Will Harvey's catastrophic damage push resilience building plans into the federal policy arena?

Similar to Katrina, Sandy, and other disasters in the United States, Hurricane Harvey's catastrophic devastation was worsened by the geography and urban sprawl of Houston. The destruction caused raises the question of whether this storm will further push resilience building plans into the federal policy arena.

AccuWeather projects Hurricane Harvey to be the most expensive natural disaster in history of the United States. The cost of the damages is predicted to equal the cost of Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy combined.

Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston. The city's flat geography, outdated drainage systems, poor land and reservoir management and recent construction boom made it extremely vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding events.

The Harris County Flood Control District has dubbed Harvey a “500-year flood,” meaning there’s a 1-in-500, or a 0.2 percent, that an event of this magnitude could occur each year.

Due to the low possibility, cities often don’t prepare for this kind of scenario. Houston’s Hazard Mitigation Plan addresses 100-year floods, not 500-year floods, even though Houston has experienced three 500-year floods in the past decade.

Hazard mitigation plans are meant to assess a location's vulnerabilities and to develop a plan to reduce or eliminate the potential risks on human life and property in future disasters.

The city’s vulnerability to flooding events led to what is projected to be the most expensive natural disaster.

Harvey's catastrophic flooding will likely lead to the adoption of new climate action plans in the storm-affected areas, as seen in previous cases of extreme weather like Katrina and Sandy.

Similar to Houston, New Orleans was not structurally prepared for a high magnitude hurricane.

New Orleans sits about 6 feet below sea level and is surrounded by a levee system. Scientists warned that the city is extremely vulnerable to hurricanes. But government officials failed to improve the infrastructures and evacuation plans in case of an emergency, according to Dr. Brent Yarnal, a Penn State professor of geography and science.

Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 and exposed the flaws in the system. The pumps and levees failed, and the city was left flooded with an estimated $91 billion in property damage and over 1,000 dead, according to Yarnal.

Following Katrina, New Orleans was forced to revise its climate action plan. New Orleans developed the Master Plan, which outlines land use and levee protection as well as overall town planning of New Orleans. But the extensive damage caused by the storm has not yet been completely restored in the decade following its destruction.

Sandy’s devastating impacts in New Jersey in 2012 also led to the development of an adaptation plan.

Not only has New Jersey implemented statewide climate policies, but it has also increased municipalities’ incentives to enforce environmental protection policies through its statewide certification program, Sustainable Jersey.

Sustainable Jersey is a nonprofit organization that aims to support local communities as they pursue sustainability programs by providing tools, training and financial incentives. It works to support community efforts to reduce waste, cut greenhouse gas emissions and improve environmental equity throughout the state.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also developed a strategy to reduce the costs of future disasters. The reactive strategies included enhancing data-driven decisions and engaging in whole community dialogue.

These disaster relief plans are responses to extreme disasters and are meant to limit the recurrence of the damages.

Reactive plans are more commonly used in the United States, as opposed to anticipatory adaptation plans, according to Dr. Robert Repetto, retired professor at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

Experts project that there will be more frequent and destructive disasters. Reactive adaptation measures are going to lag behind the emerging risks, according to Repetto.

This projection has led many United States’ cities to increasingly prioritize “building resilience capacity.” These cities are working to increase their ability to withstand and recover from stresses.

National policies can influence local resilience building and the establishment of disaster relief plans. National policies set expectations, define ways to measure resilience and promote policies that generate resilience in business. FEMA has played a key role in such national efforts.

“Preparedness is a shared responsibility and calls for the involvement of everyone—not just the federal government—but also state, local, tribal, territorial partners, businesses, faith-based and community organizations, as well as individuals and their families,” FEMA said in an email.

Extreme weather events, such as Sandy and Katrina, exposed communties' weaknesses and led to the further development of disaster relief plans to reduce the potential threats. These plans assessed the vulnerabilities of their communities in order to prevent the same catastrophic damages from reoccurring.

Hurricane Irma followed shortly after Harvey with similar high intensity and catastrophic damages.

While Florida has higher resilience to hurricanes due to the higher frequency of tropical storm events in the state, Irma hit with a higher intensity than the norm. Irma caused record-breaking power outages and severe devastation along its track.

Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma will likely lead to updated disaster relief plans, similar to those of Katrina and Sandy. The question remains whether the catastrophic damage caused will further push anticipatory adaptation plans and resilience building efforts into the federal policy arena.