurricane Maria. Extensive flooding dealt massive damage to the already-weakened infrastructure, and literally the entire power grid of the island was destroyed. Remarkably, only 34 deaths have been reported in Puerto Rico so far, though that number may still grow.
Right now, Puerto Rico needs food, water, and supplies. Beds, power generators, roofs, medications, and numerous other urgent necessities are currently scarce if not entirely unavailable for the 3.4 million Americans on the island. Massive amounts of aid have been sent from the mainland United States, though many worry it is not arriving quickly enough. Major ports on Puerto Rico were reopened on September 25, but infrastructure has been so thoroughly destroyed that many of the relief supplies are piling up in the ports and cannot efficiently be transported inland yet.
One delay that temporarily stalled aid from arriving was President Trump’s indecision over whether to waive the Jones Act. This act, officially entitled the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, is a huge and comprehensive piece of legislation. It includes specific protections for sailors’ rights, sets standards for ship maintenance, and lays out environmental requirements, among many other things. However, it also includes a provision stating that if any transport of goods is carried out between two US ports, it must be done so in a ship that is both made in the United States and primarily crewed by Americans. This was preventing a significant number of relief vessels from being allowed to dock and unload their supplies. This part of the Jones Act is routinely waived for matters of hurricane recovery: it was waived a few years ago following Hurricane Sandy, and short-term waivers were actually granted for both Hurricanes Harvey and Irma just weeks before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. It is unclear why President Trump was immediately willing to waive the act in the first two cases but dragged his feet on the third.
All of these recovery efforts are ongoing, and it may be months or even years before we know the full extent of the damage from these hurricanes. Huge sums of money will be expended, and thousands of lives will almost certainly never be the same. But to our credit, huge numbers Americans citizens and organizations have made countless contributions, monetary and otherwise, to aid in the recovery effort. If you would like to join in that effort, the following are links to lists of reputable charities working to rebuild and alleviate suffering from each hurricane.
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