Hurricanes, floods and infrastructure failure by LT. GEN. RUSSEL HONORE' (U.S.A.-Ret.) with TOM WRIGHT

OCTOBER 2018 UPDATE: In 2005, we had to clear the tall pines off the highways to get our teams to Biloxi, after Katrina. They were too close to the roads to begin with; lesson learned. But 13 years later, our responders have to do the same damned thing, pulling tree trunks off the interstates to get to Gulf Coast residents hit by Hurricane Michael. And a month ago, after Florence struck the Carolinas, the interstates were underwater - they, like many of our homes and businesses, are built on flood plains.

We're talking about infrastructure. And when it comes to our great American roadways, our bridges, the entirety of our transportation grid, we must stop being stuck on stupid.

Emergency responders delayed; relief convoys backed up; local economies shattered; friends and families suffering - none of these are acceptable. And the greatest nation on the face of the planet needs an infrastructure to match.

Lt. Gen. Russel Honore' (U.S. Army-Retired), former commander of Joint Task Force Katrina and founder of GreenARMY, presents his writings on the critical topics of catastrophic weather, overdevelopment in flood plains and the dire risks we face if we do not rebuild the nation's basic infrastructure.

The following text comes from Chapter 4 of Gen. Honore's latest book, Don't Get Stuck on Stupid! Leadership in Action, and is reprinted here as a public service.

Published by Acadian House Publishing.
"There is nothing so stupid as the educated man if you get him off the thing he was educated in." Will Rogers

Other than Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the terrorist attacks in 2001, never before in our country’s history have we faced a crisis at home that is as immediate and important as the one we face today from our crumbling and badly managed infrastructure.

But it wasn’t the Russians or a terrorist network that did this to us. We did it to ourselves by ignoring the warning signs and not making adequate preparations.

This crisis has been known about for many years, but it really became evident in the summer of 2017 when the triple hurricanes of Harvey, Irma and Maria hit Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, respectively. Every day for several weeks on end, we turned on our televisions and checked the Internet for updates on the disasters that were unfolding in several major metropolitan areas and across the entire island of Puerto Rico.

Even after disasters like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it’s frustrating to think that planning on the ground still hasn’t been implemented to avert disasters of this nature. This is something we are very capable of doing - just like we have done to improve hurricane tracking. We might be able to predict with a new level of accuracy where a hurricane may strike, but in general we are not using technology and scientific research nearly enough to help our people. It’s possible to use these resources so much better, but politics and various vested interests have taken precedence over the well-being of our country.

We are at a critical point in history - not just for our national security, but for our health and safety and the future of our country. That’s why it’s important to take a different approach, because we can’t depend only on the professionals and the politicians to make things better. In many instances, they haven’t even addressed the issues in earnest. Someone needs to raise the distress flag.

If our people aren’t safe, our country is vulnerable. The only one who can save us is us.

Hurricane Harvey near the coast of Texas at peak intensity, late on August 25, 2017 - ABI image captured by NOAA’s GOES-16 satellite

One of the greatest issues we face is that weather patterns are changing. This severely affects the way in which our houses, our neighborhoods, our cities, our states and our entire nation have to deal with such dramatic and immediate changes. This is not just a societal issue, it is a national security issue.

The weather and infrastructure may seem like separate issues, but they’re well connected. If our roads and railroads, for example, are not adequate in times of emergency, large sections of the population will be in even greater danger from the floods and hurricanes that we know will be coming.

Something needs to be done to defenseless areas to mitigate problems caused by severe weather events; many of these problems were exposed by Hurricanes Harvey in Texas and Maria in Puerto Rico.

An egregious example of how we have created our own problems is that we have allowed developers to build entire neighborhoods in known floodplains - in Houston, Texas, for example. About 90 percent of all natural disasters in the United States involve flooding, so most insurers no longer offer flood insurance because it is not profitable. As a result, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) was introduced in 1968 to provide flood insurance to communities that otherwise might not be able to purchase such insurance.

The majority of the NFIP’s 5.5 million policyholders are in Texas and Florida, the very states that were pummeled by hurricanes in 2017 and two of the states that are most vulnerable to climate change and rising sea levels. Before these hurricanes, the NFIP was already over $24 billion in debt, due in part to bad management and ill-conceived policies.

The NFIP debt is taxpayer money, so we’re subsidizing people to build in areas that we know will flood and will need to be bailed out. That’s crazy! In fact, just one percent of insured properties account for up to 30 percent of the claims and represent more than half the $24 billion debt, meaning that some properties flood multiple times and are constantly rebuilt, with our government knowing they will flood again.

More than 30,000 properties flood an average of five times every two to three years, and some properties have flooded more than 30 times. One home valued at $69,000 in California flooded 34 times in 32 years. Yet, after every flood, the NFIP rebuilt the property, spending nearly 10 times the property’s value.

