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Disaster Management Advances Since Hurricane Katrina

A Walmart meteorologist at his station in the disaster operations center checking on Sandy's progress (Walmart)

A Walmart meteorologist at his station in the disaster operations center checking on Sandy's progress (Walmart)

As federal, state and local governments respond to the Hurricane Sandy disaster on the U.S. east coast, they are drawing on lessons learned from the error-stricken effort that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Government agencies and private relief operations in the affected areas are nonetheless facing an enormous challenge.

The worst natural disaster in U.S. history was Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,800 people, drove more than 1 million others from their homes and left some 3 million more stranded without electrical power in the Gulf Coast area. Much of New Orleans, Louisiana was flooded when levees broke and parts of the city have yet to fully recover.

At Tulane University in New Orleans, Marc Roy helps run one of the nation's only Master's degree programs in disaster management. The former relief and recovery specialist with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, known as FEMA, says the disruption caused by Hurricane Sandy could be worse because of the much larger population in the affected area.

"We are looking at 60 million people potentially affected, so in terms of geographical impact, Sandy is making a huge impact nationally and will be a trial for everybody concerned," said Roy.

Roy says extended closures of highways, rail transportation and subway systems in New York and other cities would keep businesses from opening and keep residents from getting to work. If millions of people are left without electrical power for a long time, he says, people could become desperate.

"Rolling blackouts are problematical enough, but when you have a blackout for an extended period of time following a disaster of any kind, you have not only the economic but psychological results that impact people in their daily lives," he said.

But Roy says government agencies and especially FEMA have learned from mistakes made in the weeks following Katrina. He says communication and coordination among government entities on various levels are much better now than they were seven years ago.

Roy says the government also learned lessons from private relief organizations like the American Red Cross and one private company in particular, the giant retail company Walmart, which got supplies of food and water into some stricken areas after Katrina more quickly than government agencies.

Walmart closed 290 stores in the 10 states affected by Hurricane Sandy this week, but by late Tuesday, all but 74 of them were up and running, according to company spokeswoman Kayla Whaling.

"We have a network of emergency distribution centers, which are strategically located and stocked with staple goods and based on the track of the storm; we can move merchandise to the distribution center nearest the impact zone," said Whaling.

Whaling says the same logistical system in place at Walmart's corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas helps the company operate its own emergency operations center, supplying food, water and other material to communities in need.

"We partner with the Red Cross, we do communicate with local organizations so that we can understand what items are needed just to make sure the basic needs are being met by the community," said Whaling.

Whaling says Walmart also remains in constant contact with local and federal authorities in the disaster zone so as to coordinate with them and provide the most effective relief possible to areas where they have millions of customers.