In a Council on Foreign Relations cautionary report August 24, the Council puts it baldly: “The U.S. government responds to scores of disasters each year, coordinating closely with state, local, and foreign partners. However,” the account warns, “more frequent and severe storms, fires, and floods are straining resources.”
The United States has been a leader in disaster relief both at home and abroad, which has contributed to its favorable image around the world. There has been relatively light reporting in the United States of the worldwide damage of COVID-19, signaling the need for greater global awareness to help other countries as the scourge is curbed here at home. Such a strategy might begin by assembling an area-by-area summary of overseas missions’ latest reports.
Among the most significant recent crises assisted by Washington:
- The coronavirus, and efforts to identify a vaccine here and abroad (2020)
- Widespread destructive fires in California (2019 and 2020)
- A pair of deadly hurricanes in Puerto Rico (2019) and
- An extraordinarily damaging Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana (2004-2005).
Katrina, as of 2005, was the largest hurricane to strike the United States and damaged 90,000 square miles of territory from central Florida to east Texas. The wind topped 175 miles per hour and affected about 15 million people. At its peak, Category 5 hurricane Katrina produced 33 tornadoes. Most tragically, it cost more than 1,800 lives — especially in New Orleans and nearby counties.
Federal assistance in that record disaster was $120 billion, $76 billion to Louisiana and the balance to neighboring Gulf of Mexico states. Since Katrina, according to former Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate, FEMA has organized plans for speedy federal government responses, aided by the private sector, and resident non-citizen groups when a President declares a disaster. Today, the program is underway to assist flood-ravaged Louisiana and northern Texas. President Trump on August 30 visited the Hurricane Laura-damaged communities there.
The Council on Foreign Relations Sounds the Alarm
The CFR report cited above is entitled “U.S. Disaster Relief at Home and Abroad.” It was co-authored by Rocio Cara Labrador and Heil granddaughter Amelia Cheatham. They summarize U.S. help not only domestically but overseas as well. On average, they report, “the United States provides relief for dozens of disasters in more than 50 countries every year.”
“Overseas,” the report adds, “the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) coordinates most federal disaster relief efforts, while the State Department takes the lead in assisting refugees affected by disasters. Both work in close partnership the Department of Defense and other Federal agencies, as well as the U.N., local and donor governments, and non-governmental private agencies.
“Disaster relief falls into three categories: preemptive action — consisting of hazard mitigation and emergency preparation — short-term response, and long-term recovery.”
Together, disaster relief and recovery costs at home and overseas can be enormous, sometimes trillions of dollars worldwide. That has been particularly the case in the 21st Century. The U.S. sent more than 50 experts from the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to Japan to advise their Japanese counterparts within a week of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in 2011.
Mitigation, or investments to reduce disasters, may be the key to reducing flood and hurricane casualties. Some are quite obvious. For example, if a dwelling has been damaged or threatened by a storm because it was too close a nearby waterway, relocating it to higher ground on the same property or nearby can make all the difference next time.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations report “there’s a growing focus in the U.S. federal government to encourage states to invest now to save later.” For example, the report says, Congress in February 2018 amended the existing Stafford Act on emergency disaster relief to reward state and local governments that prioritize “hazard mitigation.” According to the National Institute of Building Sciences, “every dollar spent on mitigation, can save an average of six dollars in future recovery costs.”
I’d cite the Netherlands as a prime example of the need for help from abroad. New Orleans and the state of Alabama turned to Amsterdam for on-site expertise when flooding a decade and a half ago this week was extremely tragic, forcing a fifth of its population to flee. The breached seawalls encircling New Orleans were eventually repaired but many of those who evacuated never returned.
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More