Lessons from Hurricane Katrina, and where we stand today
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.