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After the Storm

Hurricane response efforts and the failure to govern

After Hurricane Katrina laid waste to New Orleans and parts of the Gulf Coast in late August 2005, members of Congress wanted to know how and why the federal government’s response had fallen so short. Congressional hearings on this most catastrophic of storms included titles like “Why Did the Levees Fail?” and “Recovering From Hurricane Katrina: The Next Phase” and “Legislative Proposals in Response to Hurricane Katrina.” In short, the government, faced with a crisis at least partially of its own making, attempted to govern.

Even as cleanup efforts were underway, the U.S. House passed a mid-September resolution establishing the Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina. Over the course of the next several months, the committee held nine hearings, and it eventually produced a report titled “A Failure of Initiative.” The Senate acted, too. In early February of 2006, Senator Susan Collins gaveled to order the eighteenth Hurricane Katrina-related hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The response to last year’s major storms—Harvey, Irma, and Maria—shared at least one thing in common with the Katrina disaster. Just as President George W. Bush had claimed his director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had been doing “a heck of a job,” President Trump claimed his administration had done “a fantastic job” in the aftermath of Maria.

But there was also a glaring difference: this time around, Congress showed almost no interest in looking into the federal response. In fact, it was up to the local government in Puerto Rico to commission a study of what really happened in the aftermath of Maria. That report made national news in August, when evidence emerged that instead of the sixty-four dead that had been trumpeted as the “official” death count, the estimated number of deaths was closer to 2,975—well more than the 1,800 who died after Katrina. In the wake of all that Puerto Rico trauma, the government has done . . . what, exactly?

There has been almost no Congressional oversight of the response from FEMA, or any other federal agency, or the executive branch. No select committees were formed, no parade of hearings clogging the Capitol’s halls. Among the few hearings that did touch on hurricanes was one in the House Homeland Security Committee titled “Houston Strong: Hurricane Harvey Lessons Learned and the Path Forward.” A few others have barely scraped the edges when one considers the scale of the issue—a Senate hearing on the Small Business Association’s response to the 2017 hurricanes, another on geopolitics of oil and gas industries, another on power grid resiliency.

Outside of Congress, the trend continues. Donald Trump made a big show of going to Puerto Rico a few weeks after the storm, when he tossed paper towels to a crowd and preened like a majestic savior. But there is no question his administration’s well-documented general lack of professionalism and competence contributed to Maria’s devastation, and in its wake there have been no signs of any particular reflection or attempt to address the failures.

In 2012, the Obama administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy was heavily involved with response to Hurricane Sandy, both in interpreting the complicated science involved in hurricane forecasting and preparation, and afterward, when it helped with connecting technology companies to aid in everything from housing for displaced families to coordinating Google’s crisis maps.

My reporting on that office last year was unable to turn up much of anything in terms of OSTP’s role in the 2017 storms, and a Freedom of Information Act request on what, if anything, the office was doing to try and improve returned only dozens of almost entirely redacted pages. Much of this consisted of meeting minutes for the Subcommittee on Disaster Reduction, a cross-agency board aimed at research and preparation for all kinds of disasters; the minutes did reveal that more than half the designated representatives from every corner of government from the EPA to FEMA itself often failed to show up for the committee’s monthly meetings.

Racism, statehood, incompetence—Hurricane Maria offered up a buffet of options for failure, all leading toward a tepid, disgraceful response and nearly three thousand dead Americans.

Most people will jump to one of two conclusions to explain the glaring lack of response to Maria. One would be, to extend an idea offered by Kanye West, that the government does not care about black and brown people. That surely played a role; it has been carefully, easily, and continuously documented, since Trump descended his gilded escalator or even before, when he spent five years on his birther crusade, just how racist the current White House is. To extrapolate all we’ve heard from Trump’s circle and the president himself out to a policy whereby the three-million-plus residents of Puerto Rico are simply ignored as unworthy of a government response is not remotely far-fetched.

