Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 14, 2011

Flood, tornado, earthquake (more) and thousands suddenly homeless

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on May 14, 2011

Map developed by Times-Picayune, click to enlarge.

Today or tomorrow the floodway, up river from Baton Rouge, is likely to be opened.   According to the Associated Press: “About 25,000 people and 11,000 structures could be in harm’s way when the Morganza spillway is unlocked for the first time in 38 years. Sheriffs and National Guardsmen were warning people in a door-to-door sweep through the area, and shelters were ready to accept up to 4,800 evacuees, Gov. Bobby Jindal said.”

UPDATE: The USACE opened the Morganza Floodway at 3PM Eastern Time on Saturday.  (See: Times-Picayune report) USACE is also providing Facebook updates at http://www.facebook.com/OperationWatershed2011

According to the Times-Picayune if Morganza is not opened the flooding in New Orleans would be much worse than the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Several news reports claim the epic Mississippi flooding has already swamped at least 1000 homes just between Memphis and Vicksburg.

Housing has — predictably — emerged as the most persistent challenge of the April 27 tornado outbreak. According to the New York Times:

In the tornado-torn rural stretches and cities of the South, the scope and size of a newly homeless population are beginning to sink in.

There are as yet no solid estimates of the number of people who need places to live, although it surely will be more than 10,000, federal and state emergency officials say. And many of them are poor, working class or elderly — those most at risk of becoming permanently homeless.

In Tuscaloosa, at least 5,000 homes and apartments were heavily damaged or lost completely in a city of 93,000 residents, according to a city estimate.

State and city inspectors spent the week combing the city, trying to determine how much foreclosed or vacant housing was available, what could be repaired, and just how many people might truly be left without somewhere to live.

Shaun Donovan, secretary of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, has suggested using existing stock and foreclosed property combined with low-cost loans to house everyone who needs it in urban areas. But Mayor Walter Maddox of Tuscaloosa is not so sure.

“I don’t think you’re going to find enough available stock, but I hope I’m wrong,” he said. “What I want to see from FEMA is measurable goals and objectives.”

Just to be on the safe side, Mr. Maddox has identified 12 sites around the city with sewer and water hookups that might be suitable for FEMA mobile homes.

Two months after the March 11 earthquake-and-tsunami 127,000 Japanese remain in emergency shelters, mostly schools. The number of evacuees living with family or in other unofficial sources of shelter cannot be accurately estimated but is thought to be at least as high. Construction of replacement housing has been much slower than promised by political leadership. According to the Wall Street Journal:

The delays have resulted from complicating factors like the lack of suitable land, struggles to procure building supplies and labor, and the complexity of funneling the requests between different government levels.

But the hardest trial thus far has been to find enough safe construction sites. The tsunami that wiped out whole villages and redrew the coastal shores left towns with limited options on where to build houses to accommodate displaced residents, many of whom prefer to remain close to their hometowns.

Iwate Prefecture said it has secured sites to build 12,500 houses, but is still in need of enough to land for another 2,500 residences – a burden left up to each municipality. It has also been difficult for coastal towns in Miyagi Prefecture, where some 30,000 houses are needed, to locate secure building sites.

“Much of the damage was sustained along the coastline, once heavy residential areas. Most of that is now unusable, which has forced towns into the difficult position of looking for land elsewhere,” said Kuniyuki Onodera, a Miyagi Prefecture official.

Some towns like Minami-Sanriku are maximizing the use of public lands by building on school yards, and have begun approaching private owners to lease their plots. The dearth of sufficient land is prevalent in Minami-Sanriku, heavily flooded from the tsunami, with over 6,600 residents in local shelters. Out of the 3,300 housing requests, construction has begun on about 800 units as of May 2, according to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism.

In Otsuchicho, located in Iwate Prefecture, where public land is scarce, negotiations with private land owners to procure enough space for 2,000 temporary homes was perhaps the biggest cause for the slow start, said Tatsuo Kimura, a town official. But the town recently secured land for all temporary houses. Some 80 homes were constructed in April and the land ministry aims to erect 860 more by the end of May.

