In the January 1993 issue of reason, Miami-based writer Glenn Garvin described the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew in terms that might seem familiar to New Yorkers and other victims of another storm, Sandy, which hit this fall: “Within minutes of Andrew’s final howl, the screen of my television overflowed with the bovine faces of politicians taking credit and assigning blame, promising, and demanding swag.” Garvin also described some officials who should have gone into hiding: After five years on the job, Kate Hale, the head of Miami-Dade County’s Emergency Management Office, “had only a single copy of a proposed draft of a recovery plan, stowed away somewhere in a cardboard box.”
After Andrew, private efforts picked up the slack: Locals cut fallen trees with chainsaws, ran extension cords to neighbors’ houses, and directed traffic, while strangers hundreds of miles away sent assistance convoys. Government officials shown up by amateurs, wrote Garvin, “began broadcasting appeals for everyone to stay away from the hurricane zone; disorganization, rather than hunger or thirst or illness or misery, became Public Enemy No. 1.”
By the time Hurricane Katrina rolled though New Orleans in 2005, little had changed. The Federal Emergency Management Agency apparently learned that thousands of people were waiting for rescue at the convention center by watching the local news. The Salvation Army was forbidden to send boats to rescue refugees in one of its facilities. The American Red Cross announced that the Department of Homeland Security had asked it to stay out of New Orleans after the hurricane.
By contrast, as Hurricane Irene approached landfall in 2011, NPR was reporting that “Walmart’s preparedness system helped the company emerge as a hero after Katrina.” Big-box retailers such as Walmart and Home Depot have long known what people rebuilding after a natural disaster need. “These retailers,” NPR said, “have turned hurricane preparation into a science—one that government emergency agencies have begun to embrace.”
But it seems the lesson has to be relearned with every storm. After Hurricane Sandy moved on, the New York Army National Guard’s 69th Infantry Regiment found itself without power or resources in its own armory. To get up and running, it borrowed eight large generators, forklifts, and a microwave communications link from lingerie retailer Victoria’s Secret, which had the equipment on hand for a fashion show.