U.S. Faces Long Storm Cycle, Experts Warn With tropical storm Ophelia swirling in the Atlantic, government officials are faced with the possibility of providing disaster relief while still reeling from Hurricane Katrina. Back-to-back disasters over the last few years have exhausted the staffs of hurricane-response agencies.
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U.S. Faces Long Storm Cycle, Experts Warn

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U.S. Faces Long Storm Cycle, Experts Warn

U.S. Faces Long Storm Cycle, Experts Warn

U.S. Faces Long Storm Cycle, Experts Warn

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/4838680/4838681" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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With tropical storm Ophelia swirling in the Atlantic, government officials are faced with the possibility of providing disaster relief while still reeling from Hurricane Katrina. Back-to-back disasters over the last few years have exhausted the staffs of hurricane-response agencies.

SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Susan Stamberg.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Some hurricane experts say the United States is in the middle of an active storm cycle, meaning there will be more hurricanes in the next 10 or 20 years than there have been in the past. Case in point? Ophelia swirls in the Atlantic even as the Gulf Coast tries to recover from Hurricane Katrina. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on whether the federal government is prepared to handle a string of major disasters.

AIR SHAPIRO reporting:

Right now there are long-term hurricane recovery projects in at least three parts of the country. New Orleans is draining the floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina. In the Florida Panhandle, piles of debris still line the streets from Hurricane Ivan. And Ft. Pierce's city manager, Dennis Beach, says his town is still a year away from recovering from Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, which came ashore in Florida last year.

Mr. DENNIS BEACH (City Manager, Ft. Pierce, Florida): We've had more damage in the last two years than we've probably experienced in the last 30 years, as far as natural disaster monetary costs.

SHAPIRO: It's become a familiar pattern: A major hurricane strikes and Congress appropriates billions of dollars for disaster relief. Beach says if these weather trends continue, Congress may have to re-prioritize its long-term spending plans.

Mr. BEACH: And certainly the reconstruction of destroyed cities would be one of those priorities.

SHAPIRO: Dealing with disasters is not just a matter of allocating funds. Rescue and recovery also takes skilled workers, and Kathleen Tierney, director of the National Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, says back-to-back disasters over the last couple of years have exhausted the staff and emergency response agencies.

Ms. KATHLEEN TIERNEY (University of Colorado): People burn out very quickly in these situations, and you need a very, very deep bench in order to keep operations going.

SHAPIRO: That's true not only of FEMA but also of organizations like the Red Cross which have sent as many people as they can to the Gulf Coast, leaving fewer available to respond to other disasters. William Waugh of Georgia State University speculates that as these organizations get spread more thinly across larger numbers of disasters, state and local agencies may have to take on more responsibility.

Mr. WILLIAM WAUGH (Georgia State University): It's fortunate that the federal government is not the only level of government that is responsible for responding. Our emergency management system in the United States begins at the local level; that is, the foundation is local preparedness.

SHAPIRO: But Waugh thinks FEMA feels pressured to respond quickly and comprehensively to the next few disasters since the agency was criticized for reacting slowly to Katrina.

Mr. WAUGH: I think FEMA would have a hard time not performing the next time around, that they necessarily will be proactive even if they're stretched thin. In fact...

SHAPIRO: FEMA spokesman Mark Fifley(ph) says his agency will be there to respond to the next natural disaster no matter how thinly stretched they are.

Mr. MARK FIFLEY (Spokesman, FEMA): While we are making sure that people in the Gulf Coast states are receiving every amount of water and all the help that they need, we're also still today ordering new supplies for the rest of the year to replenish them as we use them out in the field.

SHAPIRO: His agency notes that there are still three months left of the hurricane season and the worst storms usually hit in the fall. Of course, one way to lessen the impact of hurricanes is to stop building along hurricane-prone coastlines. Ft. Pierce city manager Dennis Beach says it won't happen no matter how bad the storms get.

Mr. BEACH: I think that our memory is so short, on a pretty day, we're inclined to do almost anything.

SHAPIRO: As evidence, in the year since Hurricane Ivan demolished Pensacola, Florida, beachfront property values in the city have increased.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News.

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