“The pace has picked up gradually and we hope that with the negotiations behind us, progress will be faster in the coming months,” said Mr. Kimura.

It takes about three weeks to build a prefab home, which ranges from 20 to 40 square meters in size.

Replacement housing is a persistent — and pernicious — problem for disaster response and recovery.  From a policy/strategy perspective there are at least two fundamental problems.  First, in the vast majority of jurisdictions there is no serious replacement housing preparedness strategy.  Anywhere and anytime that emergency housing is needed for more than a handful of families local capacity is quickly exceeded. Second, even in those rare cases where mass housing preparedness (different than emergency shelter) is on the official agenda, the private sector is almost never involved until after the fact.

The HUD secretary’s proposal to look hard at existing housing stock, see above, makes sense.  According to the Birmingham News, “Donovan is even considering using foreclosed homes, having identified 1,000 such homes in Alabama that are vacant and could be occupied by storm victims, either to buy or to rent.”  But it is time-consuming and difficult to develop an innovative process when hundreds of families are in immediate need.

A suggestion:  Create a low-cost options market for a national strategic housing reserve.  Through this system private sector owners and managers of housing would be involved well-ahead of the event to identify available shelter, guarantee the price, and pre-load contracts to be exercised in case of emergency.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

May 14, 2011 @ 7:31 am

Good post but where is the long term disaster housing strategy mandated by Congress in PKEMRA 2006?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 14, 2011 @ 7:55 am

Bill: As I’m sure you are aware a first-cut on the housing strategy has been released. Please see: http://www.fema.gov/news/newsrelease.fema?id=47305

Back in August, the Congressional Research Service identified important issues still to consider. Please see: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R40810.pdf

Personally, I find much to commend in the work-to-date. But I also perceive there is a reluctance to fully engage the private sector on a market-oriented basis. Perhaps what we have seen in Christchurch, Tohoku, Tuscaloosa, and now along the Mississippi will encourage such innovation.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 14, 2011 @ 11:50 am

Thanks for the CRS link!

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 14, 2011 @ 12:08 pm

Must be losing it here! Yes both the strategy and annexes released in January 2009 and also the national disaster housing task force meeting throughout 2010. I explain on my Vacation Lane Blog however how HUD is not able to do disaster housing because of its organization and interests.

But housing is a great example of how the President abandons FEMA when push comes to shove. Theoretically acting on behalf of the President even though a sub-cabinet agency FEMA could just mission assign HUD all disaster housing. My blog post explains why that would result in an even poorer effort by the federal government on disaster housing. And as Fran McCarthy points out in his CRS report of
August 2010 linked above (Fran worked in FEMA for 30 years) the STATES are the linchpin of the NDHS. Yet the states have almost no competence or skills in housing issues and don’t even make policy in those areas. The large metro areas HOUSING Authorities have more influence on housing policy than do the STATES! The STATES have fought the housing mission since Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972. Katrina showed the lack of performance of the STATES again except for demo projects. Mississippi for example took housing money to support Casino construction. Hey maybe that is why Haley is not running for President. Many Mississippi casinos about to go underwater literally. The 15 brand new ones desecrating the Gulf Coast of Mississippi await the next Cat 4 or 5 hurricane. If Haley had run I would have scheduled that for the middle of the campaign.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 14, 2011 @ 10:54 pm

The New Yorker Magazine has resurrected from its archives the wonderful John McPhee 1987 writeup of the Old River Control Structure in his 27 page article the Control of Nature. Also expanded into a book.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 15, 2011 @ 3:03 am

Bill, thanks. The online link at the New Yorker is Atchafalya by John McPhee.

Comment by Christopher Tingus

May 15, 2011 @ 5:37 am

In collaborative effort by “experienced” home builders from Canada and the US who have the requird competencies and design to bring manufacturing to the designated disaster area whether those structures destroyed by Spring tornades a year ago, Katrina, Haiti, etc., depending on the housing design required which can even include a safe room capable of withstanding winds of 150-200 mph, “humnanitarian” response and FEMA’s response has been lacking…

Reepresenting numbers of those with such expertise, we have been waiting to hear from FEMA to seek out practical, permanent, eco-friendly, “earthquake” resistent housing manufacturing which locals can participate in and with all designs offering rainwater retention system and solar package.

