Disaster Relief and the Psychology of Once in a Lifetime Events

by Jacqueline Goodman
|September 28, 2021

Damage to Casino Pier in Seaside Heights, New Jersey following Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Photo credit: Mark C. Olsen

After Hurricane Katrina, my fourth grade raised money for the Red Cross by selling rubber bracelets. We lined up in the cafeteria to buy them and came together as a school to support the victims of a “once in a lifetime” event.

Then in 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit New York City. I looked at pictures of flooded apartments and damaged shops. Familiarity with it – an atypical storm that scourged an entire coastline – felt threatening. Instead of having a discreet, uncharacteristic experience, Hurricane Sandy hung in the air like a harbinger. For most of my life, New York City has been firmly and reliably out of the direct route of most hurricanes.

A few weeks ago, Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans before swirling up the east coast into New York City and beyond. Most major news outlets didn’t call it a “once in a lifetime” event – sixteen years after Katrina, transformative hurricanes are too common to be topped with such a hyperbolic epithet. These are seasonal nightmares at best and weekly nightmares at worst. Gone are the days when a Category 5 hurricane was exceptional and a New York City hurricane was a crisis of the imagination.

Despite increasing frequency and severity, most places in the United States are pathetically inadequate for natural disasters. Climate change is here, but our attention and our resources are repeatedly devoted to just one chapter of a climate event: the crisis response. After that, we mobilize quickly, but we often fail to recognize that natural disasters last for years. The structural impact of a single storm can vary widely depending on infrastructure planning and investments in natural disaster prevention.

There was a short window of time to prepare for Hurricane Ida. First responders were notified, local governments could proactively guide citizens, and vulnerable residents could prepare their families and property. But a warning of a few days can only go so far; When Ida struck, entire communities remained vulnerable. Across states, first responders rushed to alleviate the immediate crises where possible, but the underlying infrastructure had already let them down.

Now the communities affected by Ida are facing the second stage of the disaster – the long-term recovery. The permanent consequences of the storm are emerging: power outages, floods, rubbish collection, house reconstruction, hunger and more. There is an undeniable urgency to address these problems. At the same time, if the infrastructure is destroyed, there is an opportunity to rethink the reconstruction.

Too often, crisis relief and long-term planning are unnecessarily viewed as compromises. A Louisiana-based company, PosiGen, is demonstrating an alternative to this thinking.

PosiGen is a privately held solar company in Louisiana that has equipped 12,000 low-to-middle-income households nationwide with solar panels since 2011. Initial reports show that most of PosiGen’s solar systems survived Hurricane Ida. In fact, the solar panels “storm hardened” the roofs, which means that roofs with solar panels were better off than those without.

In addition, many PosiGen customers are “battery storage capable”, which means that the solar modules can easily be connected directly to a large, in-house battery. During the day, solar modules on the roof charge the batteries. Customers can then discharge the batteries to keep their home and electronics running until late in the evening, even if the power lines fail. It’s a strategic way to quickly restore electricity while investing in future resilience.

The main obstacle to installing batteries is funding. Today PosiGen installs solar panels and roofs, which it mobilizes at full capacity to meet the needs of the Louisiana communities. The funding required to procure batteries is outside PosiGen’s immediate operating budget. The company would have to petition the government and seek assistance from the Department of Energy (DOE) or the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to mobilize that amount of capital.

Federal agencies like DOE tend to fund projects slowly, and these types of projects could be outside the scope of FEMA. Getting access to urgent infrastructure finance is a challenge. Our government institutions and policies are not designed to ensure speed, consistency and longevity at the same time. In addition, we generally do not see disasters as an opportunity to quickly rebuild climate resilience. They are understandably treated as humanitarian crises. But until recently we had portrayed these catastrophic storms as “one-off” events.

If we think of climate events like Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy or Hurricane Ida as one-off occurrences, there are incentives for quick solutions for the infrastructure. In this context, sensible investments in a climate resilient future are unnecessary, as natural disasters can be viewed as anomalies. “Once in a lifetime” thinking doesn’t work in the age of climate change and we have to adapt accordingly. The next hurricane could be next week. How often do our communities have to suffer before we change our mindset to see disaster relief and climate planning as one?

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