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Science & Environment

Geological Teams Try To Determine The Future Of Storm-Affected Communities

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Hurricane Michael devastated parts of Florida's Panhandle. Search and rescue operations aren't over, and people are still without power. There's work being done now that will determine the future of the communities affected by that storm. NPR's Jake Harper has the story.

JAKE HARPER, BYLINE: I'm in the Mexico Beach area, and it's a little bit overwhelming. I mean, we've got houses that have just been blown apart. There are people's belongings everywhere just mixed in with the sand and houses that have been sort of shifted off their foundations to the other side of the street. And in the midst of all this rubble, there are people here that are looking for something that's incredibly small.

DAVE BYERS: It's really investigative work, just looking for clues to see where the water was, how far up it came.

HARPER: Dave Byers and Tonya Maddux work for the United States Geological Survey. They look for mud and grass that's stuck to the sides or even insides of buildings, signs of how high the storm surge reached. When they find something, they mark it. It's a hard job.

BYERS: It almost looks, right here, that there's a little something. You can see, like, little pieces of grass and dirt that's accumulated on these steps that look like they're going in the wrong direction. (Laughter).

HARPER: Byers doesn't know where the steps came from. So that water line isn't usable, but sometimes it's easier.

BYERS: Tonya said she found a mark.

HARPER: Down the road, someone spray-painted a red line on the street and labeled it 2018 surge line.

TONYA MADDUX: It's just a little bit scary if you look at the ocean, thinking about how high it came up. It's crazy.

HARPER: These measurements Byers and Maddux take could seem like a low priority as the sirens blare and helicopters fly overhead, but they're really important. The Federal Emergency Management Agency uses this data in part to figure out how to allocate funds in the short term. Elizabeth Zimmerman is a former associate administrator at FEMA and now works a consulting firm IEM.

ELIZABETH ZIMMERMAN: Looking at the high water marks gives you a good estimate as to what kind of damages were incurred.

HARPER: So sometimes, instead of sending an inspector...

ZIMMERMAN: They'll estimate what the damages were, and then they can cut them a check.

HARPER: And the USGS data affects the long process of recovery, too. Jeff Thomas is a New Orleans attorney who works with communities as they rebuild after disasters. He says the USGS data helps create guidelines for these communities.

JEFF THOMAS: Federal government, again, trying to safeguard its investments in rebuilding and trying to reduce the incidence of recurring disasters may require certain changes in how things are built.

HARPER: Thomas says houses and other structures might need to be built above a certain elevation or further from the coast.

THOMAS: To me, it's quite poignant - that parallel to the debris clearing and, you know, the terrible search for unaccounted persons. This process for redefining the future is happening, you know, already. And that line-drawing is the beginning.

HARPER: There are even FEMA grants to make communities more resilient, and Zimmerman says the USGS data helps communities know how to spend that money.

ZIMMERMAN: If you had wooden power poles and they didn't withstand anything - so you're probably going to build back, and you might be using concrete or metal poles, or trying to underground the utilities if that's a possibility.

HARPER: Downed power lines are the kind of debris Dave Byers and Tonya Maddux see everywhere.

BYERS: Rolling into Mexico Beach here specifically, we were really taken by surprise at the amount of damage and destruction. This is the worst I've ever seen.

HARPER: They work fast. The cleanup is underway, and the watermarks won't be there for long.

Jake Harper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.