But it doesn’t seem sufficient to explain the difference between the responses seen with other storms compared to Maria. Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, for example, was disproportionately aimed at poorer people of color as well, and while there is certainly an argument to be made about the immediate response—the Superdome, the levees, the Lower Ninth Ward—it is undeniable, as we saw, that the government as a whole did in fact take a long hard look at its actions, and attempted to improve the situation.

A second explanation might be the more popular at the moment: representation. All those Puerto Rican residents, though legal citizens of this country, lack a voting representative in Congress and play no role in the electoral college. Even if race had nothing to do with it, would anyone paying attention to our politics these days be shocked if elected officials almost entirely ignored a bloc that could not actually elect them?

But that isn’t quite the whole story either. The lack of response across government—the White House, Congress, FEMA, any number of other agencies—suggests it’s not just the brown skin, or the lack of representation, but something else. It is, perhaps, a symptom of that deeper disease that many people feel today but can’t easily describe, the melanoma lurking on a fold of skin just out of sight. The government has, in a very real sense, turned away from governing.

Hurricane Harvey, which hit the very-much-represented Houston area, wasn’t as deadly as Maria (though it is considered responsible for over a hundred deaths), but it was catastrophic nonetheless, with a damage toll of $125 billion putting it shy of only Katrina on the country’s list of catastrophic storms. And yes, we got the “Houston Strong” hearing, along with a bit more hand-waving from Congress, but still the government has not appeared to engage with the disaster and the lessons it might hold—lessons on resilient construction, on flood plains and evacuation plans, on climate change and the ever-increasing risk for such extreme events. There is no select committee for Maria, but nor is there for Harvey or Irma. As devastating as those storms were, elected officials seem hell-bent on simply returning to the status quo, damn the climate change-powered torpedos. Indeed, the Houston city council only barely passed a measure in April designed to restrict building in the very places—absurd, untenable places—that Harvey inundated, a result one could imagine might have been easier to obtain with the full shadow of the federal government looming nearby.

No, Congress and the executive branch and much of the U.S. government may be racist in certain ways, and it may be cruelly biased against its unrepresented constituents, but it is also, simply, broken. There is nothing to gain from the hearings we saw in 2005 and 2006: all we would hear about are failures, and since when can a party in power run on those?

Members of Congress have always loved to talk, but those Katrina hearings weren’t just bluster and campaign slogans. The Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act, largely written to reform FEMA, was enacted as part of an appropriations bill in 2006. A Congressional Research Service report noted six different pieces of legislation that contained reforms to emergency management and response. In spite of much criticism from the right that smacked fairly hard of political opportunism, the government response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012 seemed to have absorbed many of Katrina’s lessons.

Much scholarship already exists about the increasing partisanship seen in Washington, but hurricanes may offer one of the better avenues to examine some direct effects. When Congress exists almost solely to score political points against opponents, to win favor with one voting bloc or another, then nothing gets done that doesn’t have some political expediency attached to it.

And right now, when one party controls all of the government and has little incentive to turn an inward eye on a catastrophic failure of policy and management, we are granted a glimpse at both the gaps in the system and the rot at its heart. A White House that lacks basic competence or understanding on nearly every issue—and certainly on one that involved science, planning, compassion, technological expertise, and a willingness to engage with anyone at hand—was never going to handle a major natural disaster well, and especially one that featured victims that don’t look like Stephen Miller thinks they should. A Congress that has proven itself incapable of even twitching faintly in the direction of its oversight role out of fear of the angry and extremely loud Trump base wasn’t about to shine a spotlight on the administration’s failures, especially when the constituents at risk barely count as constituents at all.

Racism, statehood, incompetence—Hurricane Maria offered up a buffet of options for failure, all leading to a tepid, disgraceful response and nearly three thousand dead Americans. A 9/11’s worth of death, but no Hurricane Patriot Act or Forever War on Climate Change even remotely under discussion. Instead, only the feeble breath of a government apparently comfortable abdicating any responsibility to govern.