The victims in Haiti where I have spents counteless numbers of hours since 12th January report of devastating earthquake, my every atttempt to capture required funding to support William Danshin at http://www.deferum.com in Vancouver who not only portrays the compassion, but the grasp in understanding the “wayer” business especially as he addresss substantial wastewater and water purification project requirements globally, even reaching to Ghana and Rwanda.

Danshin assembled the “housing team” soon after the 12th January Haiti calamity and still we unfortunately see thousands in tattered tents now waiting for the fury of Mother nature to strike again with ferocity and the elements to pelt these tents as 1st June hurricane season promises more despair….and every call to Wall Street for “humanitarian” funding to help Danshin and a Canadian-US effort with WS reply, “Don’t bother us, we’re too busy” w/my same arrogant reply, “Busy, doing what with the trillions stached away in the coffers, writing bonus checks to one another…”

*By the way and not to distract from attention required by tens of thousands affected by weather related disaster, take a look at the profits of US oil companies from the monies we throw away at the gas pump with these soaring prices and the amount of monies state taxes take and you will be amazed by how much more the states are taking in from us, however refuse to put line by line state budgets and expenditures of each department’s spending on line for us to view….

Getting back to the homeless and hopelessness, the many losses incurred by so, so many, whether it is Wiliam Danshin and his US and Canadian “housing experts” he has mustered in design and manufacture or so many others as capable, with the thousands of homes destroyed by flood, tornado, hurricane, let’s get whomever we can to design practical, permanent, wind and earthquake resistent homes and bring the manufacture to the region to the community to enable folks to remain and build their community if they choose and if reasonable to do so…

I am confident that William Danshin in Vancouver and his US and Canadian “housing experts” as well as so many others who can provide valued and expedient solutions to enable families to rebuild and begin to get on their feet much sooner for I think it a shame that given the technology today and the most recent improvements in home building products, the folks in Haiti or the folks whose homes destroyed or damaged by tornado here in the States and flood victims, must endure extended hardship —

We should have folks like Danshin and others capable of presenting appropriate “practical” design and manufacturing thereof – with insurance and disaster relief as well as “humanitarian” fuding available, as soon as possible, We should have these experts on site lending experience and timely manufacture where in some instances, only days later they will have participated in their own rebuld and that of neighbors and actually in a more practical and efficient home as well as other types of building structures where I have been emphasizing the need for safe rooms in residential and commercial as well as school buildings especially in tornado prone areas.

Let’s get better organized for more hurricanes will affect us on the coastal plain and certainly tornado and floods will continue to require more prompt and professional response by goovernment and teams of experts.

Christopher Tingus
Managing Director


Comment by John Comiskey

May 15, 2011 @ 6:33 am


Thanks for the new HLS-term: “national strategic housing reserve.” To be added to HLS-stockpile lexicon.

Strategic stockpiles et al should be incorporated into PPD-8.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 15, 2011 @ 7:03 am

And of course already in existence are the National Defense Strategic Stockpile and the National Medical Strategic Stockpile. Let’s also stockpile some more brains since the 21st Century so far seems unable to leverage humanity’s desire to live in hazardous areas subject to the vagaries of MOTHER NATURE and MANKIND itself through its technological desire to “Improve” without analyzing costs of those improvements and to shift all costs to the public.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 15, 2011 @ 11:09 am

John and Bill: On May 16, 1940 Winston Churchill, Prime Minister for six days, was in France meeting with the French High Command. He received a discouraging report on the collapse of the allied front. According to Churchill’s war memoir:

I then asked: “Where is the strategic reserve?” and, breaking into French, which I used indifferently (in every sense): “Ou est la masse de manoeuvre?” General Gamelin turned to me and, whith a shake of the head and a shrug, said: “Aucune.” There was another long pause. Outside in the garden of the Quai d’Orsay clouds of smoke arose from long bonfires, and I saw from the window venerable officials pushing wheel-barrows of archives on to them. Already therefore the evacuation of Paris was being prepared.

