There are very few disasters (natural or manmade) that can compare to that of a substantially-sized hurricane. The National Hurricane Center (NHC), under the umbrella of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), defines a hurricane as a tropical cyclone forming in the Northern Hemisphere (within the Atlantic Ocean) that has maximum sustained winds at/or above 74 miles per hour (NHC, 2018). These hurricanes are categorized by intensity via the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale and are ranked Category 1 (Cat 1) through Category 5 (Cat 5): Cat 1 storms have sustained winds ranging from 74 miles per hour to 95 miles per hour and are considered very dangerous having the potential to produce SOME damage while Cat 5 storms are considered catastrophic in nature, having sustained winds 157 miles per hour and higher (NHC, 2018). After considering the potentially deadly atmospheric conditions that arise from these natural disasters, it’s common to come to the conclusion that catastrophic loss of life and property is inevitable. However, this is not the case when adequate preparation and coordination between local, state, and federal organizations is conducted. Within this paper, I will discuss the specifics regarding Hurricane Harvey (timeline of events, track, etc.) and the efforts of the organizations listed above with respect to before, during, and after the hurricane made landfall. Furthermore, as there were clearly-documented lessons learned based upon the successes and failures of those organizations involved, I will describe the outcomes/changes to processes based on those lessons learned/risk assessments in an effort to ensure an effective emergency response in the future.
TRACK/TIMELINE OF EVENTS
Hurricanes are no stranger to states on the east coast and those that have shoreline on the Gulf of Mexico. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) defines a hurricane as “a tropical cyclone with maximum sustained winds of 74 miles per hour or higher” (2018) and categorizes them via the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale as Category (CAT) 1 through CAT 5. Each category is assessed as follows:
CAT 1: 74-95 MPH; Very dangerous winds will produce some damage to well-constructed frame homes with respect to lost shingles, gutters, and vinyl siding.
CAT2: 96-110 MPH; Extremely dangerous winds will cause extensive damage with well-constructed frame homes sustaining major roof and siding damage.
CAT 3 (Major): 111-156 MPH; Devastating damage will occur with well-built homes possibly incurring severe damage or removal of roof decking.
CAT 4 (Major): 130-156 MPH; Catastrophic damage will occur with well-built framed homes sustaining severe damage with loss of most of the roof structure and some exterior walls.
CAT 5 (Major): +157 MPH; Catastrophic damage will occur with a high percentage of framed homes being destroyed via total roof and wall failure/collapse. (NHC, 2018)
In addition to wind damage, the other factor that has historically been the most devastating to the United States has been the resulting flooding associated with these major storms. This was most specifically the case for Hurricane Harvey, which wreaked havoc on Texas and Louisiana back in 2017.
Hurricane Harvey was a devastating natural disaster that evolved over the course of 19 days (13 August-31 August 2017) until it dissipated within the United States. It started out as a tropical wave that emerged off the coast of West Africa that collided with a low pressure system near the Cabo Verde Islands. Just as any tropical system does in this part of the world, it began to track west further into the Atlantic Ocean. Over the course of four days, that low pressure tropical system began to take on shape and intensity, progressing into a tropical storm as it made entrance into the Caribbean Sea. Although Harvey wavered in intensity as it continued on its track (from tropical depression to tropical wave, back to tropical depression), on 24 August it became clear that this storm would not be backing down anytime soon, as Harvey strengthened into a CAT 1 hurricane. It was then when the National Hurricane Center (NHC) began predicting a major hurricane (CAT 3 or higher). By the time Harvey made landfall two days later, it had progressed into a CAT 4 storm with sustained winds reaching an astounding 130 miles per hour. Here is where Harvey does not live out a typical track. Normally, as a storm presses further inland it stays on its direct path where is quickly begins to dissipate and become less organized. However, Harvey actually took a sharp southeastern turn from its northwestern track and went BACK into the Gulf of Mexico before making its third landfall on a northeastern track into Louisiana on 30 August as a Tropical Storm. Harvey stayed on this northeastern track until it dissipated into a low pressure system where they National Hurricane Center ceased to track its progression (Ehrlichm, 2017).
PREPS/RESPONSE BEFORE, DURING, AFTER LANDFALL
As hurricane Harvey’s track began to be more predictable via the plethora of models in service, Texas started immediate preparations. For instance, the Governor of Texas (Greg Abbott) declared a state of emergency for 30 Texas counties, and directed the Texas Department of Public Safety’s State Operations Center to stand-up and increase its readiness level with the imminent threat of a direct hit. Additionally, Governor Abbott emphasized the imperativeness of those living in coastal areas to evacuate their homes…albeit leaving the decision of mandatory evacuations up to local leaders who have boots on ground. There were a few local authorities who made the call to evacuate (Calhoun, Brazoria, Matagorda, and Jackson Counties for example), but not cities/counties further inland like Houston. The Mayor of Houston actually advised against a mass exodus of the city, citing concern for pandemonium. Cities on the coast began to board up windows, doors, and fill sandbags in fear of massive surf conditions and storm surge. Additionally, state prisons that were in the potential path of the storm stocked up on water and fuel for generators in preparation for massive power outages while some like the detention facility in the Rio Grande Valley actually transferred inmates temporarily to a facility that could house them throughout the storm. Furthermore, shelters were being erected across the state to satisfy the influx of evacuees and aid/supplies being stocked to support hurricane relief efforts. Finally, National Guard Bureau members along with FEMA were activated and pre-postured for the inevitable rescue missions that would ensue once the storm hit/passed (Pollock, 2017).
Hurricane Harvey finally made landfall for the first time between Port Aransas and Port O’Connor in Texas during the evening hours of 25 August 2017. At this time, the Hurricane was considered a CAT 4 storm with sustained winds at/or above 130 miles per hour. The storm pummeled these coastal areas with torrential downpours and heavy winds resulting in downed trees, powerlines, and structures. The storm was moving uncharacteristically slow, which bumped up earlier predictions of rainfall accumulation from 30 inches to over 40. This changed the game with respect to how devastating this hurricane was estimated to become. Governor Abott changed his tone from caution to warning, enlightening Texans about potential record-setting flood chances. Following these messages, Abott finally requested additional federal assistance via a presidential disaster declaration…which President Trump happily obliged to do. With respect to FEMA, they warned that if anyone chose to stay in their homes to ride out the storm, they MUST reside in a residence that can withstand at least CAT 3 winds with the availability of a second story to stay above the flooding (Almasy, Chavez & Levenson, 2017). While all this was occurring, the unit that I am assigned to at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, GA was notified that we were to be ready to launch rescue and recovery missions in support of relief operations within the next 24 hours. Our unit was made up of HH-60 Pave Hawk Helicopters, HC-130J Helicopter Refulers/Cargo aircraft, as well as the associated maintenance and operations personnel required to execute the mission. Additionally, National Guard members from both Florida and Georgia were pre-positioned alongside us awaiting the go-ahead to launch by our military commanders. This was a good move, because by the time the storm had progressed further into Texas, back down into the Gulf and then back up into Louisiana, the devastation Harvey laid in its wake was way too much for one States’ agencies to handle alone.
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Harvey was downgraded to a low pressure system on 31 August 2017, at which point the National Hurricane Center ceased the tracking of the storm. However, the seven days or so that Harvey remained on shore was enough make history. The Department of Energy reported that over a quarter of a million customers in Texas had reported power outages while Louisiana estimated over 16,000 (USDOE, 2017). As Harvey hovered over the Houston metropolitan area for a prolonged period of time, it was reported that the associated rainfall set a record for the most accumulated from a hurricane in United States history at over 60 inches (totaling one trillion gallons) in some areas with an associated price tag of $125 billion in damage (FEMA, 2017). As far as the rescue missions went, it was all hands-on deck. Coast Guard, US Air Force, Army National Guard, and even private citizens utilized all means necessary to respond to the thousands of calls for help by those in both Texas and Louisiana. My unit alone was responsible for over 200 saves in our small Area of Responsibility (AOR). FEMA continued to run coordination for recovery efforts while private, local, state, and other federal agencies all worked in a coordinated effort in order to respond to Harvey’s devastating aftermath.