What’s more, the average home that’s flooded has a value of about $110,000 but suffers over $133,000 in flood damages - and many of these homes are rebuilt multiple times. A significant number of these homes are also vacation homes, meaning that money to help rebuild primary homes for the less wealthy is potentially being diverted. It would often be less expensive to purchase a new home in a different location than to keep rebuilding in the same location.

We know the dangers and the expenses of living in flood zones, but little is done to help people move out of them. Apart from the insane policy of rebuilding over and over again, less than two percent of the money spent on rebuilding is spent on helping people move to safer locations. Unlike a nation such as the Netherlands - much of which is below sea level but which has not experienced a major flood since 1953 - we spend more money responding to floods than preventing them.

To make matters worse - or better, if you’re covered by NFIP - is the fact that the insurance policies don’t increase in price, even after multiple claims for the same property. When efforts are made to increase the rates, there is a huge cry from those whose premiums would increase because they rebuild so often. Meanwhile, we the taxpayers are footing the bill and literally encouraging people to build and rebuild in places that are not sustainable for housing.

Damage to Long Beach, Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina, Sept. 7, 2005 (Photo courtesy FEMA/Mark Wolfe)

After a disaster, many people are clueless about how to rebuild. How many more disasters will we have to go through before things are done right?

One of the issues we see in storms such as Hurricane Harvey is how to manage storm water. There is a normal function of the landscape and the way it deals with things such as excessive water, but that understanding has disappeared along with the natural landscapes that help the land deal with storm water.

The landscape is a huge mechanism for absorbing and purifying rainwater. Under normal circumstances, regular rains help cool the atmosphere; at the same time, the rain is soaked into the ground, where it is naturally filtered and becomes safe to drink. What we’ve done over the years is that we’ve changed this mechanism so that it is no longer functioning as it should.

Storms are ways of equalizing heat in the atmosphere, and one reason we get these huge storms now is the concentration of hot air and hot water. That’s what fed the storms in Texas and Florida in 2017. The atmosphere is heating up due to the reduced amount of plant material, which increases the moisture drawn into the air and therefore the amount of water that is dropped as rain. It’s a vicious cycle.

The energy in the atmosphere also plays a major role. The jet stream usually goes west to east in a fairly predictable pattern, but now it is waving up and down, more than likely due to man’s influence on the atmosphere. When the jet stream goes above or around a storm, it no longer pushes it. This is contributing to more extreme weather and making the extreme weather last longer.

One of the things that rain does is slow the wind, so with more rain we can expect slower-moving storms. We have already seen the effects of storms that sit for longer periods instead of moving along like they used to do. The floods in south Louisiana in 2016 and Hurricane Harvey in 2017 are examples of this new trend in storms.

Photo courtesy Paul Frederickson

Forests are one of the planet’s biggest cooling mechanisms, but we have replaced great swaths of forest with lawns. The lawn is now the single largest “crop” in the United States. More lawn is grown in our country than corn or any commercial crop, and in total it covers an area about the size of Texas.

The proliferation of lawns comes at a great cost, however. It takes a tremendous amount of water to keep grass alive, and in some regions as much as 75 percent of residential water is devoted to lawns. Naturally, this puts a colossal strain on water systems. The typical lawn uses 10,000 gallons of water per year, in addition to rainwater.

Unlike trees, which absorb carbon dioxide, lawns emit considerable amounts of carbon dioxide, which contributes to the warming of the atmosphere.

The greatest harm a lawn does, however, is as a result of their being treated with chemicals. After World War II, the chemical companies led us to believe that the best lawns were bright green, weed-free and insect-free, instead of being natural.

Each year, we dump about 90 million pounds of herbicides and pesticides on our lawns, with the result that many of these chemicals are now found in groundwater. Nitrates leeching into the drinking water can have the effect, as seen in some states such as Iowa, of turning babies grey-blue (the Blue Baby Syndrome).

What all this chemical action does is alter the nature of lawns. In a natural, organic lawn or forest floor, you could have four or five inches of rain with no runoff because the water is absorbed. A chemical lawn is denser and less able to absorb water, because the chemicals undermine the biology of the soil. It becomes saturated after only an inch of rain, and the rest runs off.

In a heavy rain, a typical sewer system can usually handle only a couple of inches of rain. After that, the landscape starts to flood. In an era when we are facing heavier and more sustained rainfalls, it makes sense to return to lawns that are organic and that can handle large amounts of water - or, better yet, replace lawns with other vegetation that is not harmful to the environment.

Another issue is trees. Tree roots are being starved by lawns, again because the rain is not being absorbed adequately into the ground. Instead of lawns around trees, it’s best to use other types of plant materials or no plants at all, like our grandparents used to do. Every person that owns property has the ability to contribute to the revival of healthy lawns and healthy trees, with the ultimate goal of being able to deal with storm water.

