Would Washington survive a superstorm?

Washington officials have a strategy for a hurricane, but not the funds

Hurricane Irma on the east coast. Courtesy of NASA
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Washington has a plan in place to deal with a natural disaster, but they may not be financially prepared for the rebuild and recovery, according to an official from Homeland Security.

Hurricane season made its presence known Aug. 25, when Hurricane Harvey appeared in Texas as a Category 4 storm, forcing many to evacuate and even killing others. A few weeks later, hurricane Irma made an even bigger splash in Florida, measuring it as a Category 5.

Hurricanes of that strength hitting Washington, D.C., could ultimately affect the whole nation, even the entire world.

The damage

Clint Osborn, of D.C.’s Homeland Security, said while Irma and Harvey only affected a few regions in Texas and Florida, a Category 5 hurricane would slam the entire District.

“Any event that significantly disrupted daily life or day-to-day government operations in D.C. would most likely impact the federal government as well, which could have cascading impacts nationwide or globally, depending on the severity of the event,” Osborn said in an email.

He said newer homes in Florida were built to be more resilient to high-speed winds and buildings in Washington were not, resulting in greater damage in the District.

Zena Aldridge, a Southwest DC resident, said if she knew she would be affected by a hurricane, she would do some of the remedies she saw on social media.

Any event that significantly disrupted daily life or day-to-day government operations in D.C. would most likely impact the federal government as well, which could have cascading impacts nationwide or globally, depending on the severity of the event.

“I would put a lot of the items that need water proofing into the dishwasher,” she said. “It’s designed to be water-tight.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has an All-Hazard approach to plan for natural disasters, FEMA spokesperson Corey DeMuro said.  They consider each threat and assess the likelihood of it happening.

“Our plans do address specific hazards such as hurricanes, which does have specific actions our team will take,” DeMuro said in an email.

DeMuro said if they knew a hurricane was going to hit the Mid-Atlantic, their office might send the Incident Management Assistance Team to the potential impacted area, alert the Regional Response Coordination Center and start requesting commodities like food, water and sheltering supplies.

The recovery

Hurricane Irma on the east coast. Courtesy of NASA

Osborn said there are a few factors that determine how long recovery will take – the amount of damage and the availability of resources to name a couple.

He said it’s safe to say recovery would take several years if a hurricane like Irma, Harvey or even Sandy, a Category 2, struck Washington. Not only would that time be spent on recovering from the damages, but also rebuilding in a way to avoid those types of damages from happening again if another natural disaster struck.

Aldridge said all the utilities in her neighborhood are underground, making her and her neighbors immune to losing power.

“The only time, in the six years that I’ve lived here, we lost electricity is when they purposefully turned it off to put up our new solar panel,” Aldridge said.

D.C.’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency has a plan in place for natural disasters. Osborn said the District Preparedness Framework consists of specific plans that will “prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to and recover from all threats and hazards that threaten the well-being of the District’s residents, businesses and visitors.”

The plans differ depending on the type of natural disaster. Homeland Security turns to the District Mitigation Plan to determine which plan to use, Osborn said.

DeMuro said FEMA developed the National Disaster Recovery Framework (NDRF) to help build back resilient communities and to support state and local officials.

“There is no timeline for recovery, but the whole federal family works together to help make communities more resilient for years after a disaster,” he said.

There is no timeline for recovery, but the whole federal family works together to help make communities more resilient for years after a disaster.

The funding

According to Osborn, Washington’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency’s operational budget does not currently have the funds to assist the community if a Category 5 hurricane hits.

However, he said they refer to the District Preparedness System Legal handbook and the District Preparedness System Finance and Administration Plan’s processes and procedures for guidance to prolong their resources.

A Bloomberg article reported that FEMA’s disaster relief fund is starting to dwindle. The fund took a significant drop within a few days. It started at $2.14 billion and fell to $1.01 billion as of Sept. 5, before Irma hit and with Jose heading toward the east coast.

FEMA is required to provide a report of the disaster relief fund by the fifth day of each month, according to DeMuro.

DeMuro said there are a few factors the disaster relief fund needs to assist:

  • Emergency protection and debris removal
  • Repair and restoration of disaster-damaged pubic infrastructure
  • Hazard mitigation initiatives
  • Financial assistance to eligible disaster survivors
  • Fire management assistance grants for forest or grassland fires

Aldridge said if a hurricane was in the area, Washington is far enough from the coast to be greatly affected.

“We’re still inland far enough that we wouldn’t be devastated like Ocean City (Maryland) or Baltimore,” she said. “This is a pretty far enough location to be safe from hurricanes.”

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