A hurricane is a monster with two orders of magnitude. It is a weapon of mass destruction–an atmospheric daisy cutter that descends on a region and claws away whole cities at a time. And it’s a precision-targeted weapon too–a disturbance that begins in the sky, travels across an ocean and, when it arrives, picks off its victims one at a time: the child swept under by the onrushing flood, the first responder who saves a life and perishes in the process.
Hurricane Irma inflicted both kinds of horror. In the Caribbean, the storm carpet-bombed islands that have few if any defenses. It damaged or destroyed more than 90% of the structures on both Barbuda and St. Martin. It wrecked more than 130 schools across multiple islands including Anguilla, the Virgin Islands and Turks and Caicos, and affected more than 2.4 million children across the Caribbean. It shuttered hospitals, made food scarce, demolished infrastructure.
More intimately, there were the individual losses of individual souls. At least eight people from a Broward County nursing home died after the facility was left without power for days after Irma. Three people in a single home died of carbon-monoxide poisoning from a generator they were using when the power failed. Another Florida man was killed when high winds blew him off his ladder as he tried to put storm protection over windows.
In all, Irma has so far claimed at least 30 people in the U.S. and at least 44 people across the Caribbean, though the number will surely go up as the floodwaters recede. And yet the undeniable fact is that things could have been worse–much worse. Irma was the most powerful hurricane recorded in the open Atlantic in the satellite era: it spent a record three consecutive days as a Category 5 storm and maintained wind speeds of at least 185 m.p.h. (298 km/h) for a record 37 hours. It made landfall in the mainland U.S. in a state that is home to more than 20 million people with more than $1.5 trillion worth of vulnerable property on its two southern coasts.
The Sunshine State didn’t break; its cities didn’t tumble. Yes, roughly 12 million Floridians lost power; yes, up to 7 million were evacuated or dislocated; yes, up to 600 shelters had to open across the state. But the shelters did open–fast; the people in harm’s way did evacuate; and the first responders were there when they needed to be there. Florida did have a bit of luck, as the storm veered slightly west, confining its most direct hit to the state’s Gulf Coast, though flooding parts of the Atlantic Coast all the same. Still, 12 years after Americans watched in shock as Hurricane Katrina swallowed New Orleans and killed some 1,800 people, the system held. Indeed, it held twice. Irma took its bead on Florida in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey’s assault on Houston–even as the nation prepared to confront hurricanes Jose and Katia, churning in waters not far away.
“We mobilized over 30,000 federal government forces down to Harvey,” says Brock Long, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). “And 34,000 were deployed to Irma.”
That’s no accident. Senior White House officials credit the smooth operation to veteran emergency managers who witnessed the failures of the response to Katrina as well as Hurricane Rita and Superstorm Sandy. “You can’t buy that kind of experience,” says Tom Bossert, President Trump’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser.
The teamwork has been bipartisan. Before the Obama Administration left town in January, it briefed the incoming White House on all manner of possible emergencies, especially hurricanes, which were labeled “high-impact, high-likelihood” events. “It was a real education for us,” said one participant.
The lessons were evidently well-learned. At the federal level, not only did FEMA rise to the new challenges, but so did the Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which deployed to the affected cities to establish pop-up hospitals with hundreds of beds each and to test the floodwater for contaminants. The Department of Defense mobilized quickly and agilely too. Nearly 21,000 military personnel deployed to the Irma-affected region. They coordinated with the states, which coordinated with the counties and cities, which coordinated with police departments, fire departments, schools and businesses.
President Trump’s infamous impatience was also in some ways a boon, especially when it came to deploying soldiers and sailors. “The President’s point of view on all this has been, ‘Why wait? Deploy your resources,'” says Bossert. Days before Irma reached the U.S. Virgin Islands, Trump ordered his team to prepare the military.
Perhaps most impressive, and most hands-on, were the volunteers and faith-based organizations who did what volunteers have always done in emergencies: offer comfort and save lives. But this time they were newly and notably coordinated, often under the guidance of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, an umbrella group that helps organize 60 nonprofit and faith-based organizations, including the American Red Cross.
It is too early for the U.S. to spike the ball. Millions of people are still without power; the costs of the losses are not remotely tallied, especially across the devastated Florida Keys; and the Caribbean islands just off U.S. shores face what amounts to annihilation. But in a world in which climate change is making storms both more powerful and more deadly, we’re clearly doing a far better job than we ever have of learning on the fly–and applying what we learn.
For all the work that state, local and grassroots responders do in times of disasters, FEMA is still the group that takes the lead. The agency was caught flatfooted during Katrina and was widely charged with being unprepared, poorly staffed and incapable of responding to a disaster of any magnitude.
