Hurricane Katrina: Plans, Decisions and Lessons Learned

Both the White House and Congress plan investigations into what went wrong with the response to Hurricane Katrina, which struck Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama on August 29th. Additionally, officials at all levels of government are reviewing actions and decisions that were made in the hope that planning and response to the next disaster will be better.

Hurricane Katrina changed New Orleans, Louisiana from a place fabled for revelry and music to one of flooding, misery and death. The huge storm also smashed coastal Mississippi and Alabama to the east of New Orleans. The severity of the destruction and the problems that arose in Katrina's wake have shaken previous notions of government planning and response to large-scale natural disasters.

Rolling the Dice

To keep largely-below-sea-level New Orleans safe from the Mississippi River and other water, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers had built over the years a series of levees. Now-retired Corp engineer Claude Strauser says those structures were limited to the specifications that governments had requested.

"The Corps of Engineers," he says, "knew that if New Orleans were to experience a hurricane or flood this situation was likely to happen. The levees were designed for a certain event, and this event [Katrina] exceeded the design criteria for those levies."

The disaster response plan for New Orleans before Katrina struck was based on contending with a Category 3 hurricane with winds of up to 209 kilometers per hour. This, despite Hurricane Betsy in 1965, which hit the city as an even stronger Category 4 storm. Engineer Joe Schofer at Northwestern University says such planning is called "risk management," which involves making tradeoffs between the likelihood and consequences of a major disaster.

"There's a certain probability associated with events of a given magnitude happening. Do you plan for the ultimate, ultimate worst-case event? You might not if the probability is extraordinarily low. However, if you look at the statistics on Category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, you're looking at typically one every ten years," he says.

Losing the Bet

Hurricane Katrina pounded the city on Monday, August 29th, as a Category 4 storm with winds of up to 249 kilometers an hour. Later that night, levees gave way, allowing floodwaters to pour into the city. The nightmare scenario predicted by many experts had come to pass.

A "State of Emergency" declaration two days earlier had activated federal efforts to deal with the storm, but as Alane Kochems at The Heritage Foundation in Washington notes, pre-storm deployments went awry.

"The federal government started pre-positioning supplies and troops for where it thought the storm was going to go, and suddenly they had to be re-directed to New Orleans," she says. "The problem was, 'How do you get people into a storm-ravaged area quickly when you have huge logistics?' It takes a fair amount of time."

That time was made longer because Hurricane Katrina destroyed roads, bridges and causeways, or made them impassible by fallen trees and debris. Katrina also damaged the emergency communications infrastructure needed to coordinate an effective and immediate response to the disaster.



Initial Response Shortfalls

Though hundreds-of-thousands of New Orleans residents had evacuated before the storm hit, there were still tens-of-thousands left in the city without shelter, food and medical care. Some were trapped in flooded houses, while others made their way to a central evacuation facility, the "Superdome" sports complex. But the arena quickly proved inadequate for dealing with thousands of evacuees. In hindsight, some observers say helicopter air drops of food, water, and medicine should have been done immediately.

Government operations analyst Eileen Kamarck at Harvard University says the severity of Katrina's damage made it clear that local and state resources were overwhelmed, leaving only federal forces as capable responders.

"Metropolitan areas need massive amounts of help in these situations. And frankly, the worse the disaster the only option is the military. Only the military can go in and overnight build bridges and feed people," she says.

Descent into Chaos

The military can also restore order. In New Orleans, the damage and flooding made it very difficult for police to patrol. Looting broke out and parts of the city descended into chaos in the absence of law enforcement.

In the United States, there is a tradition that the military does not go into a state unless that state's governor specifically requests such action. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco has been criticized for not immediately moving state National Guard troops into the city and putting them under federal control for central coordination.

Joseph McNamara, a former law enforcement official now with The Hoover Institution in California, is one of those critics. "The activation of the National Guard was essential," he says, "because they have the huge trucks that can get through floodwaters, where the police vehicles are grounded. Certainly, New Orleans had experience in prior hurricanes."

The first few thousand National Guardsmen arrived in New Orleans by Thursday, September 1st, and a total of thirty thousand troops were in place by Saturday, September 3rd for maintaing order and assisting relief efforts.

Initial Response: "Not Acceptable"

President Bush, who first visited the storm-struck area on September 2nd, called initial response efforts "not acceptable." But since then, a number of major steps have taken place. Congress has approved federal aid of more than $62 billion.  President Bush says there will be more in the near future. At least 34 states have taken in thousands of evacuees.  The American Red Cross has received private and corporate donations totaling more than $600 million. Countries around the world have contributed personnel and relief supplies.

