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The real lessons from Katrina

By Linda Prussen-Razzano
web posted September 12, 2005

As was the case last week, the partisan rancor over the aftermath and recovery from Hurricane Katrina has continued. Sadly, it has even escalated, as local, state, and federal officials all seek to shift the blame away from themselves. Folks on the Hill have taken this outrage to a new level. Turn on any television, read any newspaper, listen to the radio, and you'll be exposed to it.

For almost a decade, I worked for an electrical engineering consulting firm assisting insurance companies on electrical equipment claims. I wrote the Disaster Recovery/Emergency Management plans for a former employer. I've kicked through my fair share of burned out and torn up businesses, examined hundreds of pieces of water logged, melted, or chemically impacted equipment, and seen how unexpected crisis can cripple a small company overnight.

Despite this experience, I am by no means an expert on city-wide evacuations and large scale emergency response planning. That being said, I would like to offer at least these points on what we, as individual citizens and local governments, can do to mitigate the damage to lives and livelihoods in the event we face another natural disaster on the scale of Katrina.

First, we need to recognize that officials at all levels, in all areas, are people. They may be educated, highly specialized people holding important positions, but they are still people. They are still fallible. They can and will make mistakes. Don't expect perfection, because despite unreasonable expectations from the media…you aren't going to get it.

Second, depending upon the total swath of destruction, it may take days for help to reach you. Your life is obviously important to you, but there may be hundreds, if not thousands, of others in the same situation as you. Emergency services often move manpower and equipment out of the path of destruction so that it will be available afterwards; otherwise, they risk having it destroyed and completely unavailable once the danger passes. It takes time to move all that equipment and manpower back into place.

Third, recognizing that it may take days to reach you, you should stock up on provisions. The typical recommended supply is 3 days of food and water; this recommendation should be changed to 5, just to be safe. I understand that this may be problematic for families who are, quite literally, struggling paycheck to paycheck, but even one extra can of food a week, crackers, peanut butter and jelly - all things that don't require heating or electricity - over a few months will add up to a good sized stock pile.

Fourth, as New Orleans clearly showed, there was concern about the legalities of issuing a mandatory evacuation, as well as concern about the legalities of trying to bus people out of the city; hence, the local government was prompted by legal pressure to wait until the day before to make the evacuation mandatory and had insufficient time to coordinate its other resources to get people out. Cities and states should pass laws insulating local governments from grievous redress if they evacuate a city for the public good.

Fifth, residents should take warnings seriously. Officials try not to alarm the public by crying wolf. Residents who survived previous storms can become accustomed to warnings without seriously heeding them. This kind of complacency can be fatal.

Sixth, churches and other groups should try to implement a ride sharing program. New Orleans had initiated just such a plan; unfortunately, only four of the churches were brought into the program before Katrina struck. If a resident is incapable of leaving on their own power due to illness, injury, disability, lack of resources or mobility, they should put themselves on the list of people requiring assistance. This way, local resources can be mobilized in advance to help them evacuate.

Seventh, if evacuated to a shelter, please bring your food and water with you. I understand that the temptation is great to bring treasured items, family heirlooms, pictures and other seemingly irreplaceable personal effects, but consider this: these items won't sustain you until help arrives, the food and water will. As much as items can have a personal meaning, YOU cannot be replaced. Your family and friends would rather have you than a picture of you. Further, your supplies will not only sustain you, they can sustain your family, your friends, and even help save the life of a stranger.

Eighth, if evacuated to a shelter, bring a radio with batteries. This will allow you to follow what is happening outside of the shelter and give you access to important information. Cities can set up, in advance, stations that will broadcast information about the progress of the event, from evacuation and impact, to rescue and restoration, and pipeline updates to residents. If the station is taken out, a back up station covering their area can be used. This information should be conveyed regularly to residents, so that it becomes part of their collective memory.

Ninth, if a City does set up shelters, they need to provide adequate security for evacuees. If a city insists on stripping residents of their firearms prior to entering the facility, then they are responsible for ensuring the safety of the people inside. The residents are no longer able to defend themselves against those who would prey on people during the darkest of hours. If necessary, call in the National Guard to supervise it.

Tenth, most established local, state, and federal emergency management plans call for extensive communication between various departments. In the event of natural disaster, electrical power and telephone communications often break down. This obvious flaw needs to be addressed. To counter this breakdown, local officials can:

1. Make certain operations automatic. Once a specific emergency response plan is formalized, it will be automatically implemented in the event of a disaster, instead of trying to patch it together in the final hours.

2. Coordinate as many activities as possible beforehand, so that they don't need to be hastily assembled during the event or afterwards.

3. Set up alternate forms of communication; text messaging, cell phone hotlines, battery operated short-wave radio network, carrier pigeon, anything to keep the lines of communication open.

