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As Dorian threatens the US, these are the lessons learned from past hurricanes

Floridians fill sandbags in preparation for hurricane.
reuters/Gregg Newton
Florida residents prepare for the worst.
By Ephrat Livni
Sarasota, FloridaPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Hurricane Dorian has grown into a Category 4 monster and now threatens a wider swath of the US coast. It appears Florida may not be hit as badly as feared earlier, but the storm still looks likely to ravage the area, including Georgia and South Carolina now, with extreme weather.

Experiences with hurricanes in recent years have taught Americans some hard lessons. Eight Atlantic hurricanes have made landfall in the US since 2016, according to the Weather Channel.

Yesterday, Donald Trump declared an emergency in Florida (especially attuned to the situation perhaps because his Palm Beach resort, Mar-a-Lago, has been in the path of the projected storm). The US president authorized the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency “to coordinate all disaster relief efforts which have the purpose of alleviating the hardship and suffering caused by the emergency on the local population, and to provide appropriate assistance for required emergency measures…to save lives and to protect property and public health and safety, and to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in all 67 Florida counties.”

The preparatory declaration is good news for Floridians, based on a Brookings Institute report on lessons learned from hurricanes past. In 2017, after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, Amy Liu and Andre Perry of the institute’s Metropolitan Policy Program noted that “speed of action, scale of aid, and interagency coordination can set a strong foundation for helping people and communities restore their lives and activities.” Acting fast to authorize and organize interagency activity is critical because authorities need to have cash and resources to meet the immediate needs of people who may be displaced from their homes and find themselves without work as well.

Swift aid and action aren’t only important from a humanitarian perspective, however. It “matters to the marketplace,” they write. Homeowners, businesses, and other private sector investors benefit from a sense of security offered by the provision of public funds, which indicates the government is also invested in the area. But Liu and Perry point out that rapid responses also call for extra vigilance because speed can lead to wasted resources and mistakes.

An NHC study notes that flooding presents the biggest threat to human life in such situations, leading to about 90% of directly caused deaths. Although storm surge, or coastal flooding due to high winds, accounted for 49% of US hurricane fatalities from 1963 through 2012, inland flooding has proven more fatal in recent storms due to the heavier rainfall involved in the later events. Between 2016 and 2018, the vast majority of direct deaths, or 83%, resulted from inland flooding.

There has been concern about storm surge with Dorian’s approach, too. However, forecasters have gotten better at predicting and communicating storm surge dangers. The NHC began unofficially issuing storm surge watches and warnings in 2015, a predictive storm surge flooding map began being used in 2016, and the storm surge warning system became fully operational until 2017. The improved technology and warning systems have made it easier to determine when and where the dangers of storm surge will arise.

In the long term, and even if the US is lucky enough to be spared the worst of Dorian, experts say that the most important lesson of extreme weather in recent years is resilience. Authorities, communities, and individuals have to learn to plan for disasters in advance and have a path forward worked out before the troubles begin. We may never know exactly what the weather will do or when, but we can be sure that some emergencies will be inevitable, so being ready for the worst will yield the best results when misfortune strikes.

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