Hard Lessons Learned

When governments create plans for responding to major disasters such as hurricanes, much of what is set down on paper comes from knowledge gainedthrough previous experience. The actions taken in response to Hurricane Katrina are now part of that knowledge. And analysts say the mistakes made, especially in the first few hours and days after the disaster, will undoubtedly be examples of what not to do.

Disaster response plans drawn up by cities and states are integrated into a larger federal master plan, which is administered by the Federal Emergency anagement Agency, or FEMA. Government operations analyst Elaine Kamarck at Harvard University says the agency must look more closely at those plans before the next disaster strikes.

"FEMA has the authority to review emergency preparedness plans for ever singlestate. They attach federal money of various sorts to having adequate plans. So the question is: 'Why was the city of New Orleans, [and] why was the state of Louisiana allowed to have an emergency preparedness plan that was obviously so flawed?'"

In the wake of Katrina, FEMA was accused of not responding quickly and sufficiently to assist the hurricane's victims. The agency's director, Michael Brown, resigned two weeks after the storm and was replaced on an acting basisby David Paulison, a career public safety and disaster preparedness official. And many observers say that is the image FEMA now wants to project.

Centralized Federal Disaster Control?

Some have called for future disasters to be put under complete federal control, perhaps designating a so-called "disaster czar" who would direct each element ofthe response. Others, including Joseph McNamara at The Hoover Institution in California, say the writers of the U.S. Constitution would not have supported that proposal. "The Founding Fathers were quite apprehensive about the idea that the federal government could come thundering in and take control of local government," he says.

Critical Information for Critical Decisions

Many observers, including Joe Schofer at Northwestern University, say another imperative for coping with future disasters is making sure that federal, state and local officials can quickly gather and share information to take the right actions.

"We're in an era where the sophistication of communications is such that there's no reason why managers at all levels can't be talking to each other in real time. And, they must have up-to-the-minute information in order to make immediate decisions," he says.

Coordinating all levels of government and directing aid to disaster victims requires an emergency communication system shared by all agencies. One of the lessons of Hurricane Katrina was that these radio and telephone systems were so badly damaged that in the first few days after the storm, public safety units had difficulty talking to both their own members and other emergency responders, especially in New Orleans.

Engineer David Schultz at Northwestern University says the means of communications must be survivable. "The emergency communications system is clearly going to have to be 'hardened up.' There's got to be a way in a city as vulnerable as that city is to keep the emergency communications from going down," he says.

Mr. Schultz says such "hardening" includes building special communications lines and antennas that are protected against water, wind and being knocked out by debris. He says these systems also must have electrical power that won't fail.

Better Medical Response

Government operations analyst Alane Kochems at The Heritage Foundation in Washington points out another flaw in present disaster response plans - ensuring that the injured have adequate medical personnel and facilities.

"One of the things we have a horrible system at is catastrophic medical response," she says. "You know, tsunami-size and Katrina-size disasters - we don't know how to deal with that. Restructure so there's a better focus on infrastructure."

In the wake of Katrina, dozens of deaths were discovered at one New Orleans hospital that lost power and the ability to communicate with the outside. Most observers say better planning and infrastructure protection might have made a difference there and with other medical facilities that were unable to function.

The Next New Orleans

The lesson of Katrina's widespread destruction has sparked discussions on how to solve New Orleans' flooding problem. Some say the levees and floodwalls should be made considerably higher to withstand major storms. Others contend that since many parts of New Orleans are well below sea level, the city should be raised with mountains of dirt and rock. But Claude Strauser, a retired veteran of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, has doubts about such a monumental project.

"You're not talking about a small job! That would be a fantastically enormous job. The material that you would probably use is right there in the Mississippi River. So, it's possible, but raising the city would cost more than to build the levees," he says.

Tragedy Renews America's Spirit

There is another lesson from Hurricane Katrina, one not learned but renewed: people taking responsibility for each other's well being. In the storm's wake, ordinary individuals, businesses and religious congregations have not left providing aid and comfort to the hurricane's victims solely to governments and aid organizations. The people themselves have opened their hearts and homes to those who have lost everything. Observers say this lesson of personal selflessness is something for people in other countries to know as part of the character of the United States.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.”  For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.

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