Today’s FEMA has grown up. Each afternoon in the three-plus weeks that Harvey and Irma have menaced the mainland, Doug Fears, senior director for resilience policy at the National Security Council, has convened a planning meeting in the Executive Office Building across from the West Wing. Fears’ office is windowless, and from the look of things, he has not been going outside to get any sun. A coatrack holds spare suits and shirts, and a thin blanket and pillow are stacked atop a safe used for classified information. Fears and his team gather here throughout the day, but it’s the 8:30 a.m. meeting, chaired by FEMA chief Long, who teleconferences in by video, that sets the tempo for the day.
During the Sept. 12 call, Long’s deputy asked each emergency manager in each state threatened by Irma to describe the state of play there. Homer Bryson, from Georgia, reported concern that tight gasoline supplies would strand Florida evacuees looking to return home. “We cannot guarantee that we’ll have fuel to get them through the state at this time,” he warned. Alabama’s emergency manager reported that Floridians were decamping in his state too. “These people are getting on the road today,” he said, adding a warning about “steady traffic” that could bring the impromptu caravans to a halt. That was taking place even as 1.3 million Georgians were still without power. From South Carolina came word of 174,000 people also in blackout and reports of up to 400 trees down along the Savannah River.
After these morning meetings, Long decides how and where to deploy his forces–a task that’s gotten easier than it once was. In 2006, Congress passed the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act, which took the handcuffs off the agency, no longer requiring it to wait for a request from a state before moving in to help. FEMA can now preposition forces and supplies, as it did with Irma and Harvey, working with federal coordinators who are appointed by the President and who can travel where they’re needed to run the operations on-site.
Among the most powerful tools FEMA deploys are urban search-and-rescue (US&R) teams which have been trained to respond to mass emergencies. A US&R team associated with the Los Angeles Fire Department, for example, which had been deployed in Houston after Harvey, was redeployed to Florida, to await Irma’s impact.
One of Florida’s three US&R teams, associated with the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department, was also deployed after Irma, outside of FEMA’s control, since it was in its own state. At 7 p.m. on Sept. 10, after Irma’s thrashing winds slumped to mere tropical-storm-force gusts, the 35-person squad fanned out in the darkness over Miami-Dade County, combing the 2,000-sq.-mi. region for people in immediate need. When they were done, they were deployed twice more to two more vulnerable areas, all in the 15 hours following the storm.
Twenty-five years ago, this kind of roving, specialized team was rare. Now there are 28 US&R teams, each with 220 responders and each associated with fire departments across the country. In an emergency, FEMA can deploy any of them, a force of more than 6,100 reserve specialists at its fingertips. In the post-Katrina decade, US&R teams have been used often enough, in disasters from hurricanes to earthquakes, that they’ve become something of a coed fraternity. “For good or bad,” says Dave Downey, Miami-Dade County’s fire chief, “we’ve worked together so often now, we all know each other.”
Just as elaborate as the human assets are the fixed, county-level facilities that Florida has built and expanded in recent years–especially the Miami-Dade County Emergency Operations Center, which was central to the state’s response to Irma. The main room, the building’s nerve center, resembles nothing so much as mission control during a launch, with a wall of 18 TVs, all flickering with satellite images of the hurricane’s trajectory and real-time information on developments. Six dozen workstations are filled by staffers serving as liaisons to the fire department, school board, transit authorities, utilities, search-and-rescue experts and more.
Crisis managers have also demonstrated a newly refined knowledge about when it’s smart for a state or city to call for an evacuation and when residents should instead shelter in place. Florida and Texas made opposite calls in the case of Irma and Harvey–and both proved correct. Shortly after Katrina, Hurricane Rita formed and began heading for Houston. Having watched New Orleans drown, Houstonians decamped en masse–about 2.5 million of them–and began fleeing north. Traffic stood still in what arguably remains the worst case of gridlock in U.S. history, just as a heat wave hit. More than 100 people died. “It was an unplanned evacuation that turned deadly,” says Alan Bernstein, a spokesman for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.
This time, the call was made early not to evacuate, since while parts of Houston would ultimately be inundated by more than 4 ft. of rain, meteorologists accurately predicted that it would be spared the deadly winds that would lead to structural damage and storm surges. Had an evacuation been necessary, it would have been done right this time–with southbound lanes repurposed to head north, doubling capacity, patrol cars stationed to deal with cars that broke down or ran out of gas, and electronic signs that could redirect traffic to less congested routes.
In Florida, evacuations were wisely ordered. Three days before Irma hit, it was already packing 180 m.p.h. winds and was on a direct course for Miami. Also figuring into the decision was the storm’s murderous romp through the Caribbean, which woke a lot of people up to its power.
The effort to keep Florida’s lights on–or at least get them back on when they failed–was another exercise in planning, one that benefited from a kindness-of-strangers collegiality that has developed among states and localities across the country as catastrophic storms have become more common. In the week before Irma hit, Florida Power & Light, the state’s biggest electricity provider, sent out an appeal to other states for “restoration forces”–utility trucks, tree trimmers, linemen and other personnel from power companies. Ultimately, that appeal produced a force of nearly 20,000 people, many of whom were on loan from utility companies as far away as California, Wisconsin and 28 other states. As they streamed southwest, gas-tanker trucks were stationed along the interstates to facilitate refueling.
“It was truly a military-grade operation,” says Rob Gould, a vice president of Florida Power & Light, who is, incidentally, a former member of the Air Force. “You’re moving people, you’re moving equipment, and you have to have it all ready to deploy.”
That kind of all-hands generosity even more deeply informs the work of the neighborhood nonprofits and faith-based groups. In Houston, where local officials told people to focus less on getting out of town and more with getting by as the city flooded, this was especially in evidence. In the city of Katy, just outside of Houston, Kristel Meadows, a stay-at-home mother of four, learned that the firefighters stationed down the street from her had been slogging by in the same soggy, muddy clothes for days. So she marched over to the firehouse late one evening–breaking curfew–and offered to bring their clothes to her house and launder them. They accepted the offer.
The next day, she, her husband and others set up a barbecue in a parking lot of the Katy Elks Lodge and encouraged friends to bring their grills and smokers. Over the course of five days, they made 15,000 meals for first responders and neighbors who were out of food and water. “I can’t rescue anybody,” says Meadows. “But I can cook a meal, I can do laundry.”
During Harvey and Irma, consumers and locals benefited even more directly from public-spirited companies. Home Depot makes it a practice of freezing its prices where a state of emergency is declared. As Irma closed in on Florida, JetBlue offered flat $99 fares for anyone trying to leave the state before the airports were shut down. The National Business Emergency Operations Center, an increasingly effective consortium of big companies and business associations, works to coordinate the shipment of food and basic supplies and share hazard warnings.
Going forward, of course, U.S. policy has to be built on more than heroic first responders, courageous communities and generous corporations scrambling to meet storm after storm as climate change makes hurricanes more powerful and more deadly. There are only so many D-Day mobilizations a country has in it.
The answer instead must be a suite of policies that both fortify coasts and cities against storms and discourage rebuilding in places that are too exposed to protect. Also important is knowing when to quit. Piet Dircke, a program director for water management at the global consultancy firm Arcadis, often offers his clients the simple wisdom, “Give room to the river.” In other words, don’t build your home in places you’re likely to drown. For homeowners, the federal government has become the principal issuer of flood insurance after private insurers largely abandoned the market. The National Flood Insurance Program, however, makes little distinction between good risks and bad risks, and there are a lot of policyholders who own what are called “repetitive loss properties,” homes that are repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt in the same spot. Just 1% of all policyholders are responsible for making 25% to 30% of the claims under the program.
Inconveniently, at least for those repeat offenders, the program is set to come up for renewal later this year, and Congress will have to act to continue, scrap or modify it. Harvey and Irma may not be voting members of Congress, but they should have a loud voice in the debate.
Ultimately and always, the question returns to climate change. Scott Pruitt, EPA administrator and a long-standing climate-change doubter, said the immediate aftermath of the twin storms was not the time to talk about their causes and that it was “insensitive” to address the issue when Florida and Texas were still recovering. That argument was met largely with hoots, even by fellow Republicans. “This is the time to talk about climate change,” Miami’s Republican Mayor Tomás Regalado told the Miami Herald. “This is a truly, truly poster child for what is to come.”
Regalado is right, of course. So too are the scientists who have been taking the earth’s temperature for decades and tracked the fever it’s spiking, with the determination that the greenhouse gases humans are pumping into the planetary system are a powerful and correctable cause of the illness.
It’s to the nation’s credit that we’ve gotten so good at managing disasters when they happen–that so many Americans rush into the storm, risking their lives to help those who are trapped. It will be a similar act of courage–and kindness–to take the hard steps needed to help heal the planet.
–With reporting by CHARLOTTE ALTER/NEW YORK; ELIZABETH DIAS, ZEKE J. MILLER and JUSTIN WORLAND/WASHINGTON; JOSEPH HINCKS/HONG KONG; TARA JOHN/ANTIGUA; ANDREW KING and JONATHAN D. WOODS/MIAMI
This appears in the September 25, 2017 issue of TIME.