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Leon Kaye headshot

Hurricane Harvey Demonstrates Critical Value of ‘Big Government’

By Leon Kaye


Walmart’s actions during and after Hurricane Katrina have long been described as one of the few bright spots during that agonizing relief effort, as well as a transformative event for the world’s largest retailer.

Another outcome apparent after Katrina is that federal government agencies, and the presidents ultimately responsible for leading them, have been far more proactive when disasters strike, as they have wanted to avoid following in George W. Bush’s footsteps. Fair or not, that administration came across as ham-fisted long after Katrina slammed into Louisiana and neighboring Gulf states. As a result, it is doubtful there will be any room for a company to shine through in Houston as Walmart did 12 years ago – though Walmart itself has been updating stakeholders about what the company is doing to support Hurricane Harvey recovery across Texas.

While companies have a critical part in assisting relief efforts with their supplies, staff and facilities, Harvey reminds us of the role that “big government” has in preparing, notifying and helping citizens during this time of need. Many of these agencies, from NASA to NOAA to the EPA, have come under scrutiny – or more accurately, attack - in recent years for their various roles in researching climate change, boosting environmental protection efforts, or both.

The timing is also prescient considering the sniping that is already underway between Texas Senator Ted Cruz and his critics. Cruz obviously supports aid efforts for his home state, yet he voted against federal Hurricane Sandy relief packages during his first year in office. He claims he voted against the $50 billion Sandy relief bill because it was loaded with “pork” but that claim has been proven untrue by many. Cruz even got a rebuke from New York’s Peter King, a Republican representative from Long Island.

And as Cruz announces how and where Texans can receive state and federal assistance, we at 3p thought we would point out the role “big government” has in warning, protecting and helping citizens during catastrophes such as Harvey. As the recent viper pit of a debate over healthcare has proven, many of us are against government in any form – until we need it or there is a risk a program will be taken away from us, even if what is available is imperfect.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

This scientific agency tucked under the Department of Commerce’s wing gauges the conditions of both the world’s oceans and atmosphere. Its tasks (despite ongoing distractions) include developing technologies and systems that can help scientists understand tornadoes, hurricanes and the health of coastal ecosystems. Currently it forecasts Harvey’s strength and issues advisories. Divisions such as the National Hurricane Center provide data to anyone who needs it, from local meteorologists updating local viewers and listeners, to insurance companies and utilities trying to price their services and products based on weather variability.


While NOAA gives us the view of climate events from land, sea, as well as the air immediately hovering over us, NASA (an independent agency, designed in part to stay free of politics like the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Reserve), manages and operates the tools that can help us observe what is going on from space. NASA’s satellites and its partnership with the International Space Station provide real-time data and images that can be harnessed by the agency’s friends monitoring the situation on the ground. Measuring and predicting those sudden shifts in wind, or estimations of upcoming rainfall gleaned from several days of satellite data, are amongst the ways in which NASA contributes to monitoring Harvey’s constantly shifting patterns.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Even under Scott Pruitt, the EPA offered to take a leadership role as Harvey eventually dissipates. Houston is known to have more than its fair share of energy and petrochemical companies. Assessments of the greater Houston region’s 300 water systems, the securing of Superfund sites and fuel waivers allowing for emergency supplies of gasoline are among the tools that the EPA’s regional office in Dallas has at hand if needed. EPA employees may have already been called to action by the time of this writing.Two ExxonMobil refineries have reportedly suffered damage and released hazardous chemicals already and more damage is likely to come to light as waters subside.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

Estimates of the costs resulting from Harvey are all over the map, from $30 billion to even $100 billion. Bloomberg has concluded Katrina’s damages amounted to $160 billion. Insurance companies will pick up some of that price tag; FEMA, which faces a budget cut of as much as 9 percent in recent proposals, will in-part contribute to the costs of clean-up and recovery. Since the late 1970s, the agency’s mandate is to send staff to coordinate with overwhelmed state and local officials as they cope with natural and made-made disasters. And that list is long, from the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake in California to the horrific 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Experts from FEMA work with local officials on recovery efforts. The agency also helps fund infrastructure repair and directs citizens to resources for low-interest loans (a program currently struggling due to a mounting deficit) so they can rebuild homes and businesses. Day in and day out, FEMA also provides online and live training for disaster preparedness.

These agencies are just a few of the moving parts that manage recovery when disaster strikes.

Image credit: DVIDS

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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