Skip to main content

The real trouble begins after Isaac is gone

By Stephen Flynn and Sean Burke, Special to CNN
updated 10:38 AM EDT, Wed August 29, 2012
Workers place plywood on the windows of the Royal Sonesta Hotel in New Orleans on Monday to prepare for Isaac.
Workers place plywood on the windows of the Royal Sonesta Hotel in New Orleans on Monday to prepare for Isaac.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Writers: Isaac evacuations start; officials have gotten good at getting people out
  • But many evacuees can't afford the $300 a day it takes to live away from home, they say
  • Writers: Officials have not resolved issues that keep people from returning quickly
  • Nonprofits, churches are low on funds; government must do more to help recovery, they say

Editor's note: Stephen Flynn is the founding co-director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security and a professor in the Department of Political Science at Northeastern University. He is the author of "The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation." He is a former president of the Center for National Policy and served as a commissioned officer for 20 years in the U.S. Coast Guard. Sean Burke is an attorney and the associate director of the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security.

(CNN) -- We don't yet know how heavy a blow Hurricane Isaac will deliver to the Gulf Coast when it hits. But mindful of the devastation that Hurricane Katrina left in its wake, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi have declared states of emergency and evacuations have begun. Public officials and emergency managers are getting good at getting people out of harm's way.

Unfortunately, where official plans are likely to fall short is in helping evacuees to quickly return to their storm-damaged communities and get back on their feet.

The kind of levee system failure we saw with Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 is not likely to be repeated with this storm, given the $14 billion investment that the Army Corps of Engineers is close to completing. Harder hit will be the people along the Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama coastlines and in low-lying inland areas with no levee protection.

But it's making communities safe enough for residents to return to quickly that is so important, because packing up and running away from the weather is so expensive. The average Gulf Coast family fleeing the storm will have to dole out and estimated $250 to $300 a day for food and lodging.

Katrina memories haunt New Orleans
Levee overtopping in Plaquemines Parish
Hurricane Isaac causing heavy rainfall
Hurricane Isaac's wall of water

With the economy still foundering, and the unemployment rate for most of the Gulf Coast region still above 8%, plenty of folks have no savings to pay for shelter or even to fill the gas tank for the drive inland. Those who must leave their jobs behind will have smaller paychecks to draw on when the credit card bills arrive at the end of the month. The longer they must stay away, the greater the financial setback they will face.

While the media satellite trucks are likely to leave shortly after Isaac passes, plenty of hardship stories will be left to tell once Gulf Coast evacuees are allowed to return to their homes. Residents will almost certainly face the same kinds of challenges they experienced seven years ago in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Our elected officials all recognize the high political cost of failing to respond to a disaster as it unfolds, and will do whatever it takes to earn good marks. But despite the painful experiences the Gulf region has endured in the aftermath of recent storms, the path to recovery will still be a rocky one.

Federal, state and local government officials have not resolved many of the bureaucratic and insurance-related issues that slow restoring services, paying out legitimate claims and making repairs. Damage assessments have to be made and questions about liability and coverage have to be resolved for homes and businesses that are destroyed. In public spaces, cash-strapped agencies have to determine who is responsible for clearing debris and cleaning up spills of hazardous materials. To date, too little attention has been paid to streamlining these processes.

When government falls short in meeting the immediate needs of victims, nonprofit and faith-based relief organizations often step in to fill the void. But long before Isaac started churning through the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, relief organizations throughout the Gulf Coast were already under severe stress, trying to serve nearly one-fourth of the region's residents who have a chronic need for assistance.

And with charitable giving down below 2007 levels, churches and small community-based organizations have had to cut back on staff and make painful cuts in the social services they provide. What this means is that the ultimate safety net for the neediest populations may be one of the victims of Isaac. These organizations will require early and substantial outside assistance.

The storm will provide yet another vivid display of nature's menacing capacity for destruction and disruption as Republicans gather in Tampa, Florida, and a few days before Democrats descend on Charlotte, North Carolina. Organizers for both national conventions have promised programs that will offer up contrasting views of the role of government. Isaac will provide a reminder that managing messy real world challenges does not lend itself to simple formulas favored by political partisans. When it comes to assuring the safety and well-being of Americans, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Responding to and recovering from disasters require individual and local resilience on the one hand, and capable and competent government at all levels -- local, state, and federal -- on the other. Throughout this election season our political parties have been busy highlighting what divides us. But disasters have a way of teaching lessons that should unite us.

When catastrophic events happen, it is the decisions and actions of local officials and everyday people that are key to survival. But when it comes to planning evacuations, maintaining levees, and supporting the speedy recovery of communities leveled by a storm -- government matters.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Flynn and Sean Burke.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT