If you’re hit by a natural disaster, you’ll be glad government did these things

Hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters can strike with little or no warning – causing deaths, injuries and enormous property damage. I imagine some of you reading this have been caught up in one or more of these disasters. And inevitably, more of you will be impacted by them in the future.

What to do?

Officials at every level of government work year-round to prepare for disasters and to plan recovery efforts in their wake.

WHY YOU'RE IN DENIAL ABOUT DISASTERS

Unfortunately, we can’t stop natural disasters from happening. But we can do a lot to lessen the damage they cause and to protect human life. And after disaster strikes, we can speed the recovery and rebuilding of stricken communities.

I’m a senior Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) official with 30 years of experience in disaster preparedness and recovery at the local, state and federal level. I understand the obstacles communities face before and after a disaster strikes.

Recently I traveled to California from Washington to see firsthand the impact of the Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire and meet with affected communities.

The destruction I witnessed in the town of Paradise reinforced the importance of our disaster preparedness and resilience in an age where extreme weather patterns and our built environment can collide with disastrous results.

In Malibu Lakes I met a couple who lost everything. Yes, there were the monetary losses, but it was also the small things – the photos, letters, children’s drawings, and the accumulated memories – lost in a scorched instant.

During the past two years the U.S. has been hit by five major hurricanes and back-to-back wildfire seasons that destroyed homes, shuttered businesses, caused billions of dollars in damages and left countless lives changed.

Before disaster strikes, we all need to ask ourselves: What actions can we take today to prevent suffering and trauma tomorrow?

As the communities I visited recover, I urge them to think about how to reduce their future risk.

In Paradise I saw examples of how defensible space – when combined with the right building materials – can result in structures that withstand rampant fire.

If we choose to live in high-risk areas we must manage these hazards to minimize the impacts of future disasters. The ability to create more resilient communities is there if we have the resolve to apply what we know.

During the past two years the U.S. has been hit by five major hurricanes and back-to-back wildfire seasons that destroyed homes, shuttered businesses, caused billions of dollars in damages and left countless lives changed.

In the aftermath of terrible devastation, natural disasters often provide an opportunity for communities to become stronger. While recovery is costly, those expenses will only continue to increase unless communities take the necessary steps before disasters strike to better protect lives and property.

I know this well from personal experience. In 1973 a historic flood wreaked havoc in my hometown of Beatrice, Nebraska. The town then began to purchase flood-prone properties to help address the impacts of future flooding.

When I was mayor of Beatrice two decades later, the town acquired 120 homes and other buildings that we tore down. We converted the land into parks, open space, ball fields, and hiking and biking trails. The benefits of this – our floodplain management mitigation strategy – became evident in May 2015 when the Big Blue River overflowed.

Dealing with flooding in open spaces is a lot easier than dealing with flooding that hits homes and businesses.

According to our analysis, 95 of the structures we purchased would have flooded in 2015. But because of our efforts, nearly $13 million in flood damage was prevented and families escaped the misery of disaster suffering.

Beatrice is not an isolated case. There are many cities – small, medium and large – that have acted to be more resilient.

Prudent floodplain management is one way to reduce risk and avoid damage. Enacting stronger building codes has helped many communities build homes, businesses and public facilities that are still standing after a disaster.

After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Florida introduced a statewide code mandating that homes be built to withstand hurricane-force winds. When Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys last year, many structures built before 1992 were destroyed.

While houses built after that fared better, the homes constructed in recent years – under the newest codes – withstood Irma’s 132-mile per hour winds with minimal damage.

I observed the value of strong building codes when I visited Panama City, Florida in October. Five houses built by Habitat for Humanity emerged from Hurricane Michael nearly intact. The modest, solidly built structures used low-cost construction techniques that exceeded minimum standards and made the difference between complete devastation and a place to call home.

Florida is not the only place that recognized the need to rebuild better. Alaska’s largest city experienced the strongest earthquake in U.S. history 44 years ago. Whole blocks of downtown Anchorage were leveled. Tragically, the earthquake and subsequent tsunami claimed 139 lives.

As rebuilding began, Anchorage revised zoning laws to limit construction in earthquake-prone areas and enacted new building codes requiring that structures be designed to resist shaking.

Residents have spent the last 44 years building homes and structures in compliance with these new codes, fortifying their community. The quake last Nov. 29 damaged some homes, but thanks largely to the stringent building codes in place no large buildings collapsed.

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Across the country, communities have been able to break the cycle of disaster damage, reconstruction and repeated damage. No one can predict when and where the United States will experience a disaster, but there are proven, cost-effective methods to mitigate its impact.

As a nation, we can and must act now to make our country more resilient.