Self-reported hardships due to road closures during Harvey.
Most affected: Low-income and minority households, families with young children
Regardless of how well cities harden their infrastructure, service disruptions are inevitable during and after major hurricanes. Once residents accept that fact, they can adopt practical strategies for weathering storms in place.
Families that live outside of hurricane paths or flood plains can still experience extended disruptions – for example, if high winds damage power distribution networks, or local roads are blocked by downed trees. It is critical for households to understand the likelihood of service disruptions, assess their basic needs objectively and prepare for possible extended outages.
Our research showed that some population groups were especially vulnerable to losing specific services. Households with children 10 and younger self-reported that losing electricity was the most onerous hardship for them, since it made it impossible for them to refrigerate and prepare food. On the other hand, respondents age 65 and older reported that road closures were their greatest burden because they could not drive to work, grocery stores, health care facilities or pharmacies.
We also found that low-income residents and racial and ethnic minorities were less prepared overall and experienced greater hardship during post-Harvey service losses. Disaster researchers widely view these groups as vulnerable populations, since they have fewer resources to prepare or adapt to disruptions.
Interestingly, we found that seniors over 65 were better prepared to endure sewer, water and telecommunications losses after Harvey. For many of them prior experience with storms had instilled the value of preparation, and on the whole they were ready for the impending storm.
Hardening infrastructure with people in mind
Houston is investing in a swath of flood control and flood risk reduction projects. Notably, on Aug. 25 residents will vote on a $2.5 billion bond measure to overhaul the region’s flood-protection system..
Protecting homes is important, but cities should also invest in hardening infrastructure systems, such as power and water lines, to support residents who shelter in place during storms. Local communities can handle some of these upgrades. For instance, some Houston neighborhoods lost internet connectivity for as long as six weeks due to submerged utility boxes housing network electronics. This problem could be solved by raising the boxes above potential flood levels.
Identifying and hardening infrastructure components, such as power sub-stations and wastewater treatment plants, that are highly vulnerable to future storms is a critical task for utilities and city planners. Also, recognizing and protecting vulnerable sub-populations who are most affected by service outages should be a priority.
As households prepare for an storm, consideration of possible power outages, sewer backup, and road closures should factor into their decisions about evacuating or sheltering in place. If they stay, they should not underestimate the likelihood of service disruptions. No one likes to lose power or internet, but imagining the possibility of extended service outages and the resulting hardship can help households prepare and cope with the disruptions.
This article by Ali Mostafavi originally appeared in The Conversation.