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Lessons learned from the hurricane season and disasters (natural and otherwise)

By Staff | Sep 14, 2011

With Hurricane Irene in the rear-view mirror but the peak of hurricane season upon us, a few lessons from the storm year to date:

Wide beaches protect. In community after community along the Eastern Seaboard, the truth was plain to see.. .more sand = more safety, less sand = less protection. In places where beaches were naturally wide, waves were kept well away from homes, habitats and infrastructure. In places where newly restored beaches put sand where there hadn’t been any for a while, residents and officials noted a drop in damage, less overwash and a more survivable storm overall.

“Hard” things fail, “soft things survive. Faced by storm waves, beaches lost sand – just like they’re intended to do. Conversely, those same waves were far less kind to piers, roads, bridges and walls… both along the coast and along the inland rivers. Given time, the sand usually migrates back or heads downstream to bulk up another beach. The hard structures? Not so much.

Hurricanes aren’t just coastal anymore. Sure, the best video will always be a wind-tossed beach with crashing waves and flailing trees. But the real disaster story is often hundreds of miles inland, where wind-strewn trees and swollen streams wreak havoc with people’s lives and pocketbooks. The catastrophic flooding in upstate New York and New England post-Irene and Lee is just the latest (double-barreled) graphic example of how far-reaching a storm’s destruction can be – and how short-sighted it can be to focus all the attention along the coast, both pre- and post-storm.

Preparation pays off. Whether it’s having a healthy shoreline, having a storm-tested emergency plan, or just having the nerve to tell people to get out of harm’s way or suffer the consequences, the push to be prepared in advance of Irene (in this case) saved lives and minimized damage. Some took heat for over-reacting… but imagine the criticism if the storm predictions had proven true and they hadn’t worked to make their communities ready. It’s trite, but true: Better to be safe than sorry.

Politics and disaster relief don’t mix. The efforts by some in Washington to hold disaster-response funding hostage as part of the current deficit debate, while perhaps good politics, is very bad policy. If citizens can’t count on federal aid – quickly offered and effectively applied – to help them recover from natural disasters, how can they tackle the daunting task of rebuilding a shattered community soon enough to keep people safe and get economies back on track? The premise of disaster relief is that we must all pitch in to help others in their time of crisis so they’ll be there to help us in return. Now is not the time for us – or our government – to turn our backs on those in need.

A disastrous deadline looms. Add up all the natural disasters this country’s residents have had to face just this year – tornadoes in the Midwest, flooding along the East Coast, fires and drought in the Southwest, earthquakes all over the place … there’s still almost a third of the year to go – and the imperative for disaster assistance is clear. So why is reauthorization the nation’s premier disaster response agency – the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) – frozen in the political disconnect between the House and Senate? If action is not taken to settle these differences by the Sept. 30 deadline, residents along this country’s coasts – and everywhere else – could find out what a world without federal disaster assistance and flood insurance looks like…and it won’t be pretty, many fear.

With Texas still burning, Joplin still rebuilding and New Jersey and Vermont still draining, the need is clear. What’s not so clear is the solution… but the federal clock is ticking.

(Founded in 1926, the ASBPA promotes the integration of science, policies and actions that maintain, protect and enhance the coasts of America. For more information on the ASBPA, visit www.asbpa.org, Facebook or www.twitter.com/asbpa.)