Penn Experts Offer Advice Following Hurricanes Harvey, Irma

The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, which runs through November, has already seen two of the strongest storms on record, with hurricanes Irma and Harvey bringing extreme winds, torrential rain and significant flooding to the population centers in their paths.

Responses to such storms usually come in four phases, said Katherina Rosqueta, executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania: emergency/search and rescue, recovery, risk mitigation and long-term preparedness.  

In that initial phase, when gut-wrenching headlines and images saturate the news, people want to send water, blankets, clothes — items they think will benefit the troubled communities. But that can unintentionally backfire, Rosqueta said, clogging already overwhelmed roadways and communication systems.

Instead, on-the-ground responders need monetary resources that allow them to adapt as the situation changes at the crisis epicenter. And they need it long after the headlines fade, she added. 

“Especially in the United States, where we have this really strong philanthropic tradition, people immediately think, ‘How can I help?’ You see this big spike in giving right as the crisis occurs,” Rosqueta said. “But these communities are affected for months, years, sometimes decades.”

Florida and Caribbean islands like St. Martin are currently top of mind, having just been dealt Irma’s worst. In these places, the storm left behind extensive flooding, and with that comes significant potential health risks, said Ebbing Lautenbach, a professor of medicine and epidemiology and chief of the division of infectious diseases in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine.

Lack of access to clean water, and particularly exposure to sewage-contaminated water, can lead to diarrheal pathogens like E. coli, shigella and norovirus, as well as increased rates of pneumonia due to pathogens like legionella, he said. Exposure of skin wounds to contaminated water can also lead to infection. And, once the water pools, mosquitos can breed in abundance, bringing an influx of illnesses like West Nile virus.

“In these situations, good hand hygiene is really important,” Lautenbach said. “Waterless hand-hygiene products, if available, are useful. That’s especially true for children.”

Much of the flooding has receded in Texas, leaving the area with different health concerns, especially in buildings like homes and offices previously inundated with water. As they empty, trapped moisture remains, and they become hot spots for mold, particularly troubling for people with respiratory conditions like asthma.

Now that Harvey’s immediate danger has passed, the Houston area is starting to think about rebuilding and future preparedness. That will come later for Florida communities and others hit by Irma. Eugenie Birch, co-editor of Rebuilding Urban Places After Disaster, has extensive experience thinking about such topics.

“As we saw with Hurricane Katrina, recovery from such hurricanes will come in stages and will take several years to complete,” said Birch, the Lawrence C. Nussdorf Professor of Urban Research & Education in Penn’s School of Design and co-director of the Penn Institute for Urban Research. “Cities need to develop resilience plans assessing their vulnerability and addressing the key areas.”

That should be federally, with options like the National Flood Insurance Program, plus locally and individually, said Howard Kunreuther, the James G. Dinan Professor of Decision Sciences & Public Policy in Penn’s Wharton School. He also co-directs the Wharton Risk Management Center, which develops long-term strategies for handling low-probability, high-consequence events.

“Natural hazards certainly fit into that,” he said.

You see this big spike in giving right as the crisis occurs. But these communities are affected for months, years, sometimes decades.”

Katherina Rosqueta, executive director of Penn’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy

Often, people don’t adequately prepare because they feel immune to such scenarios. In a new book, The Ostrich Paradox: Why We Underprepare for Disasters, Kunreuther and Wharton colleague Robert Meyer, explained why: People focus on the short term, forget the past, underestimate losses from future hazards, selectively consider factors, maintain the status quo and make choices based on what others do. 

“If people hear that there’s a 1-in-100 chance of a flood, they say, ‘I’m not going to worry about it. I’m only going to be in the house for 25 years.’ But over the next 25 years, if you have a 1-in-100 chance of a flood every year, the likelihood of at least one happening to you is 1 in 5,” Kunreuther said. “It’s the same probability. By stretching the time horizon, people will likely pay attention to potential consequences rather than feeling that this type of flood will not happen to them.”

In rebuilding efforts, cities in the path of similarly strong weather would benefit from addressing how they think about new infrastructure, said Nikhil Anand, an assistant professor of anthropology in the School of Arts & Sciences who has studied urban water issues extensively, particularly in Mumbai. 

“Floods are caused not just by heavy rains but also the way that cities rapidly bury all natural flood protections under layers of concrete and asphalt,” he said. “While such urban development can be profitable to some, it also poses a challenge to the viability of a city in the future, particularly for its more vulnerable populations.”

Right now, that includes people living in and around areas thrown into the headlines thanks to Harvey and Irma. It will take time for their lives to return to what will likely be a new normal. That means that, into the foreseeable future, they will continue benefiting from outside help.

“Don’t forget about these places later on,” said Rosqueta, who recommended working with reputable organizations such as the Center for Disaster Philanthropy and Global Giving, which have already set up funds for long-term rebuilding following Harvey and Irma. “Think about giving down the line when the attention isn’t so great but the need is often just as severe.”

Additional information is available at Penn’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy and the Wharton Risk Management Center websites. For news media, additional experts at Penn can be found here.

Hurricane Irma Satellite image