United States — November 17, 2009 1:54 am

Worst-Case Scenarios

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Lessons from Hurricane Katrina, and where we stand today


On Aug. 29, 2005, one million people were displaced overnight when Hurricane Katrina assaulted the Gulf Coast. “We plan for what we’ve experienced, but you don’t even begin to understand [a worst-case scenario] until it is upon you,” Marty Bahamonde, a FEMA employee who took refuge in the Superdome along with roughly 26,000 others, told the HPR. Katrina tested our government’s competence to deal with disaster, and we failed, according to Bahamonde, “at all levels of government.” Greater government awareness of the potential of public-private partnerships and new leadership strategies have combined to increase our disaster readiness. While our disaster response plans remain incomplete on a national level, it is clear that the U.S. government has learned lessons from Katrina and is applying them to situations for which, realistically, we can never be fully prepared.

A Failure of Government

In forming the Department of Homeland Security, the Bush administration decided to focus on possible terrorist attacks, but left FEMA virtually on its own in responding to natural disasters. This put overwhelming pressure on top FEMA officials with weak credentials in emergency management, particularly director Michael Brown. As Lee Clarke, professor of sociology at Rutgers University, told the HPR, “there is always lots of intelligence in [FEMA], but it was not allowed to function.” The new FEMA director, Craig Fugate, has more than 28 years of emergency-management experience. Fugate regularly announces “no-notice” or “thunderbolt” exercises to test the agency’s readiness for the worst — a valuable test of preparedness for an organization that has not always exemplified it.

Katrina also demonstrated that competent local and state governments are critical to a system that emphasizes cooperation between federal and state entities. “Emergency management is a complete partnership, but is complicated by issues over state rights and federal intervention,” Dr. Burton Clark, an emergency-management specialist, told the HPR. Clark continued, “The authority to demand an evacuation resides at the local and state levels, but at the federal level we also need to be able to help by getting resources and pre-positioning people.” Changes made to our national response plan since Katrina, with this partnership in mind, allow federal institutions to actively assist in the strengthening of local and state programs even during times of peace and security.

A Creative Approach

Perhaps the most consequential mistake in dealing with Katrina was the lack of initiative for reducing vulnerability and increasing preparedness prior to the hurricane. Clarke told the HPR that agencies lost sight of their mandate to “try to prevent the damage in the first place,” instead of merely “getting the ambulance to the scene.” There was not an adequate evacuation of New Orleans, nor were there enough medical or security personnel to mitigate the disaster at ground zero, especially since three states were affected simultaneously.

The Department of Homeland Security has endeavored to increase preparedness by establishing partnerships with the private sector. The government has reached out to firms like Wal-Mart, CVS, Home Depot, FedEx, and IBM to increase capacity and develop smarter technology for response efforts. During disasters, Wal-Mart’s National Operations Center now assists government agencies by supplying water and food to victims. This new approach was a “huge piece of the puzzle that had been missing,” said Bahamonde.

A Necessary Lesson

Of course, hurricanes are not the only natural threat we face. The state of Washington faces the threat of volcanic eruptions; the Midwest is concerned about severe winter storms and flooding; and California must be vigilant in preparing for earthquakes and forest fires. Any of these threats could become the next Katrina. “We shouldn’t only be preparing for the last disaster, because history is not always our best teacher,” Clark said. Rebuilding and strengthening the levees is necessary, but so are countless other vulnerability-reducing projects.

Our emergency-management system remains imperfect, but still offers a valuable framework for handling disasters quickly and professionally, rather than leaving the responsibility to private charity. Bahamonde witnessed firsthand the importance of governmental organization: “It was impossible for me as an individual to make a dent in the response effort,” he told the HPR, “but as a FEMA employee, I did have the capability of responding effectively by reaching back to co-workers with a professional obligation and ability to help.” Continuing to increase both that sense of obligation and the ability to follow through will help us mitigate the next big natural threat.

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