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​Photo by Irina Dmitrienko, Alamy Stock Photo​

Disaster Dominoes

​"I've been doing this close to 40 years, and there has not, in my career, been a hurricane season anything like this," disaster response expert Jerome Hauer explains in a recent interview regarding the unprecedented 2017 Atlantic hurricane season.  

Given his experience base, that is saying something. Hauer has led the homeland security and emergency services department for the state of New York, the office of emergency management in New York City, and Indiana's department of emergency management. On the federal level, he has served as assistant secretary for the U.S. Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness (OPHEP). He is also a longtime member of ASIS International, and is now a professor at Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies.

But despite all those years in the field, Hauer cannot recall a storm season like the one that just passed. Starting with Hurricane Franklin and ending with Hurricane Ophelia, the 2017 season featured 10 consecutive hurricanes—the greatest number in the satellite era, all of which were marked by winds of at least 75 miles per hour. It may also have been the costliest season on record, with a preliminary total of more than $186 billion in damages, nearly all of which resulted from the three most devastating hurricanes: Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

Each of these massive hurricanes had its own profile. Harvey, for example, came with flooding of biblical proportions, and Irma devastated portions of Florida's power grid. Experts like Hauer say that these two hurricanes illustrated some lessons for emergency preparedness and response. (Experts interviewed for this article did not focus on Hurricane Maria, because the response to that storm was complicated by political and geographic factors.)

For example, while emergency management leaders in localities and states understand the importance of planning, they do not have the time nor resources to plan for every possible scenario, and so they normally do not plan for the unprecedented—such as three Category 4 hurricanes that make landfall within the span of four weeks.

"This many hurricanes that impact the United States and its territories in a single year is something that you couldn't contemplate," Hauer says. "Particularly since the hurricanes were catastrophic. The strength of the hurricanes, the volume of rain in some areas—we haven't seen anything like this that I can remember."

And even if a sole visionary emergency manager formulated a plan to protect all affected places from an unprecedented hurricane season, in the real world no jurisdiction or state government would have the billions needed to actually implement and fund the required costs of reinforcing, rebuilding, or replacing the various infrastructure systems that would be affected, says emergency management expert Harry Rhulen. Rhulen is CEO of the crisis management firm Firestorm and a member of the ASIS International Crisis Management and Business Continuity Council.

Nonetheless, the series of devastating hurricanes did illustrate another emergency management lesson, Rhulen says: proper disaster preparedness and response means planning for multiple disasters, not just one. "It's one of the most important things to account for—when you are doing business continuity and disaster planning, in general, you should assume multiple events," Rhulen says. 

Indeed, Hauer says that's a critical element of disaster response management—planning for the potential second- and third-level disasters. "We did that on a regular basis, both when I was in federal government and on the city level," Hauer says. "You can't just say we have flooding, and say how you deal with the flooding, but also how you will deal with the secondary effects, such as the health effects."

For example, during Hurricane Sandy, mosquitoes used overflowing reservoirs as a breeding ground, running the risk of the spread of West Nile virus. Similarly, after Hurricane Harvey, flooding in Houston raised the risk of health issues stemming from human contact with floodwater, which can harbor bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

Potential health risks like this mean that environmental experts from groups like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should be "part of the process" in disaster preparation, Hauer says. It is also important that hospitals take seriously the requirement to hold emergency exercises and drills. "Some take it seriously, but some don't, and they just go through the motions," he explains. And whether it be a locality or a state, drills by emergency personnel should be critiqued by elected officials who should ask some "tough questions" afterward, he adds. 

Another challenge in dealing with cascading disasters is that "the first crisis lowers your ability to perform all of the functions that you normally perform," Rhulen says. For example, a fire that destroys some computer hardware can hinder a company's efforts to protect itself from cyberattacks. And storm damage can increase vulnerability to thievery or other types of criminal activity. "You automatically have to bump up security," Rhulen says.

In addition, resources are finite, so in the case of responding to Hurricane Harvey's effects in Texas, "it stretches resources to the point where you are way behind, and near the breaking point," Rhulen explains. This could hamper the response to any disaster that happens in the near future. "It makes their overall exposure for the next year go up dramatically," he says.  

Given that government resources were stretched thin by the double blow of Harvey and Irma, the active volunteer response during the storms was especially critical and "really impressive," Rhulen says. These volunteers, ranging in scope from formal groups to neighbors helping neighbors, beefed up a responder workforce that would have been inadequate without them. "People need to understand—you're really your own first responder," he says. 

In the future, the unprecedented hurricane season of 2017 may be looked upon for another historically significant feature. It elicited an unusual type of response—and one that may serve as a closely watched model of resiliency planning in the future—by the island nation of Dominica.

Maria was the worst natural disaster in the country's recorded history. With sustained winds of nearly 160 miles per hour, the storm made landfall on September 19, 2017, as a Category 5 hurricane, forcing the majority of the country's 72,000 residents into homelessness and leaving the island without communication for more than 30 hours. More than 90 percent of the population was left without food, power, or shelter.

In the wake of this devastation, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said that he does not want to build on old vulnerabilities, but instead develop a targeted resilience strategy so that Dominica becomes the first "climate resilient" nation. "Our desire [is] to be the captains of our fate, and to choose the shape of our recovery," Skerrit said in a statement after the storm. 

To do so, Dominica would have to rebuild so that its infrastructure could withstand the type of extreme weather events that may become more common due to climate change. Exactly how the country would do that, and how it could fund such an undertaking, is not yet clear. But Dominican officials are appealing to global organizations for future assistance, and they say that they may have some international partners in their venture.

"The World Bank and European Development Agency have pledged considerable sums to back our vision as the first climate resilient nation of the climate change era," Skerrit said in a recent address to the United Nations General Assembly. "To deny climate change is to procrastinate while the earth sinks." ​ ​