After a hurricane strikes land, the assistance comes in waves.

First responders rush to the scene to rescue people in harm’s way. Later, agencies step in to house the homeless and help pay for rebuilding. Finally, policymakers determine what went wrong and what steps could be taken to make the population less vulnerable next time.

In a manmade financial disaster, like last week’s disclosure of a massive data security breach at Equifax, all the steps have got to happen at once. When data travels around the world faster than the blink of an eye, consumers can’t wait around for the flood waters to recede.

Regulators need to step in immediately to make sure that the company that allowed this to happen is doing all that it can to protect the people whose information was stolen from identity theft – at the company’s own cost, not the consumers’. User-friendly systems to challenge illegitimate debt need to be built now to deal with a series of crimes that could take years to play out.

And Congress needs to act promptly to require that the companies that handle such sensitive financial data are held responsible when they fail to keep it secure. Such a measure is headed to the U.S. Senate as soon as this month, when senators will be asked to undo an Obama-era rule that allows people who have been harmed by financial institutions like Equifax to join class-action suits instead of being forced into arbitration on a one-by-one basis.

A bill to kill the rule has already passed the House (with the support of 2nd District Rep. Bruce Poliquin), but it can still be defeated if enough senators look at the Equifax disaster and determine that this is no time to make these organizations less accountable.

It’s important to realize the enormity of what Equifax allowed to happen and the inadequacy of the company’s response so far.

Equifax believes that it may have compromised sensitive financial data of as many as 143 million Americans, a breach that was discovered in late July, after a period of undetected intrusion.

The company did not announce what happened for another month, giving top executives time to sell stock, the price of which is now plummeting.

The information that was compromised included birth dates, addresses and Social Security numbers – more than enough for identity thieves to open bank accounts, apply for credit cards, take out mortgages or buy cars in the name of unsuspecting consumers.

Equifax, like the other credit rating agencies, will allow consumers to freeze their accounts, preventing anyone from running a credit search without the consumers’ permission – which they would give by paying a fee to Equifax. That alone should give members of Congress and financial regulators reason to act. It would be outrageous if the failure of Equifax to keep information safe ended up generating more business for the company.

Once again our vulnerability to cyber crime has been thoroughly exposed. Just as with hurricanes, we know “the big one” is coming, and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise.