Hurricanes and disaster response: rebuilding society from the ground up

There has been a long-standing assumption among some climate activists that as things really start to get bad, cities and countries will take appropriately drastic action to deal with climate change. The idea is that natural disasters will create a public demand for action, to which leaders will be forced to respond if they want to keep their power. In many ways, this is probably the longest-standing dynamic in societal governance. Whether the ruling class justifies its power through might, claims of divine authority, or a claim to some form of democratic mandate, if its rule doesn’t result a somewhat decent life for most people, the odds are good that their power will be taken away, either by the people themselves, or by some other ruling faction that thinks they can get the people on their side.

It’s a reliable process for very small, very slow levels of change, and because it’s been around for so long, there are also known ways to weaken that dynamic. The “Divine Right of Kings” is one of the more well-known methods – use religion to justify power. Other forms of propaganda and ideology, like liberalism, seem to work better in much of the world today. Rather than a devout faith in divine intervention to deal with big problems, people have devout faith in capitalism, and the notion that we’ll be “saved” by some science fiction tech innovation.

It’s been clear for some time that we’ve got a pretty big capacity for taking disasters in stride – particularly those that don’t cause us direct harm. Big weather events have been a part of human life for all of history, and it’s not hard to see any one or two events as just par for the course. Many parts of the world have hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts, and so on, on a yearly basis. Combine that with the erroneous belief that “market forces” will solve all our problems, and it’s not surprising that, in general, disasters don’t motivate significant change. Quote from and Oregon State University press release:

Natural disasters alone are not enough to motivate local communities to engage in climate change mitigation or adaptation, a new study from Oregon State University found.

Rather, policy change in response to extreme weather events appears to depend on a combination of factors, including fatalities, sustained media coverage, the unusualness of the event and the political makeup of the community.

For the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, Giordono and co-authors Hilary Boudet of OSU’s College of Liberal Arts and Alexander Gard-Murray at Harvard University examined 15 extreme weather events that occurred around the U.S. between March 2012 and June 2017, and any subsequent local climate policy change.

These events included flooding, winter weather, extreme heat, tornadoes, wildfires and a landslide.

The study, published recently in the journal Policy Sciences, found there were two “recipes” for local policy change after an extreme weather event.

“For both recipes, experiencing a high-impact event — one with many deaths or a presidential disaster declaration — is a necessary condition for future-oriented policy adoption,” Giordono said.

In addition to a high death toll, the first recipe consisted of Democrat-leaning communities where there was focused media coverage of the weather event. These communities moved forward with adopting policies aimed at adapting in response to future climate change, such as building emergency preparedness and risk management capacity.

The second recipe consisted of Republican-leaning communities with past experiences of other uncommon weather events. In these locales, residents often didn’t engage directly in conversation about climate change but still worked on policies meant to prepare their communities for future disasters.

In both recipes, policy changes were fairly modest and reactive, such as building fire breaks, levees or community tornado shelters. Giordono referred to these as “instrumental” policy changes.

“As opposed to being driven by ideology or a shift in thought process, it’s more a means to an end,” she said. “‘We don’t want anyone else to die from tornadoes, so we build a shelter.’ It’s not typically a systemic response to global climate change.”

In their sample, the researchers didn’t find any evidence of mitigation-focused policy response, such as communities passing laws to limit carbon emissions or require a shift to solar power. And some communities did not make any policy changes at all in the wake of extreme weather.

As the climate warms, disasters will become more frequent and more severe, but at the same time, populations will become more accustomed to living with them. This will happen regardless of whether significant policy changes are made. If things get bad enough, there will be pressure for change, but the ruling class will always fight changes to the system that gave them their power, and ensure that those changes are as small and ineffectual as possible.

For something on the scale of climate change, that’s a recipe for endlessly escalating disaster.

Last week I wrote about Hurricane Laura’s approach to the American Gulf Coast, and while news of that has been somewhat muted by the ongoing pandemic and the rise of fascism, the damage has been significant. reports that hundreds of thousands are without power, and that situation could last for weeks, because our infrastructure is not equipped to handle storms like this.

Rebuilding after a disaster is never easy, but recovering from Hurricane Laura in southwestern Louisiana will require a herculean effort.

Electricity could be out for weeks, water can’t flow from damaged systems and the heat index could reach 110 degrees.

Six parishes had been declared federal disaster areas: Allen, Beauregard, Calcasieu, Cameron, Jefferson Davis and Vernon. On Tuesday, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved his request for individual assistance in three more parishes: Acadia, Ouachita and Vermilion. The governor’s request for another 14 parishes is still pending federal approval.

Edwards said power could be restored to most damaged locations in central and northern Louisiana in the next few days.

“But the damage to the grid infrastructure in Southwest Louisiana, from Cameron Parish to Vernon or so, is very extensive, especially in Calcasieu,” he said.

Getting the electricity back in Calcasieu Parish, home to Lake Charles, could take three weeks, Edwards said during a briefing Monday afternoon.

More than 102,000 homes and businesses in Calcasieu had no power on Tuesday morning, according to Altogether, Louisiana still had over 260,000 outages Tuesday due to the storm that killed at least 42 people in the U.S. and Caribbean. Fifteen deaths have been confirmed in Louisiana, and four people died in Texas.

Crews also are racing to repair damaged water systems. More than 177,000 people had no access to water because of the storm, according to the Advocate.

In Beauregard Parish, officials are arranging transportation for anyone wanting to evacuate voluntarily, especially the elderly and people with medical needs, KPLC-TV reported.

Louisiana officials have been trying to avoid using shelters where large numbers of people congregate because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, anyone looking for a place to stay is told to go to a reception center in Alexandria, where they are then sent to a hotel or another smaller shelter.

Officials opened the Alexandria MegaShelter after hotels in the New Orleans reached capacity for evacuees. At that point, the reception center at the Shrine on Airline stadium in Metairie was closed.

Edwards said more than 10,600 evacuees are staying in hotels statewide. More than 9,000 of those were in the New Orleans area. In addition, 4,000 evacuees are in Texas hotels.

In the meantime, officials are warning people who haven’t gone to shelters to pay attention to the heat.

Southwest Louisiana is under a heat advisory through 8 p.m. Tuesday. Temperatures are expected to climb into the 90s, which, when combined with the humidity, could lead to heat index readings between 105 and 110.

As with so many other things, the ruling class is largely immune to this damage. If any lived in the path of this storm to begin with, they can all simply go live somewhere else, or even pay to generate their own power. They are already isolated from climate change, and are making plans to use the obscene wealth they’ve hoarded while destabilizing our climate to further insulate and isolate themselves, and protect their wealth and power.

Without clean drinking water and power, storms move from events that can cause immediate danger through high winds and floodwaters, to catastrophes that cause people to die from exposure to the elements, and from diseases caused by contaminated food and water. The lack of hurricane-proof infrastructure, and the failure of the government to provide adequate aid killed thousands when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, despite the United States being, on paper, the wealthiest, most powerful country on the planet.

Whether or not Hurricane Laura will cause the level of human suffering we saw from Hurricanes Maria or Katrina remains to be seen. What’s certain is that it does not need to. We have the resources to save lives and livelihoods, and to repair the damage. Any scarcity is caused by the way we distribute those resources.

Likewise, when it comes to repair and rebuilding, the current system will not spontaneously rebuild with climate change in mind. We could use events like this as an opportunity to replace what was destroyed with infrastructure designed to withstand high winds and flooding without significant harm. We could move communities inland or to higher ground. We could relocate whole cities, rather than waste money on things like sea walls that are likely to be swamped by rising seas and strengthening storms within our lifetimes.

As I’ve said before, we have a good idea of what’s coming, and that means that we can prepare for it. We have the means.

But we’re currently crippled by a system that only considers an endeavor to be worthwhile if it’s profitable, not for society as a whole, but for those who are already wealthy. And a proactive response to climate change is not profitable in that way.

The decades-long propaganda campaign by the fossil fuel industry was an exercise in causing long-term death for short-term profit. The people that those corporate executives and shareholders chose to sacrifice have started to die. When Exxon chose to hide what they knew and instead fund misinformation campaigns, they chose to kill thousands of people, to add to their personal wealth. Had they done it in person, they’d be called assassins, and locked up.

But like all those who decide to perpetrate mass slaughter on this scale, they’ve chosen to do it at a distance, both in space and in time, and to do it as cheaply and obscurely as possible – letting the natural disasters they knew would occur do the killing for them, and simply withholding the means to survive.

So what do we do? We can start at the community level, preparing for disasters, sharing skills and resources, and building resilient networks – human infrastructure to meet the needs of the moment. In doing so, we will also build at least some of the strength we will need to seize control of society, and force it to serve the needs of the many, rather than the greed of the few. The only way we can make things better is from the ground up. By doing the work necessary to deal with individual disasters in a collective manner, we will also build the power and resources we need to tackle bigger, more systemic problems. Direct action gets satisfaction.

This blog, and its associated podcast, are made possible by my wonderful patrons. Their funding has made a huge difference in my life, but I’m still short of what I need to make ends meet, and it’s still very difficult to find conventional wage labor, what with the pandemic and all. If you’d like to earn my undying gratitude, fund my work, and feed my household, you can head over to to help pay for this content. As with so many other good things, crowdfunding takes a collective effort, and every little bit helps.


  1. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Rather than a devout faith in divine intervention to deal with big problems, people have devout faith in capitalism, and the notion that we’ll be “saved” by some science fiction tech innovation.

    The major stumbling block to fixing the problem is that people like you are looking a gift-horse in the mouth. You are taking a proven technology, nuclear, and calling it a science fiction tech innovation, as an underhanded baseless smear, because you have tricked yourself into believing that the current state of civilization is bad and that the only possible – or desirable – fix must start with radically overhauling society. It’s a religious creed, and not a scientifically informed position.

    By contrast, solar, wind, and batteries were specifically chosen by many people in charge, by David Brower, Amory Lovins, and the rest of the Green leadership, because they don’t work, because they would only work with a science fiction tech innovation. They won’t work as a drop-in replacement for fossil fuels, which is why they were chosen, so they could pursue their real goal of punishing the poor, and making the rich become poor, because of their neo-Malthusian delusions.

    When you tell people that the only fix will require herculean efforts and a radical change to society, that puts many people off. I’m pretty sure I’ve read psychological studies that for many people, this is a demotivator. You’re scaring them so much that they think the solution is impossible.

    However, if you told them that the fix was to change a few regulations to level the playing field for nuclear, and minor (approx 1% of GDP) public spending of tax money to build lots of nuclear and a several key follow-on technologies, then suddenly you might find that a lot more people are willing to do what must be done.

    The solution to climate change, for the most part, is obvious, and relatively cheap: lots of nuclear power, electricity everything that can be attached to the grid, use nuclear reactors in-place for the largest ocean-going cargo ships, use li-ion batteries or CO2 from the air or oceans to make synthetic petrol for the rest of transport, plus specific fixes for individual industrial processes like electrolysis for hydrogen for steel, and then do a simple negative emissions technology like the brute force method of heating limestone to get concentrated CO2 and quicklime, putting the CO2 stream into basalt, and grinding up the quicklime and dumping it evenly over the ocean’s surface. Except for synthetic petrol at the scale we need, everything else is proven to scale at cost to the size that we need, and it’s just a matter of money, and it’s not even that much money, needing only about 1% of world GDP per year for like 40 years. The only thing standing in the way are a bunch of Greens like you who refuse to accept any solution that doesn’t start with a radical restructuring of society.

  2. says

    GerrardOfTitanServer @#1

    Rather than a devout faith in divine intervention to deal with big problems, people have devout faith in capitalism, and the notion that we’ll be “saved” by some science fiction tech innovation.

    The major stumbling block to fixing the problem is that people like you are looking a gift-horse in the mouth. You are taking a proven technology, nuclear, and calling it a science fiction tech innovation, as an underhanded baseless smear, because you have tricked yourself into believing that the current state of civilization is bad and that the only possible – or desirable – fix must start with radically overhauling society.

    I believe that nuclear power plants as well as the electrical grid should be state owned and maintained. Private individuals and companies are welcome to put solar panels on the roofs of their family homes and office buildings if they like them, but I don’t want any corporations wealthy enough to build nuclear power plants and control the entire electrical infrastructure. You are welcome to call me a socialist, in my part of the world that’s not even an insult.

    Thus I can agree with the quoted text that it is bad for “people to have devout faith in capitalism, and the notion that we’ll be “saved” by some science fiction tech innovation.” For-profit corporations got us into this mess called “global warming.” They aren’t going to get us out of this mess by voluntarily ditching profitable fossil fuels and starting to build lots of nuclear power plants. So far trashing the planet has been more profitable for corporations than coming up with alternative solutions that do not trash the planet. I don’t see how this could change anytime soon.

  3. says

    Various forms of nuclear power are part of the existing technologies we have available to us, and not some sci-fi easy-mode solution.

    And as Andreas said, they should not be operated for profit, because that model reliably leads to corner-cutting, and externalizing problems for other people to deal with. Scaling up nuclear power safely will not be profitable.

    And none of that is going to happen on a time frame that will prevent the need to adapt to a warming world. As much as you may wish it to be the case, social constructs – like the general fear of nuclear power/meltdowns – exist, and influence how things go. One could, in theory, override that through an authoritarian approach, but that seems to reliably tie projects like that to ego, and to the pressure to be seen as successful to justify the lack of self-governance to the people.

    Which brings us back to cutting corners, covering up problems, and making excuses, which make REAL problems more likely.

    Had we gone all-in on nuclear in the 1990s, it’s possible we could have avoided major warming and the dangers it brings. That didn’t happen, so the calculation has changed.

  4. Numenaster says

    “Had we gone all-in on nuclear in the 1990s, it’s possible we could have avoided major warming and the dangers it brings. That didn’t happen…”

    Probably because Three Mile Island happened in 1979. Nuclear power in the US still hadn’t recovered its former luster by 2011 when Fukushima happened.

  5. says

    Yep. There’s a combination of real concerns and exaggerated concerns, but both of those together mean a serious obstacle that will take time to overcome.

    On the one hand things like the recent apocalyptic wildfires might shift people’s risk assessment, but on the other hand, I don’t like the idea of nuclear plants exposed to fires like that, or of an exclusion zone being the site of a fire on this scale.

    Nuclear power definitely has a place in what we need to do, but trying to make it the sole focus will cause even more delays.

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