Harvey Racial Optics

In this Thursday, Sept. 1, 2005 photo, Hurricane Katrina flood victims crowd outside the Louisiana Superdome awaiting chartered bus rides out of New Orleans. (Richard Alan Hannon/The Advocate via AP)

Richard Alan Hannon

Are we as a nation getting better at storm response? It’s far more than an academic question in Louisiana, where disasters have reshaped our world in the most dramatic ways possible since 2005.

“There’s no doubt we’re doing better,” argues Brian Wolshon, an expert at LSU. He told The New York Times: “The stuff we’re doing is not rocket science, but it’s having the political will, and the need, to do it.”

There is a lot of wisdom in that comment. It is not as though the Gulf Coast has not seen flooding or hurricanes before. By the nature of things, weather forecasting is better than decades ago, when Hurricane Betsy hammered Louisiana.

But certainly a pivotal moment was Hurricane Katrina, and the failure of the levees that inundated a great American city in 2005. The death toll in metropolitan New Orleans and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast was in four figures.

Because of the improvements in not only levees but in the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other mechanisms of storm response, hurricanes Harvey and Irma have barely nudged three figures. As Wolshon said, the day-to-day costs of hurricane response have gone up, but there is a measurable improvement when you consider the impact in lives.

Political will has been there, if only because no president wants to be in the hapless position of George W. Bush in the wake of Katrina.

Property, too, is better-protected. Not just the New Orleans area levees, but building standards along the Gulf Coast have been improved. In Florida after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 — it damaged or destroyed 125,000 homes there, before taking aim at our coastline — building codes were changed. Under the leadership of Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Louisiana revised its construction standards after Katrina and Rita in 2005.

In both cases, property has been better-protected from storm surge and winds, although maybe not for flood events inland from the coast.

The Times article noted that at the national level, the coordination of disasters improved because of a man-made deadliness, the crashing of two airliners into the World Trade Center in Manhattan and other attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. “We’ve been training people for this for the last 16 years,” commented Richard Serino, a former deputy administrator of FEMA.

State and local authorities also spend more time and money on emergency preparedness and response. In 2008, Gov. Bobby Jindal was able to mobilize a much more cogent and effective team, across jurisdictional lines, for Hurricane Gustav.

For our friends in southeast Texas, Louisiana officials who had to deal with catastrophic floods last year are consulting with Lone Star State leaders about ways to work the still-complicated system.

We’re better off for the storm part, then, but better preparedness and response doesn’t make the long recovery that much easier. It is still a challenge and deserves some political will at the national level about ways to make the bureaucracy move faster and more effectively.