First Harvey, Now Irma

No sooner had Hurricane Harvey spun itself into oblivion in Texas than Hurricane Irma began tearing its way through Florida. Another nightmare of howling winds, storm-surge flooding, uprooted trees, downed power lines, multitudes of people stranded and evacuated, drenched and devastated.

In Florida, 5.6 million people were warned to leave their homes for safer areas as Irma approached. Almost 7 million were left without electricity.

Nor are the residents of Florida the only ones affected. Over 45 million people all told in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina and North Carolina were facing hurricane or tropical storm conditions — meaning winds of 39 mph plus.

Americans may be forgiven for thinking that this is not just another hurricane season. They aren’t imagining things. It is without question something out of the ordinary. The facts show that.

For one thing, it’s the first year on record that the continental United States has been hit by two Category 4 hurricanes in the same year. Irma has the added distinction of being the first to ever reach Category 5 status — the highest intensity — while still in the Atlantic Ocean, before entering the calmer Caribbean, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center. (Category 5 storms produce sustained winds of at least 157 mph for at least a minute at a time.)

Besides the outsized power of the thing, Irma descended on areas that are not usually located in the path of hurricanes. The Tampa Bay area, for example, has not experienced a hurricane on anywhere near such a scale since 1921. The city of Atlanta, where hurricanes are unheard of, received the first tropical-storm warning in its history as the last big gasps of Irma — still clocking up to 60 mph — were expected to reach there on Monday.

The economic damage — topping $10 billion across the Caribbean — breaks records for the region’s island nations and territories, according to the Center for Disaster Management and Risk Reduction Technology, based in Karlsruhe, Germany. That’s more than Hurricanes Ike in 2008, and Hugo in 1989. And that’s not counting Florida.

Although the National Weather Service downgraded Irma to a Category 1 hurricane on Monday, the danger was not over. High winds and flooding continue to pose major risk to life and property.

Even though Floridians live through hurricanes every year, the fury and extent of Irma was still to a large degree unexpected, especially in those areas that don’t usually see hurricanes of any size.

That’s why the urgency of disaster relief for these people is so great. Even in Houston and southern Texas, where big storms hit more frequently than, say, in Tampa, the call for emergency assistance went out right away. No city can withstand 50 inches of rain in a day or two and the flooding it brings without help from outside.

Local and federal help has been mobilized. The emergency responders in the Houston area performed beautifully, saving thousands of people from the relentlessly rising floodwaters.

Washington acted with unaccustomed alacrity that warmed the heart, as President Donald Trump and Congress authorized emergency aid to the victims of Harvey, brushing aside cherished budget goals and partisan differences to pay for it.

A similar process was begun for Irma. Late Sunday, President Trump signed a disaster declaration to channel funds to damaged areas in Florida.

But it’s not so simple. Like the water sucked out of Tampa Bay by the swirling winds of Irma, leaving a weirdly dry coastline, the immense cost of recovery has drained the money from FEMA.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is the address for that money, faces a depleted bank account due to Harvey. Its relief fund has dwindled from $3.3 billion pre-Harvey to a mere $541 million “immediately available” post-Harvey. A new allocation is required for both Harvey and Irma, and that means another legislative push.

Meanwhile, there is still room to squabble over the duration of the debt ceiling adjustment and the final amount of funds to be allocated.

In the Senate, Democrats and Republicans agreed to raise the debt ceiling for three months to allow for the Harvey recovery to be attached to the federal budget, which was voted an extra funding life through mid-December to avoid a looming shutdown. However, House Republicans are reportedly hesitating to go along with these budgetary manipulations.

Any delay in passage could leave FEMA — and the victims of both hurricanes — in the lurch. It is to be hoped that a keen appreciation of their plight — not to mention how their constituencies will feel about it come next election — will concentrate the minds of the lawmakers.

Regardless of whatever the federal government does, communities, businesses and individuals are also called upon to help. Just as Agudath Yisrael of America urged Yidden everywhere to daven for the safety of the people of Florida, so, too, the task of helping those who survived the storm to rebuild their homes and schools and synagogues falls upon everyone.

As Hamodia has reported, the Jewish community of Atlanta has opened its doors to some 1,000 evacuees from Miami. Offers of help have come from as far away as Memphis and Toronto.

The response is a true kiddush Hashem, something we can all be proud of.

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