Based on the calendar, the 2017 hurricane season is now a memory. But around here, it should also be a reminder. A portent. A cautionary tale. When Hurricane Irma brushed past us as a Category 1 storm, it was the first hurricane to hit the Tampa Bay area since 1921. It was our good fortune that the storm had already weakened; and now it is our civic and personal responsibility to recognize that continuing to count on such luck is not much of a strategy.
Entire bay area neighborhoods went without power for a week or more, and the cleanup of debris in Pinellas County was not even completed until this week. And all of that was from a glancing blow of a dissipating storm. To understand what a direct hit could mean for Tampa Bay, we need only tune in to the continued misery in Puerto Rico due to Hurricane Maria or the repair costs in Houston after Hurricane Harvey.
There are valid lessons to be learned from every one of those hurricanes. For instance, the value of flood insurance in a coastal community cannot be overstated, even for homeowners who are not required to carry a policy. The initial reports out of the Houston area indicated that of the more than 100,000 flooded structures, only 20 to 30 percent had flood insurance. FEMA can help residents in distress with emergency payouts in the $10,000 range, but it is not in the business of replacing uninsured homes.
Congress still needs to figure out how it plans to fix the growing debt of the National Flood Insurance Program before it runs out at the end of next week, and local communities need to be more aggressive when it comes to flood mitigation strategies. Zoning laws in low-lying areas should be scrutinized, and flood zone maps need to be redrawn to more accurately assess risk.
And, just as homeowners prepare ahead of time for storms with sandbags and plywood, government entities and utilities need to better invest in advance strategies. That has been clear with the bungled response in Puerto Rico. The restoration of power on the island was delayed because a $300 million contract had been handed to an energy company from Montana with two full-time employees. This week it was also discovered that FEMA had given a $30 million contract to provide tarps and plastic sheeting to a month-old company working out of a house in Central Florida. It is not an exaggeration to say the residents of Puerto Rico would have been better served by a handful of Home Depot workers.
There is simply no excuse for those type of unforced errors. FEMA, with all of its expertise and resources, should be able to set up contingent deals with qualified contractors far ahead of time. Amid this government bungling, there is still a role for private charity. If you want to help those in need in Puerto Rico, PBS has compiled a useful list of donor contacts at http://to.pbs.org/2i4AY2f.
Extreme weather events are becoming more and more common in this country. If you don’t believe that, just consider the NFIP’s ledgers. For 35 years, the national flood program was essentially solvent. Now, in the last dozen years, it has fallen more than $30 billion in debt, with Congress having to write off a good portion of losses.
Here in Tampa Bay, we can’t singlehandedly solve all of our nation’s weather problems. But we can be smarter, more prepared, more vigilant and more forward-thinking. This community went nearly 100 years between hurricane encounters. Expecting that kind of gap again is wishful thinking. It’s only six months until hurricane season.