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.