4. As soon as a State of Emergency is declared, have a designated FEMA representative and other federal officials on hand, in person , to advise, assist, and coordinate. Since they have experience handling this type of situation, they can make valuable suggestions and recommendations. This way, the federal government will also be aware of any of the plans that are being implemented and can prepare for any shortfalls well in advance of the event. They still won't have the authority to act outside of their normal duties without local or state consent, but they will better know what is happening, instead of having problems thrown at them during a press conference or finding out days later about needs.

A large part of the problem within New Orleans and other areas was the collapse of the lines of communication, particularly to first responders and law enforcement. Officers could not effectively communicate with their station commanders, station commanders could not effectively communicate with central command or outside agencies. On the streets, officers were faced with the daunting prospect of being isolated, in the middle of a rising disaster, with both natural and human threats surrounding them. Law enforcement responses could not be coordinated, leading, in part, to the ensuing chaos. Most folks are not aware that the ratio of law enforcement to the general population is alarmingly low. Some cities have one officer for every 5,000 people.

The tendency has been to compare the slew of law enforcement resignations in New Orleans with the bravery of the New York Police Department in the face of 9-11. This is not a just comparison. The devastation of the World Trade Center Towers, and subsequent collapse of the several buildings surrounding it, was more limited in physical scope to the damage by Katrina and subsequent flooding of 80% of the City. Make no mistake, 9-11 was a horrific event, and the heroism of many is forever embraced by thousands of grateful survivors and an awed nation. Many in the NYPD did not get to see their families for several days afterwards, then only for a brief visit, before returning to "the pile" again for 24 hour shifts. Yet, there was physical escape from the horror within the confines of New York. Within walking distance, people could find opened restaurants, power, working televisions and phones, a clean, dry, comforting place to rest their aching souls, the remnants of normalcy to juxtapose the horror and remind them why they fought so hard, stayed so amazingly strong. Then there was the small bit of relief that came from being able to call family members in the surrounding areas and confirm that all was well, that they were safe, that their family (if not their fraternal family) was, at least, intact. Finally, as officers, firefighters, and emergency workers from all across the state poured into New York City, their numbers swelled with supporting brothers.

The officers in New Orleans, in particular, had none of this physical support. Untold others could not call home, call family, to confirm that they had survived the night or even if they had a home to go back to. Around them, chaos, rising waters, and death swirled; feeling isolated and unable to effectively communicate with each other, no doubt many felt powerless to restore order and were thoroughly demoralized. This is not to excuse one abandoning their duties, but to prevent it from happening in the future.

Reports from the area revealed that once the National Guard and other troops arrived, the moral of the officers was boosted immediately. These supporting forces should not be held back; they should be asked for, and put on stand by, immediately. If they are ultimately not needed, they can readily moved to another location that does have a need. Perhaps if the New Orleans officers knew that the National Guard and other troops were coming shortly, they would have maintained their resolve and not resigned or abandoned their duties.

Finally, all small City Managers and City Mayors should immediately institute a "Sister Cities" plan. They would partner with cities in their county, the opposite end of the state, and at least two outside states. These partner cities will, under a reciprocal agreement, accept evacuees from the threatened city in the event a natural disaster is approaching. This type of arrangement will reap the following benefits:

1. Evacuees will have a set destination, instead of being shipped all over the country.

2. Officials will have established points of contact, instead of a confusing chain of command. Contact numbers can be permanently established and distributed to the public, elected officials, law enforcement, and others well in advance of any impending natural disaster.

3. Cities can share emergency response ideas to better each other's preparedness.

4. Websites for Sister Cities can be established so that folks can find out where their family members are located and what's happening locally.

5. Religious denominations can set up "Sister City" houses to offset the burden on the local emergency resources.

6. If one of the Sister Cities in also in the projected path of destruction, that information can be readily disbursed through the local media to residents so that evacuees can avoid it.

7. The documentation and reimbursement process for FEMA and the federal government will be streamlined.

8. In rural areas, where the total population of the county may be less than a small city, the entire county can coordinate a "Sister City" agreement for its residents.

9. Sister City hospitals can prepare for evacuated patients and other persons in need of special care. Hospitals can set up points of contact, confirm bed availability, and transfer patients and charts without having to wait on the local government to coordinate it for them.

I recognize these "Sister City" steps would be cumbersome for a large city like New Orleans, but it would work well for smaller cities, townships, and rural counties.

This is by no means a panacea for all that now ails our country, but perhaps these steps, implemented with the numerous resources already at most of the officials' disposal, can help eradicate some of the challenges we faced so recently.

We don't need more government, we need more effective government. The biggest part of that starts with we, the people, accepting responsibility for ourselves and taking steps to preserve our own lives.

Linda Prussen-Razzano is frequent contributor to Enter Stage Right and a number of other online magazines.

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