Hurricane Irma: How communities rebuild after disaster, hopefully stronger than before

Miami and Houston have a long road ahead to recovery after their respective hurricanes in the last few weeks.

Hurricane Irma ripped up trees, tossed boats onto shore, flooded streets and worse in Florida, and Houston was deeply flooded by Hurricane Harvey.

READ MORE: Photos of the damage Hurricane Irma left behind

Communities eventually rebuild after disasters though. Here’s how the process often works.


As a disaster hits, the priority is saving lives, said Chiran Livera, operations manager with the Canadian Red Cross. “Our initial focus is always on emergency life-saving assistance. This is the medicine and health care, shelter, food, water.”

Then once the shaking has stopped or the hurricane has blown over, government officials begin to assess the damage. They look at things like where they need to keep shelters or food and water stations open, according to Jennifer Horney, an associate professor at Texas A&M University’s School of Public Health who studies disaster management and relief.

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Then they look at essential infrastructure, she said. “Transportation, electricity, water. And during that time, sort of simultaneously will be your essential services like fire and police and ambulance services.”

READ MORE: Irma weakens to tropical storm, still lashes Florida with wind and rain


Once people’s emergency needs have been met, then they start thinking about recovery, said Livera.

This is a tough one for governments, said Horney. “There is an immense pressure for them to do things quickly. So there’s not a lot of time to consider how things might need to be done differently because everyone wants to get back to their homes as quickly as possible, get back to work, get things back the way they were.”

Her research has found that it helps to have a plan that identifies what the community’s priorities are for rebuilding, long before disaster hits. “You can’t have that conversation the week after Harvey. You just have to do something.”

Unfortunately, very few communities have such a plan and as such, can be left scrambling, she said. But both governments and residents agree that infrastructure and public safety should be priorities.

WATCH: Aerial views over Orlando on Monday revealed just some of the damage the Florida city sustained in the wake of Hurricane Irma

Click to play video 'Helicopter view over Orlando reveals Irma’s damage' Helicopter view over Orlando reveals Irma’s damage
Helicopter view over Orlando reveals Irma’s damage – Sep 11, 2017

Once the power and water are back on and the hospitals are open, getting people back into their houses is usually a big priority for local governments and big programs are often set up to help people with temporary shelter or to rebuild their homes.

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In New Jersey, following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the state government provided funding to help with the costs of rebuilding homes and for landlords to rebuild rental units.

There was a catch though – “Any homes have to build above base flood elevation when they use our funding,” said Samuel Viavattine, deputy commissioner in charge of Sandy Recovery at the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. “So all of those homes that were using our funding are now on higher ground. And so there is significant housing stock in this state now that will be significantly safer the next time a disaster strikes the way that Sandy did.”


That’s part of what is called resilience – making sure that a community can better withstand future disasters.

You don’t just want to go back to where you started, pre-disaster, said Horney. “We really want to avoid the idea that getting back to the way things were before Harvey would be a goal and really think about maybe 10 years from now, how could Houston be more resilient in a new normal that prioritized improving floodwater infrastructure or investing in green spaces that can absorb more water or different approaches that will take time to gain the support of the public or of the policy makers.”

The Red Cross calls this approach “Build Back Better,” said Livera. “When we assist with the rebuilding of a community, whether it’s physically, or emotionally or culturally, we want to make it better than it was before.”

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WATCH: CBS reporter David Begnaud ventures through heavily flooded areas in Jacksonville, Florida next to the St. John’s River.

Click to play video 'Reporter gives tour of areas flooded in Jacksonville, Florida after Hurricane Irma' Reporter gives tour of areas flooded in Jacksonville, Florida after Hurricane Irma
Reporter gives tour of areas flooded in Jacksonville, Florida after Hurricane Irma – Sep 11, 2017

New Jersey is providing grants and loans to public facilities like hospitals and wastewater treatment plants to make sure they can keep running during storms and floods, said Viavattine. They are also buying out homeowners who live in flood-plain areas through a voluntary program and building some flood walls in Hoboken and other cities.

Full recovery, let alone resilience, can take years though. Although Sandy hit in 2012, and overall Viavattine thinks that the state has done a “tremendous job,” New Jersey is still “continuing to recover.”

“If you look at New Orleans, it’s been 12 years since Katrina and their population is still not where it was before,” said Horney.