If You Shelter in Place During a Disaster, Prepare for New Challenges

 In Infrastructure, Environment

Many people will likely decide to stay put despite evac­u­a­tion orders ahead of Hurricane Florence. And if his­to­ry is any guide, they may not be fully think­ing through the prob­lems they’ll face in the after­math.

I con­duct­ed a research survey in Harris County, Texas, which con­tains much of metro Houston, after the city was flood­ed by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, and found a common thread. Few respon­dents who stayed in place during the storm planned in advance for coping with extend­ed ser­vice inter­rup­tions, such as road clo­sures, power and water out­ages and com­mu­ni­ca­tions inter­rup­tions.

I am a civil engi­neer and study interactions between people and infrastructure in disasters. In this survey I wanted to under­stand how dif­fer­ent sub-pop­u­la­tions pre­pare for and adjust to ser­vice dis­rup­tions during these events.

Hurricanes don’t always prompt manda­to­ry evac­u­a­tions, and even when they do, many people choose not to go. My results show that plan­ning for losing key services, potentially for days or weeks, should be part of prepar­ing to weath­er storms in place. And cities should keep their most vul­ner­a­ble res­i­dents in mind as they make deci­sions about storm-proof­ing crit­i­cal infra­struc­ture sys­tems, such as power and water.

No elec­tric­i­ty, no phone, no toilet

Harvey flood­ed sewers, closed roads, downed power lines and inter­rupt­ed telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions ser­vices across south­east Texas. Unlike tor­na­does, which can selec­tive­ly level one neigh­bor­hood and leave anoth­er unscathed, hur­ri­canes are per­verse­ly egal­i­tar­i­an. In Houston, tony and dis­ad­van­taged neigh­bor­hoods alike bore the brunt of Harvey.

Most res­i­dents in hur­ri­cane-prone areas know to store food, stock up on water, check their flash­lights and radios and plan for evac­u­a­tions. But I found that rel­a­tive­ly few Houstonians were ready for infra­struc­ture ser­vice dis­rup­tions.

My survey was con­duct­ed three month after Harvey and includ­ed 750 Harris County res­i­dents. They rated sewer, water, elec­tric­i­ty and com­mu­ni­ca­tions as the most impor­tant house­hold ser­vices, and found sewage back­ing up into homes from over­whelmed public water sys­tems to be the most oner­ous dis­rup­tion. Even house­holds with indi­vid­ual on-site septic sys­tems expe­ri­enced septic tank over­flow due to flood­ing.

Loss of potable water, which affect­ed hygiene, drink­ing and food prepa­ra­tion, was the next great­est hard­ship. Electricity and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions out­ages tied for third place, fol­lowed by road clo­sures due to fallen trees, debris and flood­ing.

My stu­dents and I found that 53 per­cent of the people we sur­veyed were not well pre­pared for ser­vice dis­rup­tion. Even the 47 per­cent who had laid in pro­vi­sions to weath­er the storm had not thought specif­i­cal­ly about ser­vice out­ages. Most people who self-iden­ti­fied as pre­pared under­es­ti­mat­ed the extent and length of ser­vice dis­rup­tions, and many ran out of stored food and water. A whop­ping 80 per­cent of house­holds who were with­out power after the storm had not even con­sid­ered the pos­si­bil­i­ty of extend­ed out­ages.

Most affect­ed: Low-income and minor­i­ty house­holds, fam­i­lies with young chil­dren

Regardless of how well cities harden their infra­struc­ture, ser­vice dis­rup­tions are inevitable during and after major hur­ri­canes. Once res­i­dents accept that fact, they can adopt prac­ti­cal strate­gies for weath­er­ing storms in place.

Families that live out­side of hur­ri­cane paths or flood plains can still expe­ri­ence extend­ed dis­rup­tions – for exam­ple, if high winds damage power dis­tri­b­u­tion net­works, or local roads are blocked by downed trees. It is crit­i­cal for house­holds to under­stand the like­li­hood of ser­vice dis­rup­tions, assess their basic needs objec­tive­ly and pre­pare for pos­si­ble extend­ed out­ages.

Our research showed that some pop­u­la­tion groups were espe­cial­ly vul­ner­a­ble to losing spe­cif­ic ser­vices. Households with chil­dren 10 and younger self-report­ed that losing elec­tric­i­ty was the most oner­ous hard­ship for them, since it made it impos­si­ble for them to refrig­er­ate and pre­pare food. On the other hand, respon­dents age 65 and older report­ed that road clo­sures were their great­est burden because they could not drive to work, gro­cery stores, health care facil­i­ties or phar­ma­cies.

We also found that low-income res­i­dents and racial and ethnic minori­ties were less pre­pared over­all and expe­ri­enced greater hard­ship during post-Harvey ser­vice losses. Disaster researchers widely view these groups as vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tions, since they have fewer resources to pre­pare or adapt to dis­rup­tions.

Interestingly, we found that seniors over 65 were better pre­pared to endure sewer, water and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions losses after Harvey. For many of them prior expe­ri­ence with storms had instilled the value of prepa­ra­tion, and on the whole they were ready for the impend­ing storm.

Hardening infra­struc­ture with people in mind

Houston is invest­ing in a swath of flood con­trol and flood risk reduc­tion projects. Notably, on Aug. 25 the city adopt­ed a $2.5 billion bond measure to overhaul the region’s flood-protection system..

Protecting homes is impor­tant, but cities should also invest in hard­en­ing infra­struc­ture sys­tems, such as power and water lines, to sup­port res­i­dents who shel­ter in place during storms. Local com­mu­ni­ties can handle some of these upgrades. For instance, some Houston neigh­bor­hoods lost inter­net con­nec­tiv­i­ty for as long as six weeks due to sub­merged util­i­ty boxes hous­ing net­work elec­tron­ics. This prob­lem could be solved by rais­ing the boxes above poten­tial flood levels.

Identifying and hard­en­ing infra­struc­ture com­po­nents, such as power sub-sta­tions and waste­water treat­ment plants, that are highly vul­ner­a­ble to future storms is a crit­i­cal task for util­i­ties and city plan­ners. Also, rec­og­niz­ing and pro­tect­ing vul­ner­a­ble sub-pop­u­la­tions who are most affect­ed by ser­vice out­ages should be a pri­or­i­ty.

As house­holds pre­pare for an storm, con­sid­er­a­tion of pos­si­ble power out­ages, sewer backup, and road clo­sures should factor into their deci­sions about evac­u­at­ing or shel­ter­ing in place. If they stay, they should not under­es­ti­mate the like­li­hood of ser­vice dis­rup­tions. No one likes to lose power or inter­net, but imag­in­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of extend­ed ser­vice out­ages and the result­ing hard­ship can help house­holds pre­pare and cope with the dis­rup­tions.

PhD stu­dent Amir Esmalian and tech­ni­cal writer Jan Gerston con­tributed to this arti­cle.

Ali Mostafavi is Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering at Texas A&M University.

This arti­cle is repub­lished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Image: Reuters

National Interest source|articles

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