The Challenges of Extreme Hurricanes

The extraordinary wallop from back-to-back hurricanes in 2017 tested the capacity and capability of the response system. There were many challenges as well as stories of resourcefulness, resilience, and courage from Texas to Puerto Rico. Recently, the Leadership Forum at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health convened an all-star panel to discuss what we’ve learned about extreme hurricanes that should be carried forward for future planning and training.

The panelists included Richard Serino, NPLI Distinguished Fellow and former FEMA deputy administrator; Kellie Bentz (NPLI Cohort IX), head of global disaster response for Airbnb; Brad Kaiserman, Vice President of Disaster Operations and Logistics for the American Red Cross; Jose Sanchez, Deputy Director of Research and Development for United States Army Corps of Engineers; and Daniel Ramos with the Association of Primary Care in Puerto Rico. The session was moderated by Carol Hills, senior producer of PRI’s The World.

Speaking of the responders, Serino said:

I think they deserve praise in dealing with all these disasters of the last year. But I think also they admit that this time we have to change the paradigm–how do we respond to these disasters? It calls for a sea change… we have to change the way that FEMA and government do business.

We have to bring together what we call the ‘whole community’: the federal, state, local, tribal governments. We have to bring together the non-profits, the faith-based community. We have to bring in academia to take a more important role in how they prepare, respond, and mitigate disasters, and recover from disasters. But then we also have to have the public have a shared responsibility as well–how they become involved and how we start to look at them–it’s just changing the way we respond to disasters.

Addressing the role of the private sector, Bentz described two programs at Airbnb: Open Homes and Travel Credits. Open Homes provides free housing to first responders and affected individuals and families. “Our hosts list their property for $0 and Airbnb waives its fees,” she said. Under the second program, Airbnb provides travel credits to relief agencies such as Mercy Corps, All Hands Volunteers, and others. “It’s important to support recovery efforts with housing and by infusing resources into the local community,” said Bentz. “It’s free to the agency. The [Airbnb] host is receiving payment. Airbnb foots the bill.” The program enables recovery workers to stay with a host over the duration of their deployment. “We have multiple agencies in Puerto Rico that we’re supporting and grateful for all the work they are doing,” she said.

No one knows what future hurricane seasons will bring. The lessons from 2017, if applied, will help communities better prepare and respond.