WASHINGTON – As communities continue to rebuild, the Trump administration is preparing for the new hurricane season after months of disasters that ravaged parts of the country and touched off a political storm over recovery efforts.
The administration has expanded outreach efforts to states, deployed additional supplies, set up distribution centers and conducted emergency and response drills as it looks to build on the lessons from its approach to the devastating disasters of the past.
In an exclusive interview with USA TODAY, administration officials expressed confidence this week that they are better prepared to face the challenges of the hurricane season ahead.
President Donald Trump, who faced criticism over his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, was briefed Friday by officials from various agencies on preparations for the hurricane season that officially started this month and runs through the end of November.
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The months of preparation for the 2019 storms have been tempered by a sobering realization: Many communities that are still digging out from disasters are the very communities that are most likely to be slammed again.
“If a hurricane makes landfall in the United States this year, chances are a community that’s already undergoing recovery will be hit again," homeland security adviser Doug Fears said. "That means it’s a much more vulnerable community because all of the work necessary to restore it or even make it stronger has not been completed. People are in temporary housing. There are temporary solutions in place for power, for water infrastructure.”
Even as it looks ahead, the federal government is in the process of assisting victims of recent catastrophic events, including wildfires in California, flooding in the Midwest and hurricanes in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“With so many communities still in recovery, the ability to weather storms and bounce back faster is a test of our resilience, but one we’ve prepared for,” said Kevin McAleenan, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
This year’s Atlantic hurricanes are not expected to be as bad as those in the past. Forecasters predict an above-normal hurricane season in the Pacific, with 15 to 22 tropical cyclones, including storms and hurricanes. In the Atlantic, four to eight hurricanes are forecast, which is a normal season.
“Even with that forecast, we know it only takes one storm to wreak some catastrophic damage,” Fears said.
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Since 1980, the USA has experienced 241 weather and climate disasters in which the overall damage costs reached or exceeded $1 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information, which tracks U.S. weather and climate events. The cumulative costs for those 241 weather events exceeded $1.6 trillion.
In 2018, the USA was hit by 14 separate billion-dollar disaster events: two tropical cyclones, eight severe storms, two winter storms, drought and wildfires, the centers reported in February. The past three years have been historic, with more than twice as many billion-dollar disasters occurring than usual.
“It has been a wake-up call to the nation to have such severe events occur over the past couple of years, and we have to recognize that it’s not just federal investment that can resolve the challenges associated with large-scale disasters,” Fears said.
The number and cost of disasters have jumped partly because climate change increases the frequency of some types of extreme weather conditions, according to the NOAA report.
Nature’s unpredictability further complicates preparation efforts.
“The reality of these storms is no storms look alike,” said David Bibo, deputy associate administrator for response and recovery at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “They often will hit different pieces of infrastructure than maybe (previous) storms that affected a particular area.”
Nature isn’t the only challenge awaiting the government this season.
FEMA has been operating without a permanent director since Brock Long left in March. A $19 billion disaster aid package took months to clear Congress because of partisan squabbles and disagreements with Trump over how much money should go to Puerto Rico – issues that could resurface the next time the administration seeks emergency aid. The final package contained $1.4 billion for the island, including $600 million in food aid.
Mindful of the criticisms it has faced, the Trump administration said it took steps to avoid repeating the mistakes that hampered previous response efforts.
Distribution centers have been placed strategically across the country, not only in the continental USA but also in the Pacific and the Caribbean, to facilitate the speedy delivery of supplies such as food and water, tarps and tents that are sometimes needed for rapid shelter.
A new distribution center in Tracy, California, has four times the storage capacity as the previous West Coast center, providing better capability to stockpile supplies.
In Puerto Rico, where logistical problems hampered the delivery of goods after Hurricane Maria in 2017, supplies have been increased, so emergency crews can strike quickly should the island get slammed by another destructive storm.
Though recovery operations remain in place in many areas impacted by disasters, FEMA has put in contingency plans to redirect staff to other areas should they be needed to deal with life-threatening events.
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Federal disaster workers conducted training exercises, often in coordination with state, local and tribal officials, to become better prepared for hurricanes and other disasters. In one FEMA exercise, several federal and state agencies and members of the private sector trained to prepare for a 7.7 magnitude earthquake near Memphis, Tennessee.
The White House held multiple conversations with the 22 governors elected last November and their emergency response teams to establish lines of communication, so the federal government can be ready to step in to fill needs.
Like the government, Americans need to prepare now, Bibo said.
“One of our most important messages is for people across the country, but especially in areas of highest risk, to be taking the steps they can right now, to talk to their families about what their emergency plan is going to be,” he said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Exclusive: Trump administration sets plans for 2019 hurricane season after 'wakeup call' of recent disasters