Insurance companies don’t like people to have trees near their houses, because trees have a habit of falling on houses in storms. However, trees almost always fall because of bad management, not because of wind and rain. Trees are valuable, because they cool the environment, provide shade that cools houses, and break the wind. Rather than getting rid of trees, we need to understand how to maintain our trees to encourage healthy soil and healthy roots.

Railroad crossing at Vicksburg, Miss. Photo courtesy Anthony George

South of the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers at Cairo, Illinois, there are just five railroad bridges crossing the Mississippi River. Known as the Lower Mississippi, this is a stretch of about 1,000 miles.

One of the reasons there are so few railroad crossings in the Lower Mississippi is that about 90 percent of all railroad freight traffic across the nation - both east-west and north-south - passes through Chicago, in the North. This makes the entire nation’s railroad freight system vulnerable to a crippling weather event such as a snowstorm.

Chicago is known for its extreme winter weather, and the blizzards of 1967 and 1999 are particularly memorable. In 1999, a blizzard virtually shut down freight traffic across the nation for several weeks. Because each railroad company is privately owned and operates its own lines, they didn’t coordinate their snow plowing and they were on the verge of shutting down the nation’s freight system. Fortunately, the railroad companies worked out a solution by allowing train cars from one company to go from one railroad line to another.

That was an infrastructure challenge, and it was solved because people realized there was a problem and they fixed it. It didn’t address the crazy situation in which 90 percent of railroad freight traffic goes through a single hub, but it was a start.

Forge Hill Road bridge washout after Hurricane Irene, New Windsor, NY. Photo courtesy Daniel Case

The railroads are still all privately owned, but the roads and airports across the nation are owned by various governmental entities, so we have this matrix of transportation infrastructure that is a patchwork of business and governmental bodies. And this can sometimes be a huge mess.

This is just one piece of the infrastructure jigsaw puzzle that keeps our nation running, but if any part of it fails, it could have a devastating and cumulative effect. In any community, the citizens can point to crumbling bridges, roads that are inadequate for the amount of traffic, sewer systems that need to be upgraded, school systems with inadequate facilities and so much more. As our infrastructure ages, the need to upgrade and replace it increases - and so does the cost.

Infrastructure is the foundation of our society. Without roads, bridges, schools, power plants, hospitals, communication systems and so on, our quality of life would plummet and we would become a third-world country.

Politicians tend to want to take the easy way out. Often, this means ignoring the problem and leaving it for the next administration or proposing privatization for parts of the infrastructure. The United States, through Federal, State and local governments, spends about 2.4 percent of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) on infrastructure per year, which is much less than many other developed countries.

China, on the other hand, spends about nine percent. In dollar terms, it spends more on infrastructure annually than North America and Western Europe combined. China, like many other nations such as Germany and Japan, looks to long-term goals. Meanwhile, the U.S. generally has shifted away from long-term goals to short-term fixes.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower understood that solid infrastructure is a military weapon. One of the major rationales he used in support of the interstate highway system was that it would facilitate the efficient movement of troops and military equipment across long distances.

Today, one of the easy political solutions to failing infrastructure is to propose privatizing large parts of it, most notably roads and bridges. Private companies alone are unable to finance the huge costs of these infrastructure projects, so they are granted massive tax breaks and are allowed to collect user fees such as tolls to offset their expenses.

This may work for some high-traffic spots in major metropolitan areas, but it will never work for rural roads and bridges that see relatively little traffic but are equally essential to the livelihood of the local population. The other issue is that the roads and bridges are still built with taxpayer money (in the form of grants and tax breaks), yet the taxpayers are charged tolls to use the very things they have already paid for.

Overall, transportation needs to be looked at more closely, and we need a variety of options so that if one part of the system breaks down, there is a backup. Currently, there is no backup, which is why one small failure in the highway system, for example, can cause weeks or months of disruption. Thus, a major blizzard has the potential to cripple cross-country rail networks.

Flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in Southeast Texas. Photo by Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Daniel J. Martinez.

The situation in Houston in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 was the “perfect storm” of infrastructure failures, environmental mismanagement and changing weather patterns. It was as much a man-made disaster as was Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans 12 years earlier.

One of the biggest issues in Houston was the lack of zoning and building codes, which are essential components for urban growth. Houston is the fourth largest city in the U.S. in terms of population and the third-largest in area. More than 2.3 million people are spread out over more than 630 square miles.

Most cities have stringent building requirements. In San Francisco, which has a high population density because the city is confined to a small area, there are higher standards for buildings due to the threat of earthquakes. In addition, they don’t build where there could be floods, and residential and business areas are strictly separated.

