Scrutinizing Katrina's Disaster Response

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it’s hard to forget the scenes of stranded New Orleans residents, waiting for help – in the Superdome, outside the city’s convention center, on top of their island-like homes -- for what seemed like eons. Second day, no help. Third day, lawlessness ensues amid floods. Fourth day, more chaos, food and water scarce. It’s easy to understand why Mayor C. Ray Nagin was screaming on the radio for federal help that he said wasn’t showing up in force.

That’s an immediate response. In this media-saturated age, we’ve come to expect fast action for public crises. The deadly effects of Katrina, a Category 4 hurricane that ripped through the Gulf coast, flattened communities around Biloxi and Gulfport, Miss., and Mobile, Ala., and flooded New Orleans, appeared to many Americans like they were happening in a different country. This time, though, it’s the United Nations offering aid to the United States, with Australia, Japan and other nations pledging financial assistance.

Louisiana authorities have warned there could be thousands of deaths from the storm and flood. As the toll rises, and we learn more about the projected economic impact in lost energy production and resulting unemployment, there will be political leaders and managers in the homeland security establishment who face questions about how this response went and how it could have been better. This is not a new kind of exercise for either emergency response agencies or for corporate security executives, who have to think about threats and practice responses. But in this case, there will more scrutiny than usual, in the coming weeks and long afterward. Among the directions an inquiry could take:

* Why were the New Orleans levees inadequate to prevent a flood?

Six weeks before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, U.S. News and World Report wrote that "the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is at least a decade away from upgrading" New Orleans’ levees to sustain a category 4 or 5 hurricane. This statement would be easier to dismiss if, as the article points out, the threat to New Orleans from a flood wasn’t atop the list of worries for experts. The American Red Cross ranked such a flood threat among the nation’s deadliest natural disasters-in-waiting.

* Why weren’t more people evacuated from New Orleans and other coastal areas before the storm?

In the case of Hurricane Katrina, meteorologists had precise forecsts broadcast to the public correctly.  In an interview with CSO’s Kathleen S. Carr, Gary Woodall, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said "all the hurricane warnings were issued by hurricane experts in Miami. And their forecasts for Katrina were phenomenal. They had their predictions in by late Friday."

In following these forecasts, warnings went out from the Louisiana governor, among other state officials, to evacuate. But especially in New Orleans, these warnings appear to have relied on people to transport themselves out of harm’s way.  That’s a problem for a city of 484,000 people where the poverty rate is about double the national average. No wonder there were 25,000 people stuck in the Superdome.

* Why wasn’t there more done, and sooner, for the people stuck in the city?

The question, from New Orleans’ mayor, from citizens waiting for buses to take them to Houston and other places, will redound as President Bush signs the $10.5 billion aid package Congress passed Sept. 2, and we read more media reports about the death toll.  Those are the big issues. The smaller details are troubling, too, however.  Why, for example, does it take The New Orleans Times-Picayne newspaper to post an online bulletin board to alert families about missing persons or to post a message to say "I’m okay"?  What could be done better to communicate with people about what to expect in terms of relief?

With such a loss of life, it will be interesting to see how long it takes a special investigative commission, akin to the 9/11 commission, to convene. When they examine what happened before and after Katrina, let’s hope there are some valuable lessons that improve responses to a future natural disaster.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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