Two City Leaders Reflect on Hurricane Response and Recovery

Hurricane Irma spared Tampa, Florida a direct hit in September.

Hurricane Irma spared Tampa, Florida a direct hit in September. Shutterstock

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“You can complain about government 364 days of the year,” according to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. “But on that one day that you need us to be at our best, we better be at our best.”

When Hurricane Irma roared into Florida last month Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn says his city was braced for the worst.

It had been nearly a century since Tampa had taken a major hit from a hurricane. But Buckhorn now believed the city’s luck had run out. He expected the storm surge from Irma would inundate parts of Tampa and that properties, including his own home, would be damaged or destroyed.

Storm surge flooding, in his estimate, more so than powerful winds or heavy rain, posed the gravest risks to Tampa, a city of about 377,000 residents, located on a bay that shares its name. “That’s the killer,” Buckhorn said of the flooding.

In the end, the storm took a path that spared Tampa from the worst of its wrath.

‘We Executed on Our Plan’

Buckhorn, during a call with reporters this past week, expressed confidence about how his city prepared for the hurricane. “We practice hard all year round, and have for probably 10 years,” he said, describing the city's emergency response efforts.

As Irma loomed, there were about 1,000 police officers on standby, according to the mayor, along with fire rescue crews and “clean-and-sweep teams.”

After hosting four Super Bowls, a recent Republican National Convention and other major events, staff in the city’s command center were acquainted. “In that war room,” said Buckhorn, “there were no strangers sitting to your left or to your right.”

The mayor said his city also seeks to continually update its emergency management plans with lessons learned locally and from other places around the U.S.

“You can complain about government 364 days of the year,” Buckhorn said. “But on that one day that you need us to be at our best, we better be at our best.”

“This was that moment for us,” he added. “We executed on our plan.”

That said, Buckhorn recognized there were shortfalls with the overall response to Irma in Florida and with the ability of the state’s infrastructure to withstand powerful storms.

He said the state’s electrical grid was not as hardened as it needed to be.

And he noted some facilities for senior citizens were poorly equipped for the hurricane. “People died as a result of that,” he said.

‘Quarter-Billion Dollars of Debris’

Buckhorn is just one of the local government officials taking stock of storm response and recovery efforts in the wake of a several destructive hurricanes that have hit the U.S. in recent months. Another is Amanda Edwards, a city council member in Houston, a city that was swamped by catastrophic flooding in late August during Hurricane Harvey.

Edwards, who joined Buckhorn on this past week’s call, said that Houston’s local 9-1-1 system was bombarded with thousands of phone calls once heavy rains and flooding began. “9-1-1 was overwhelmed,” she said. This, according to Edwards, is one of the factors that led community members to band together and provide help to fellow residents amid the natural disaster.

The councilwoman acknowledged that tough days are ahead for Houston.

“The rebuilding of lives is what is most challenging,” she said.

Recovery efforts in the city promise to be not only challenging, but expensive.

Edwards pointed out that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will cover 90 percent of debris-removal costs. “But when you have a quarter-billion dollars of debris to remove, that’s a really hefty price tag in terms of what that city portion is,” she said. The state, after some political wrangling, will provide Houston with $50 million to help further defray those costs.

Edwards said her recent focus has been on reaching out to constituents who are disabled, elderly and poor to see that they get aid. She said some people in these vulnerable groups are living in homes that need to be gutted and refurbished as they await FEMA assistance.

“You have to go to them door-to-door to actually reach them,” she said. “A lot of these folks are not getting their information through traditional means like email, or news.”

‘New Normal’

Edwards anticipates difficult choices for residents and policy makers in Houston as the city seeks to recover and rebuild. One area where she expects debate is over what future development will look like.

“A lot of the areas that have flooded during Harvey have flooded previously,” Edwards said. This raises sensitive questions for property owners in those neighborhoods. “Will they agree to buyouts? Will they agree to elevate those homes?”

Cathleen Kelly, a senior fellow for energy and environment at the Center for American Progress, a liberal advocacy group, said the recent hurricanes that have hit the U.S. are an indication that the nation needs to prepare for a “new normal” when it comes to extreme weather.

And this, according to Kelly, means rethinking design, building and planning standards. “Taxpayers cannot continue to afford to pay repeatedly to rebuild communities, using business as usual land use practices and outdated guidelines, especially in flood prone areas,” she said.

Buckhorn stressed the importance of infrastructure investment. He said that Tampa had imposed a special assessment to help pay for maintenance and upgrades for its stormwater system and that over 50,000 tons of material gumming-up pipes had already been removed.

The mayor said President Trump’s promised, but still forthcoming, infrastructure package could help American cities on this front.

“Most of us,” he said, “have 100-year-old pipes that we’ve been duct-taping together for years.”

Even though Irma did not deliver the sort of worst-case blow it might have dealt Tampa, Buckhorn doesn’t expect the city’s streak of good fortune avoiding storms to last forever. “It is an inevitability,” he said of a hurricane striking the city. “At some point, the good luck will leave us.”

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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