The work by federal, state and local authorities to safeguard tens of millions of people along the Eastern Seaboard threatened by Hurricane Irene was nothing short of remarkable. The storm killed at least 31 people over the weekend, left millions without power and transportation and caused an estimated $7 billion or more in damages. The cleanup and recovery will take weeks.
But Irene could have been far worse. New York City was spared hurricane-force winds. And Irene packed less of a punch that many forecasters predicted. Still, it was a reminder that the East Coast is vulnerable to hurricanes — and another example why Congress should establish a national catastrophe reinsurance fund.
Floridians know first-hand the role that luck and preparation play in surviving these storms. The fear going into last weekend was that those in Northeast cities unaccustomed to hurricanes would not prepare. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was right to order an evacuation of the low-lying financial district. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was effective, too, using his blunt demeanor to hammer home the message that residents should stock up or evacuate as ordered.
On-scene reporters did the usual live shots leaning into the pounding surf and wind. But newscasters did a good job of underscoring that the biggest danger was the storm's massive footprint and the heavy rain it was unleashing well inland.
Flood watches remained in effect Monday in seven states; flooding in Vermont was the state's worst in 84 years. The storm downed power lines, washed away beach dunes, roads and bridges and flooded entire communities. President Barack Obama rightly noted the recovery would take "weeks or longer." He will need to ensure that the states and localities get the federal assistance they need.
As painful as Irene was, it easily could have caused more destruction. The nation has learned a lot in the six years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. In the days before Irene hit, the federal government moved people and supplies into the storm's path. Local police and fire officials did a good job of evacuating low-lying areas. In sharp contrast to Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, led by former Florida disaster chief Craig Fugate, was praised for its advance work and its communication with governors and local officials.
Preparation is the new normal after Katrina. The coordination and caution that officials showed saved lives and limited damage. But even the modest damage from Irene will force individuals and communities to dig deep. It will also ultimately impact the entire region's insurance market, as Floridians are all too aware.
Irene is just the latest natural disaster to strike the United States this year, underscoring the need for a national reinsurance fund that would spread disaster risk across state lines and keep premiums lower for consumers. Insurance companies would buy reinsurance from the fund, but those premiums would not be siphoned away by the unregulated reinsurers. Instead, they would be used to create a pool of cash and ready bonding authority for after a disaster. Three years ago, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani backed the idea as he ran for the Republican presidential nomination. He knew what Irene made clear: New York is behind only Florida in property at risk for hurricane damage.
The East Coast dodged a big one this weekend. Part of the lesson learned should be even better preparation for when nature is even more destructive.