• United States



by Paul Kerstein

Scrutinizing Katrina’s Disaster Response

Sep 06, 20054 mins
CSO and CISOData and Information Security

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it’s hard to forget the scenesof 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 waterscarce. 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 cometo expect fast action for public crises. The deadly effects of Katrina,a Category 4 hurricane that ripped through the Gulf coast, flattenedcommunities around Biloxi and Gulfport, Miss., and Mobile, Ala., andflooded New Orleans, appeared to many Americans like they werehappening 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 deathsfrom the storm and flood. As the toll rises, and we learn more aboutthe projected economic impact in lost energy production and resultingunemployment, there will be political leaders and managers in thehomeland security establishment who face questions about how thisresponse went and how it could have been better. This is not a new kindof exercise for either emergency response agencies or for corporatesecurity executives, who have to think about threats and practiceresponses. But in this case, there will more scrutiny than usual, inthe coming weeks and long afterward. Among the directions an inquirycould take:

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

Six weeks before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, U.S. News and WorldReport wrote that “theU.S. Army Corps of Engineers is at least a decade away from upgrading”New Orleans’ levees to sustain a category 4 or 5 hurricane. Thisstatement would be easier to dismiss if, as the article points out, thethreat to New Orleans from a flood wasn’t atop the list of worries forexperts. The American Red Cross ranked such a flood threat among thenation’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 forecstsbroadcast to the public correctly.  In an interview with CSO’sKathleen S. Carr, Gary Woodall, warning coordination meteorologist withthe National Weather Service, said “all the hurricane warnings wereissued by hurricane experts in Miami. And their forecasts for Katrinawere phenomenal. They had their predictions in by late Friday.”

In following these forecasts, warnings went out from the Louisianagovernor, among other state officials, to evacuate. But especially inNew Orleans, these warnings appear to have relied on people totransport themselves out of harm’s way.  That’s a problem for acity of 484,000 people where the poverty rate is about double thenational average. No wonder there were 25,000 people stuck in theSuperdome.

* 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 busesto take them to Houston and other places, will redound as PresidentBush signs the $10.5 billion aid package Congress passed Sept. 2, andwe read more media reports about the death toll.  Those are thebig issues. The smaller details are troubling, too, however.  Why,for example, does it take The New Orleans Times-Picayne newspaper topost an online bulletin board to alertfamilies about missing persons or to post a message to say “I’mokay”?  What could be done better to communicate with people aboutwhat to expect in terms of relief?

With such a loss of life, it will be interesting to see how long ittakes 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 afuture natural disaster.