Natural Disasters

Community and Technology—Not Government—Take Lead in Hurricane Michael Recovery

A report from Florida's ravaged Panhandle.


Hurricane Michael damage
Lannis Waters/ZUMA Press/Newscom

The psychological moral calculus of an impending hurricane is a strange thing.

Floridians are well accustomed to the unstable mixture of low-level anxiety and myopic hope that precedes any problematic pressure system in the Greater Gulf of Mexico. As the Panhandle watched spaghetti models each day with an eagle eye, we hoped and we prayed that: 1) Hurricane Michael would stay relatively weak, and 2) it would tilt a degree or so East or West, safely away from our homes.

Michael was far from weak. Combined with the second condition, in retrospect, our mental pleas effectively meant wishing that the misfortune would actually befall our neighbors down I-10. It's just the nature of the thing. There is an unspoken understanding. We are all well aware that, had things gone differently, this uncomfortable ethical flip-flop would have instead been on our fellow coast-dweller's foot.

It is always heartwarming to see the outpouring of aid, compassion, and goodness that follows any destructive act of God. But I believe that in the case of hurricanes, those who live within common cone zones are particularly attuned to the suffering of their fellow coast-dwellers.

For starters, many of Michael's victims are literally our family and friends strewn about the many sleepy towns that dot the Gulf. But more fundamentally, it could have easily been us, and in many previous cases it has been.

Pensacola, where I live now, had its last turn on the losing end of this game of musical beach chairs in 2004 with Hurricane Ivan. The Category 3 storm absolutely devastated the City of Five Flags, and some of the architectural scars are still visible to those who know what is missing.

My husband and his family rode out the storm when he was a teenager. When he woke up the next morning, his house was miraculously unscathed. But once they surveyed their surroundings, they found that many of their neighbors' homes were completely flattened.

What my husband remembers most is the extreme sense of communal alienation that permeated the air. It was a bit ironic. On the one hand, the breakdown of law and order finally afforded a long-overdue opportunity for families to get to know or even meet the others that lived among their wooded waterfront hideout called Soundside for the first time. Without the luxuries of civilization, they deeply appreciated the basics of human civility.

But on the other hand, with no connection to the outside world, many in the area felt quickly forgotten. Somewhere out there, the country was going on as usual, as if hell on earth had not just been dumped on them. Government aid came; sometimes efficiently, but too often not. Churches and civil organizations helped to fill the gap. The city rebuilt and moved forward, but that horrible sense of abandonment is not easy to shake off.

So it is not surprising that Pensacola and other formerly storm-ravaged locales have rushed to help our neighbors in Panama City, Mexico Beach, Chattahooche, Marianna, and the many small and little-known communities in Florida and Georgia that have been shattered by the storm, just as these folks have done or would do for us.

We have shifted to "relief mode" as a city. High school students and local volunteers have been mobilized to pack badly needed supplies and tools that will be trucked in Humvees to distressed families. Local first responders have been dispatched to aid in recovery efforts; trucks and personnel are staged from local malls. Gulf Power arrived promptly with linesmen and equipment to help get the power running ASAP. Local entrepreneur and professional golfer Bubba Watson is channeling his star power to raise relief funds during the next University of West Florida football game. There is even intra-zoo solidarity.

Even two weeks out, the situation there is dire. The power is still out in much of the affected areas, and cell service is hard to come by. Hospitals have been destroyed and patients are being airlifted to safer locations. Emergency personnel are understandably exhausted. Photographs make it look like the area was subjected to bombs, not wind.

Part of the problem is that many hurricane victims live in more remote and sparsely-populated counties like Franklin (pop. 12,000), Washington (pop. 25,000), Gulf (pop. 16,000), Calhoun (pop. 14,750), and Liberty (pop. 8,000). I can only imagine how isolated these people may feel. Some are miles away from their nearest neighbor; they may have only recently made contact with relief services, if at all. One desperate rural family living outside a town called Callaway (pop. 15,000) only got attention from the outside world after arranging debris to spell "HELP" in big enough letters to be spotted from the sky.

My column usually covers technology issues. And indeed, disaster recovery stories generally take note of the unprecedented or now-standard technological innovations that provide crucial support to victims and relief groups on the ground.

Hurricane Michael is no different. Without aerial visual technologies and drone scouting, that stranded Callaway family may have been left out on their own for many more days or weeks. Communication apps have made it easier for people to connect and plan both during and after a disaster. AirBnB opened a volunteer housing network to host affected families for free; Uber is likewise offering free rides and helping to coordinate donations and first response needs.

Disaster situations also drive home just how much we rely on our technological infrastructure in our day-to-day lives. No one worried too much about the fact that many county and state services and personnel were disproportionately reliant on the Verizon network before this state of emergency. Only now that Verizon service has been effectively wiped out in distressed areas is that extreme fragility laid all too bare. This has spurred some innovative solutions: AT&T and Verizon are offering credits to affected customers, and Verizon got the green light from the FAA to fly low-level planes around that provide LTE service.

But technology is only as good as how we allow people to wield it.

My colleagues at the Mercatus Center have spent years analyzing disaster recovery events to better understand what works best to help a community bounce back after tragedy. Their study of major disaster events like Hurricane Katrina perhaps unsurprisingly found that private sector and civil society groups were instrumental in bringing needed aid and services to storm-hit communities after many public sector contingencies had failed. When precautionary regulations on technological applications during calm times prevent innovative use cases following disaster, the costs to human well-being are all the more dramatic.