In Houston, much of the city was built in known floodplains. Houston was planned by developers, apparently with little thought given to how the various communities would deal with the inevitable floodwaters. Houston is a concrete jungle that floods regularly: The first major flood was in 1935, and since 1994 it has flooded several times. There was a 100-year flood in 1994, a 500-year flood in 2001, and devastating floods in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

The 2017 flood was the worst, of course. With so much of the land paved over, with so many lawns unable to absorb more than an inch or so of rain and with Hurricane Harvey being bigger and slower than previous storms, there was simply nowhere for the water to go.

To make matters worse, the lack of building regulations meant that not only were thousands of homes built in floodplains, but when there was a plan to deal with excess rainwater it often involved simply moving that water to the next community via pipes, ditches, and so on. This total lack of infrastructure planning made the environmental disaster worse than it should have been - and completely predictable.

USCG aircrew delivers FEMA aid to Aguada, Puerto Rico. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Eric D. Woodall

It’s not just Houston, of course, although we know that many of the problems faced by Houston could have been averted or lessened with sensible and proper planning.

Just weeks after Harvey hit Texas, Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, severely damaging the island’s fragile infrastructure and knocking out power to almost the entire population of about 3.5 million people.

Instead of doing all in his power, as quickly as possible, to help millions of American citizens who were without electricity and were running dangerously low of drinking water and food, President Trump belittled the island’s elected officials, calling them “politically motivated ingrates” who “want everything done for them.”

The inadequate Federal response in Puerto Rico was all too familiar. I had seen it before in 2005 in New Orleans - and here we were a dozen years later and we were still stuck on stupid.

Overall, we’re facing a national crisis that could affect 60 million people in low-lying and coastal areas. As a nation, we have no plan to protect those people. There is no Federal agency for planning a response. And the Trump administration is making matters worse by denying there is a problem, refusing to accept the scientific evidence.

South Carolina National Guard soldiers transfer bulk diesel fuel in advance of Hurricane Florence, Sept. 10, 2018. SCNG photo by Army Sgt. Brian Calhoun

One way to be better prepared for future hurricanes is to enlist the aid of the U.S. military - a “Ready Brigade,” a quick-response Task Force that could move in immediately after the storm has passed.

This Task Force would be made up of Army, Navy and/or Marines. It could be drawn from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, or the 101st Airborne Division, or the 10th Mountain Division.

The first of the military personnel could be on the ground in a matter of hours, assessing the damage, saving lives, helping people in distress. Such an operation would involve perhaps 15 to 20 ships, 100 helicopters, and a brigade of soldiers, including some who would parachute into the heart of the affected area.

I think Congress should authorize the funding in the Defense Department budget that would enable such a Task Force to be our nation’s first responders for disasters involving hurricanes of Category 3 strength or higher.

Now, the Task Force wouldn’t take the place of the various State National Guards and other first responder groups that have been at it for decades. It would supplement what’s already being done, and it would do so with extraordinary speed, the likes of which the world has never seen!

New Orleans, Sept. 2, 2005. U.S. Navy photo by Gary Nichols

It would be easy to slip backwards into being a third world country. We planned our metropolitan areas to be densely populated, but we haven’t put enough thought into how to support that population in times of crisis.

  • How do they evacuate?
  • How do they survive if the railroads fail or if the electricity supply fails?
  • How do they deal with floodwaters?

Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 was a learning experience. Mistakes were made, but there was no precedent. Katrina became the precedent and was the starting point for how to deal with future disasters. Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico incorporated some of the lessons, but neglected others.

* * *

The compromised infrastructure across the United States is a serious threat to national security, and it’s made worse by changing weather patterns and cities springing up where they perhaps don’t belong.

We have vested interests in keeping the status quo, but the status quo is rarely favorable to the population at large. Human nature never changes, and those with power don’t want to relinquish it. Unless we learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it - and the failure to learn from Hurricane Katrina is already having serious implication for our ability to deal with today’s monster storms.

What we have to understand is that the price tag to keep Americans safe isn’t the main issue. Look at the amount of money we spend on overseas wars and defense contracts. If we spent just a fraction of that on being prepared for disasters at home, we would be better able to take care of our own people.

The fact that we are failing in our duty to protect our own people is not just stupid, it’s shameful and grossly negligent - but completely reversible if we can muster up the will to address these issues.

Calls to action:

  1. Accept the reality of changing weather patterns, and plan accordingly.
  2. Build sustainable houses and rebuild in safe places, not in floodplains.
  3. Don’t use chemicals on your lawns.
  4. Help trees work with the environment, not against it.
  5. Devote time and effort to building a strong infrastructure.
  6. Don’t keep making the same mistakes … don’t get stuck on stupid!
Created By
Tom Wright