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Executive Summary

In September 2018, as the year's hurricane season began to set in, the Center for Progressive Reform published a compilation of articles by more than a dozen of the nation's leading legal scholars, offering a series of recommendations for disaster planning, mitigation, and recovery, with a particular focus on social justice. As CPR President Rob Verchick writes, "Catastrophe is bad for everyone. But it is especially bad for the weak and disenfranchised." The report, From Surviving to Thriving: Equity in Planning and Recovery (PDF), examines the failures of current public policy that were on display in the lead-up to and in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in 2017. It explores the ways U.S. policy and law have exacerbated the harm from disasters, and offers a series of recommendations that would make natural disasters less likely and more survivable, helping communities to protect themselves where possible, and to recover from disasters that cannot be prevented. Following is the executive summary to that report. Follow the links to individual chapters below, or download the entire report in PDF.

By any definition, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, the trifecta of storms that pummeled Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands in the summer and fall of 2017, were historic disasters. But they were not disasters beyond human imagining. Indeed, given the increase in record weather events driven by climate change, we must be prepared for disaster on this scale and worse. Because such weather events and the carnage they cause are foreseeable, it’s vital to anticipate them, not just in our disaster planning, but in the way we build our communities, transportation networks, power grids, and more — all so that when disasters strike, we can prevent or mitigate the worst effects, saving lives and protecting property.

In 2017, we failed. Power outages in Florida claimed lives after Irma. Massive flooding did the same in Houston in Harvey’s wake, and large-scale emissions of toxic chemicals from plants and hazardous waste sites built in floodplains turned Harvey’s floodwaters into a toxic brew. And the collapse of Puerto Rico’s power grid caused the lion’s share of the more than 1,400 deaths officially acknowledged as resulting from Maria. The weather catastrophes were compounded by human disaster — the failure to plan and prepare and the inadequacy of our existing health, safety, and environmental safeguards.

Watch CPR's Surviving to Thriving Webinar featuring Joyce Coffee, Bob Marshall, and Rob Verchick.

Unsurprisingly, those hit hardest by the storms and their aftermath were among our society’s most vulnerable. As co-author Rob Verchick writes, “Catastrophe is bad for everyone. But it is especially bad for the weak and disenfranchised.” Wealthier neighborhoods tend to be on higher ground than poorer ones. Industrial plants rarely abut million-dollar homes, but they are commonly built adjacent to low-income neighborhoods. The wealthy have better access to evacuation methods and routes, and to health care in the wake of the storm, if they need it. In these and many other ways, the social inequities that imperil the health and safety of low-income Americans are magnified and exacerbated in an emergency.

In this report, the Center for Progressive Reform has brought together more than a dozen of the nation’s leading legal scholars to address different aspects of the nation’s disaster planning and its environmental, health, and safety standards, with a particular view to mitigating the social inequities laid bare by last year's storms. The policy solutions they propose will not stop hurricanes or other disasters from occurring. But they could make their impact far less severe by taking toxic chemicals and other dangerous hazards out of the path of storms so that they would not poison those who come into contact with floodwaters; they could make the power grid more agile and adaptable to power shortages and outages; they could reduce the incentives to build in flood zones; they could better protect the health and safety of recovery workers; they could improve disaster response so that it serves all Americans, not just those in wealthier neighborhoods; and they could future-proof vital infrastructure — roads, bridges, pipes, wires — against the creeping effects of climate change that exacerbate the impact and increase the frequency of major storms.

One theme emerges repeatedly in the scholars’ examination of the issues: the need for better planning before storms strike. Indeed, many of the authors draw on the adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Better planning, wiser allocation of resources, smarter growth, a clear-eyed reading of science, a commitment to equity — all these factors would improve our preparation before and our response after disasters, helping people and communities survive disasters and go on to thrive in their wake.

What Should Be Done?

In his preface to the report, Sidney Shapiro discusses the role of government in helping build social resilience, particularly in the context of disaster planning and recovery. He writes:

The lack of preventive measures and planning for resilience signals a failure in our basic commitment as a nation to ensure a fair chance in the race of life and the right to rise. We can do better, and this report indicates how we should start. 

The scholars go on to offer a number of key recommendations, touching on many aspects of disaster preparedness and recovery, and holding the promise of significant positive impact. Among the proposals:

The scholars offer several recommendations related to disaster preparedness and response, including:

Health and safety measures take on added importance in the wake of disasters. The scholars offer several recommendations in this area, including:

Public information plays a vital role in protecting communities before, during, and after disasters. The scholars offer several recommendations in this area, including:

Although the courts’ role in mitigating the impacts of disaster are not as plain to the eye as that of legislators, governors, and presidents, their decisions can powerfully affect the extent to which people and communities are exposed to risk in disasters. The report concludes with discussions of specific constitutional and common law issues affecting disaster planning and recovery. Among the scholars’ observations:

Climate Justice Climate Environmental Justice