Less straightforward, and perhaps more important, is my colleagues' observations that the level of social resiliency has a dramatic effect on a community's ability to rebuild after tragedy. Populations that have stronger bonds among civic, private, and public groups have a greater capacity to proactively plan for disaster, as well as retroactively mitigate the damage. The factors that affect social resiliency are complex, but communities marked by less corruption and less overreliance on top-down planning in normal times will likely have an easier time recovering.

Although these past weeks have probably felt much longer to the victims of Hurricane Michael, as previous cases of Gulf recovery demonstrate, their road to recovery will be long indeed. The quick and unified response of local and national groups to give aid to stricken communities is a good sign that social bonds along the Gulf are strong. People here do not just sit back and think that their neighbors will be eventually served by federal offices like FEMA: They rush in to help as soon as possible.

The extent to which different levels of policy will be relaxed to facilitate such direct action responding quickly to local needs remains to be seen. Some developments, like the FAA's allowance of LTE flights, are good signs. So long as this momentum is kept, the path to recovery will be made much easier than many of the alternatives.

NEXT: Uber, but for Poop

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  1. The insurance laws need to change or just go away. But, that can’t happen because they’re tied heavily to the FHA and prime rate lending laws.

    I’d build a nice large home on the gulf of mexico and do it 13ft into the air with solid columns of concrete and a nice thick concrete shelter on top of it. But, you then have to insure the extra costs at the same failure rates as the people who build their homes out of wood.

    Modern man can easily build structures and infrastructure to withstand hurricanes, the governments, banks, EPA, ACoE, NIMBYs and insurance companies just won’t get out of the way to let them do it.

    1. But, you then have to insure the extra costs at the same failure rates as the people who build their homes out of wood.

      Maybe the federal government can subsidize your insurance.

    2. At least one guy did that, built a large home to 250 mph winds — his house came through with pretty much zero damage, while the house around it were utterly destroyed. Estimates were 2x the cost, to cost + $30K to strengthen the house to this level.

      ‘We built it for the big one’: How this Mexico Beach house survived Hurricane Michael (warning: autoplay video)

      In a just world, this guy would be held up as an example to all, and be very publicly given a 80% discount on his insurance for 10 years … minimum.

      1. +1

        Home owners insurance should reflect actual risk of the design not covering for all the fellow insured in the area who build inferior homes and then rebuild inferior homes after the disaster.

      2. In the real world, his homeless, bitter neighbors would penalize his success by blowing up his house, and he would still be an example to all.

      3. If he doesn’t have a mortgage he doesn’t have to buy insurance at all.

        Also, Florida insurance companies do offer discounts for design upgrades that reduce risk.

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  2. God is a motherfucker apparently.

    1. ypu got that dead wrong………

  3. Here in NW Florida we are a fairly conservative sort … nothing like South Florida, or even Tallahassee. After Hurricane Ivan, before we even got finished with breakfast, a neighbor with a tractor had cleared our driveway, so my wife (a pediatrician) could get to work. With the driveway open, I loaded up my chainsaw and started clearing other people’s fallen trees.

    We were in Sam’s Club two days ago, saw some distant acquaintances loading up a flatbed. “A lot of shopping,” we said. “Taking it to her sister’s cousin’s in Wewahitchka,” they said. “Oh, here’s $100, here, have two,” says my wife. It’s just understood, if it’s more than they need, get some extra stuff, hand it out down there. This way, it gets to someone who needs it, as opposed to all the money that goes to FEMA, and who knows where the hell it goes.

    There’s a lot more independent, helpful-minded people in this country than the news people seem to want to talk about. There’s also a lot of people who would prefer to be 100% helpless, and wait for the hand of almighty government to dribble out a little help to them. But I guess, both groups get what they deserve.

    1. The media avoids reality stories like these. It undermines the narrative that government being the only entity that can help disaster areas.

  4. I wish we’d get a presidential candidate that ran on moving everyone out of high risk zones and inappropriate environments. Forcibly relocate everyone in Southern California to somewhere under a wind farm in Kansas right next to their new neighbors from the gulf and the Mississippi flood plains.

    I’d just like to hear the screams about a too invasive federal government…

  5. Gee, I wonder why New Orleans residents didn’t take the lead in helping each other out and rebuilding following Katrina?

  6. Here’s a documentary about private sector volunteers after Katrina. Mainly from outside the area, though.
    You have to shell out 3 bucks to watch it, but an interesting story if you are so inclined.

    Burn on the Bayou

  7. The problem with MOST government “aid” and “relief” is that gummit hire far too many “planners” who have never experienced such chaos to spend far too much time “figuring it out”, then sit and write thousands of pages of protocols, plans, regulatioins, flow charts, etc. When REAL trouble lands, the locals find that whatever gummit had forseen did not happen, and most of what they had forseen did. Thus all their taxdollar-fed “work product” is not only useless, it ties up valuable resources (how many hundreds of mobile homes were trucked to somewhere “close” to New Orleans for rplacement housing that was never used… then trucked back to somewhere else after they’d been destroyed by sitting empty and sealed up for too long? What I always wondered is WHO benefitted from THAT boondoggle.. one of many)

    Meanwhile, local folks who have often learned from past tragedies, and in normal life have to face unexpected issues and, on the fly, quickly come up with solutions to them using the remaining resources they DO have to hand.

    Another key difference is that gummit are not fully invested.. they get their paycheck and likely raise whether their plan works or is worthless. The locals, in trouble, have to deal with the issues facing them or die.

  8. WaPo article: “Houses intact after Hurricane Michael were often saved by low-cost reinforcements”:

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