“Acune”, there is none-at-all.

I’ve always liked Churchill’s bad French on this occasion because it reminds us of a strategic reserve’s purpose: to expand options for maneuver.

Mr. Tingus, thank you for reminding us of the continuing challenge in Haiti. I will also pass along two links:

In Northern Alabama Habitat for Humanity of Greater Birmingham is doing good work assisting with housing.

In Haiti Building Goodness Foundation is a small but well considered private operating foundation.

In each case demand far exceeds supply, and every little bit helps.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 15, 2011 @ 5:55 pm

Another gate opened today in the Morganza Spillway.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 16, 2011 @ 7:33 am

I arrived at HUD from the Treasury Department on July 1, 1974! Hurricane Agnes {Tropical storm Agnes} was still roiling Washington first through President Nixon’s Reorganization Plan No. 1 of 1973, effective the year before, and second with passage into law of the Flood Disaster Protection Act of 1973 and its mandate to cut off flood insurance for communities not participating in the NFIP that had been identified on NFIP maps for one year. And second the enactment in early May of the Disaster Relief Act of 1974 (Public Law 93-288. Assigned to write the implementing regulations to implement those statutes I did that over next several years. But heavy political compromises and lobbying impacted those regulations. Oddly not from outside pressure and flood prone communities [in fact compared to some regs I worked on in the Treasury Department the lobbying was largely primitive, disorganized and ineffective. But the hubris and ego of the administrators of both FIA and FDAA both later becoming part of FEMA was a wonder to behold. Never have so few technical staff been available to help in the drafting of those implementing regs than in those two organizations. One of which saw its role as an insurance rather than a land use program.
The other as a political cover operation for the President that really had little to do with the long range resilience of the nation. Now many of the decisions made in that time frame, many undocumented except to the extent sketchily examined in the rulemakings themselves are now coming home to roost.

One prior decision I was not able to reverse was granting total exemption from flood plain management and allowing availability of flood insurance where the USACOE had purchase flowage easements. These areas have not and probably never will be shown on NFIP maps even though I argued for disclosure my entire career in lawyering the NFIP largely from July 1, 1974 to July 1, 1986 but even in bits and pieces until I retired from FEMA on October 1, 1999. Now that failure of mine to succeed may result in total financial collapse of the NFIP depending on how MOTHER NATURE plays her hand and depending on how smart those occupying land unidentified by NFIP maps as flood plains were in buy very very cheap insurance since technically outside the floodplain. This is exactly the kind of issue that competent civil servants address, largely outside of the public eye. I could argue but won’t here that the decision to exempt those occupying flowage easement land was ULTRA VIRES and an abuse of discretion. It would be of interest if any administrative record exists of that arbitrary and capricious decision.

And of interest is the total failure of W.Craig Fugate to even mention the NFIP in his speeches and wandering around. Does he know that he leads this program?

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 17, 2011 @ 5:10 am

I guess I should disclose something now that should be disclosed by events over the next 6 weeks. Neither the USACOE nor FEMA have a clue as to the actual impacts of opening the various spillways on the Mississippi River will have short term or long term. Neither organizations have the scientific or engineering base they once had and their contractor purchased talent has not been asked to do the critical evaluations necessary.

As to whether STATES and their local governments have a clue as to their futures under tons of release water they have no science or engineering talent at all to do that analysis.

Thus for all we know opening the spillways may actually have made the situation worse in short and long run not better. These spillways were designed and constructed long before effective computer hydraulic modeling and developments in fluid dynamics were as well understood as today. In fact they represent primitive guesses.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 17, 2011 @ 6:43 am

Bill, am I being cynical and fatalistic or something else in suggesting this is typical rather than atypical? There is a big part of me that would prefer we recognize and accept we are actually guessing even (especially) when we feel most certain.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 17, 2011 @ 7:09 am

None other than NASA in 1996 put out an interesting document ISSN:1083-9089 for the Aspen Global Change Institute with one part devoted to communicating scientific uncertainty. E-mail at agcimail@agci.org if they are still up and running. Agrees with Phil’s comments.

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