It is foolish for any organization to operate under the assumption that all of their processes are flawless, and that there is no value in taking an introspective look at how you execute your mission. In the Military, any leader worth their salt conducts an after-action-report in order to evaluate a mission that was previously executed (regardless of success or failure). That leader will analyze, assess, and weigh options for the future with respect to making execution that much more effective; all this while taking lessons learned into consideration. In the case of Hurricane Harvey, FEMA was no different. During his testimony to congress, FEMA Associate Administrator Jeffrey Byard mentioned that “among his agency’s main goals is readying the nation for catastrophic disasters” (Lambrecht, 2018). In doing so, FEMA understands the importance of taking all of its successes and failures into consideration while planning for the future. For instance, FEMA sent teams into Florida and Louisiana in order to observe and annotate recovery operations, interviewed multiple personnel from local organizational field offices up to headquarters, created/analyzed/accessed the risk of over 4000 data points with respect to FEMA and non-FEMA federal decisions and actions, analyzed how FEMAs response efforts evolved over time, reviewed plans (state, regional, and national-level), and formed working groups to represent the different components of FEMA in order to validate and extrapolate findings. Once all of the data points had been evaluated, FEMA’s 2017 Hurricane Season After-Action Report was released mentioning 5 specific focus areas along with its associated key findings and recommendations therein. The focus areas were listed as:
Scaling a Response for Concurrent Complex Incidents, Staffing for Concurrent Complex Incidents, Sustained Whole Community Logistics operations, Responding during Long-Term Infrastructure Outages, and Mass Care to Initial Housing Operations. For the purposes of this paper, I have isolated those key findings and recommendations for each focus area as it pertained to Hurricane Harvey only (FEMA, 2018).
The first focus area that FEMA annotated in their report was with respect to Scaling a Response for Concurrent, Complex incidents. This is an important aspect of operations because FEMA has a limited amount of resources and has a requirement to be able to respond to multiple incidents concurrently as well as one after the other. These resources include not only equipment and supplies, but also personnel in key leadership positions at different levels of government (local, state, and federal). For example, Texas faced an alarmingly large challenge with respect to housing personnel after the hurricane blew through. Normally, FEMA would lead any coordination/actions required to oversee and execute this effort. However, FEMA and Texas came to an agreement to allow the state to actually provide these services on behalf of FEMA. This formal agreement, “created due to an absence of a grant-making authority, was intended to provide Texas with greater flexibility to use its own authorities to secure housing solutions that met State and disaster-specific objectives, as well as develop a more streamlined approach to long-term recovery” (FEMA, 2018). Along with this adaptation, FEMA did a deep-dive into their current disaster planning to include Threat and Hazard Identification and Risk Assessments (THIRAs) and State Preparedness Reports (SPRs). Following evaluation, it was noted that “FEMA’s plans guided response operations, but enhancements to the planning process and format are needed to improve usability during operations” (FEMA, 2018). Essentially, the plans that were in place in some cases underestimated the actual requirement for response (FEMA, 2018).
FEMA’s second focus area was with regard to Staffing for Concurrent, Complex Incidents. When Harvey hit, FEMA already had thousands of members deployed to almost 700 open disasters. That being said, “FEMA entered the hurricane season with a force strength less than its target resulting in staffing shortages across the incidents” (FEMA, 2018). Therefore, FEMA needs to be deliberate in its hiring process as well as develop a plan to have staff positions cross-trained to fill those “boots-on-ground” positions if the requirement arises. Additionally, the performance-based FEMA Qualification System (FQS) was identified as an area of concern with respect to the number of incident management employees having been previously certified. The target goal of 80 percent was not attained as the rate during Hurricane Harvey was around 56%. Due to this low percentage, “FEMA was unable to fill crucial positions in field offices with certified staff” (FEMA, 2018), which reportedly has a negative impact on the way programs are executed. To close this gap, FEMA successfully instituted a rapid/adaptive certification process to ensure those that were being held-back by red tape could take positions required of them, as well as provided critical short-notice training to those members who still needed to satisfy requirements of certification (FEMA, 2018).
The third focus area identified by FEMA involved Sustained Whole Community Logistics Operations. For the most part, coordination was very smooth between FEMA, private industry, non-governmental organizations, and other federal agencies when it came to moving supplies across states (contrary to Puerto Rico). This was due mostly to one of the largest distribution warehouses being located in Fort Worth, TX. Additionally, FEMA did a fantastic job prepositioning supplies to outposts within the state before the hurricane ever hit. However, the wrench that was thrown into the plan during the execution phase was a result of the massive flooding in Houston and the surrounding areas. Roads were closed, facilities were underwater, and most of the aircraft and boats available were being utilized to pluck people from the floodwaters and roofs of homes. It was then when FEMA realized they needed to work closely with DoD partners (my unit, for example) to execute airlift missions to fly-in supplies to locations not accessible by boat or vehicle. Furthermore, an additional aspect within this focus area involved the constrained contracting offices working around the clock within FEMA to execute rapid-delivery of pre-negotiated contacts. These contracts serve the purpose of acquiring short-notice capabilities during times of disasters. Unfortunately, due to the size and nature of Hurricane Harvey, the pre-negotiated amount was not enough, and contracting had to adapt. The take-away here was the recommendation to increase the amount of pre-negotiated contracts so they don’t run into the same issue as Harvey in the event another storm of this magnitude occurs (FEMA, 2018).
