Hurricane Katrina a dozen years ago left desperate people stranded on rooftops in New Orleans waiting to be rescued, and thousands more languishing in deplorable conditions in the Superdome as President Bush in Air Force One viewed the damage from 30,000 feet.
Bush was vilified for congratulating his Federal Emergency Management Agency head for a job well done when there was so much human misery and incompetence for all to see.
What we’re witnessing today with the wildfires in California should evoke comparable outrage. Where are the FEMA trailers for the 81,000 people displaced by the Camp fire in northern California?
I put that question to Kristina Costa, a senior fellow on the energy and environment team at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. Costa specializes in disaster response, and she said, “You’re right to ask—where are the trailers? The reality is the first line of defense is counties and state. Maybe that should change, but Congress would have to provide a lot more money and authority.”
That helps explain why we’re seeing people camped out in a Wal-Mart parking lot and shelters filled to overflowing with reports of viruses spreading and sickening occupants who have lost their homes and, in some cases, their loved ones.
Trailers are just now arriving in Florida after Hurricane Michael wiped out the Gulf Coast town of Mexico Beach in early October.
“FEMA can’t just send them in. They need property to hook them up to power and drainage,” Costa explained. “When the fire (in northern California) is 60 percent under control, it’s hard to know what to do. It’s clear that the procedures in place are not equal to the climate change reality that we’re living in.”
There is a direct line from Katrina leveling the Gulf Coast in 2005 to the worst wildfires in California’s history in 2017—until the even worse fires this year.
People drowned trying to escape Katrina’s floodwaters; they burned in their cars trying to escape California’s raging fires. Many people got out and recounted their story of fleeing the flames, but many went through the same horror and fear, and didn’t make it.
The media cover fires and hurricanes quite differently. Cameras can safely get close to a hurricane and document its likely path, along with stories of survival and defiance. Wildfires that spread the length of football fields in seconds don’t get wall-to-wall coverage in the news media. They are too powerful and unpredictable for sustained coverage.
This time may be harder to look away. The fires have lasted long enough to demand attention, and the tens of thousands of people displaced present a unique challenge. Michael Hart with FEMA’s information center in California told The Daily Beast that the agency is looking at traditional and non-traditional housing—everything from trailers and motels and hotels, to partnering with Airbnb and turning existing buildings into multiple dwellings.
“There’s nothing that’s not on the table,” he said. “This is a record-breaking disaster for the state of California, period.”
The pace of disasters of this scale has increased rapidly since Katrina. Hurricane Maria leveled the island of Puerto Rico in August 2017, followed the next month by Harvey dumping huge amounts of water on Houston. Hurricane Michael devastated parts of Florida in October of this year, weeks after Hurricane Florence battered the Carolinas.
“It’s overwhelming to the media and to the public to deal with all this,” says Costa. “This is my passion, this is what my work focuses on. The common thread is the severity and the scale that is being driven by climate change—and that’s the reality.”
Hurricanes at least give people time to prepare. The National Hurricane Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has gotten better at predicting where a hurricane will hit, and there is typically several days’ warning. With wildfires, there is little or no warning, and while they were once limited to certain times of the year, California’s long drought has made them a constant danger. “This thing whipped up into an inferno in a matter of hours,” says Costa. “You’re in a totally different disaster paradigm.”
Costa doesn’t fault FEMA or its head, Brock Long, who, she says, is qualified for the job he holds, and is willing to reflect on lessons learned and engage in self-criticism. She cites an interview he gave The New York Times at the Aspen Ideas Festival this year, in which he said he didn’t get AT&T and Verizon into Puerto Rico quickly enough to fix telecommunications, which slowed the overall response. “It’s rare to see any political figure admit fault. It speaks well of him,” she says.
She hopes FEMA relaxes its bureaucratic requirements for people to get help in California. If your house just burned down, you may not be able to present the deed that FEMA requires. And she hopes the agency will persuade more motels and hotels to house evacuees.
The natural disasters we’re experiencing are only going to grow in scale, she says. Since the 1980s, the United States has averaged five billion-dollar disasters a year. NOOA recently upped its calculation to 12 such events a year. How this administration responded to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where 75 percent of the territory is still without electricity, along with all the other disasters on its plate, is likely to be a topic of interest to the incoming Democratic House.