The fourth focus area was about Responding during Long-Term Infrastructure Outages. Although this portion of the AAR was primarily with regards to Puerto Rico, I do feel it pertinent to add in the recommendations: 1.) Revise the National Response Framework and the Response Federal Interagency O-Plan to emphasize stabilizing critical lifelines and coordination across differing infrastructure sectors, 2.) Establish a Power Task Force and transition it into a crisis action planning cell, 3.) Encourage investing in back-up power to maintain communication and provide back-up power, 4.) Encourage local and state entities in high-risk areas to invest in a more resilient infrastructure, and 5.) To include continuity and resilient all-hazards communications capabilities in plans and guidance (FEMA, 2018).
The fifth and final focus area in the FEMA AAR was Mass Care to Initial Housing Operations. Hurricane Harvey “led to unprecedented demands on FEMA to support feeding, sheltering, and housing activities” (FEMA, 2018) with over 780,000 Texans being displaced by the storm. Normally, personnel being temporarily housed in emergency sheltering are transitioned into temporary and permanent housing solutions within 30 days on input. However, in the case of Harvey it was more like 60 days. This low turnover led to massive overpopulation of already resourced-constrained emergency sheltering. In response, FEMA established Multi-Agency Shelter Transition Taskforces (MASTTs) that worked with local, state, and non-governmental organizations in order to place those in emergency shelters in something more permanent at the soonest opportunity available. Additionally, FEMA re-instituted travel trailers (Campers/RVs) as options to relocate members, which hasn’t been done since hurricane Katrina. Finally, FEMA realized the need to incorporate re-location exercises in order to table-top worst-case scenarios like that of Hurricane Harvey (FEMA, 2018).
No one, not even the professional meteorologists tracking Harvey since its inception off the west coast of Africa could have predicted the devastating outcomes following the storm’s passage. However, with every storm that passes, organizations like FEMA are learning, adapting, and evolving their processes based on the successes and failures of mission execution. In Harvey’s case, FEMA took an intricate look at its processes and conducted multiple calculated evaluations in order to both assess risk and reduce consequence for areas commonly subject to natural disasters.
- Almasy, S, Chavez, N. & Levenson, E. (2017). Powerful Hurricane Harvey Makes Landfall In Texas. Retrieved 25 September 2018 from https://www.cnn.com/2017/08/25/us/hurricane-harvey/index.html.
- Ehrlich, A. (2017). Harvey Timeline: See how the storm developed and marched across Texas and Louisiana. Retrieved 29 September 2017 from https://www.caller.com/story/weather/hurricanes/2017/09/02/harvey-timeline-see how-storm-developed-andmarched-across-texas-and-louisiana/625563001/.
- Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). (2018). 2017 Hurricane Season FEMA After-Action Report. Retrieved 20 September 2018 from https://www.fema.gov/medialibrary-data/1531743865541d16794d43d3082544435e1471da07880/2017FEMAHurricaneAAR.pdf
- Lambrecht, B. (2018). After Harvey, FEMA says it will do better in 2018 hurricane season. Retrieved 30 September 2018 from https://www.chron.com/news/politics/texas/article/AfterHarvey-FEMA-says-it-will-dobetter-in-2018-13085875.php
- National Hurricane Center (NHC). (2018). Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. Retrieved 15 September 2018 from https://www.nhc.noaa.gov/aboutsshws.php.
- National Hurricane Center (NHC). (2018). Tropical Cyclone Climatology. Retrieved 25 September 2018 from https://www.nhc.noaa.gov/climo/.
- Pollock, C. (2017). How Texas Prepares for Hurricane Harvey. Retrieved 22 September 2018 From https://www.texastribune.org/2017/08/24/hurricane-harvey/.
- United States Department of Energy (USDOE). (2017). Infrastructure Security and Energy Restoration: Tropical Storm Harvey. Retrieved 30 September 2018 from https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2017/08/f36/Hurricane%20Harvey%20Event%0Summary%20%2310.pdf.
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