Sunday, September 04, 2005

Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned

In the coming days, once the refugees are evacuated, shelter is found and the work of identifying the dead, counting the toll and cleaning up the disaster, behind the scenes, another group of people will be working, may be working already. They will be assessing the response at state and federal level, analyzing what went right, what went wrong, and beginning to formulate plans to improve their response.

We, the civilian population should do the same. We should look at the disaster, at the responses of private citizens and community leaders, and formulate our own plan, our own lessons learned.

Watching the people and listening to their stories, these are, in brief, things that I have learned.

1) Individual Preparedness:

A large number of individuals were not prepared to evacuate their homes. They were not prepared to care for themselves for any period of time. They did not have a plan to care for their medical needs. They did not have a plan to meet, to communicate or to have shelter for any period of time if the emergency continued. Security quickly became a primary survival need, along with food, water and medicine.

  • Individual citizens need to be more pro-active in preparing for emergencies including having emergency water and food, having emergency medication and supplies prepared, having an evacuation plan and having an alternate plan to obtain or send information.
  • Individual citizens should be prepared to survive at least 72 hours on their own.
  • Have a plan to provide security for yourself and family.
  • Have an evacuation plan
  • Plan with your family and friends where you will meet if you must evacuate or if you are separated
  • Have a person outside of your city or area that each family member can call in case you are separated and communication does not exist in your immediate area.
  • Have a plan for long term shelter with friends or family outside of the effected area.


2) Heed warnings to take shelter or evacuate an area.

This was a major problem. Many citizens, having rode out storms before, chose to stay in their homes for various reasons including not believing the storm would be as damaging as it was predicted, they were not financially capable of leaving and paying for shelter, they did not have the means to evacuate, they were physically unable to evacuate and had no one to assist them.

  • These warnings are for your own safety. Failure to heed them will most likely result in endangering yourself and your family.
  • Families need to be aware of elderly or compromised members of the extended family and have a plan to rescue them.
  • Red Cross and other organizations should be prepared to open shelters in more distant locations to receive evacuees BEFORE an emergency situation and make that information available more quickly and extensively to radio and television. Also news flashes on the internet.
  • Individuals need to be prepared with a map or prior knowledge where these emergency shelters are at and how to get there


3) Neighborhood Preparedness:

The breakdown of the community has led to the breakdown of social structures that might otherwise act as a support network in emergency situations. We need to reconnect and recreate the "neighborhood". The neighborhood organizations need to take a more active roll in bringing their neighborhood together and educating them about emergency preparedness.

  • Citizens should know their neighbors, know their names, know if they are elderly or medically compromised.
  • At the neighborhood level (block or street), citizens should have a neighborhood emergency preparedness plan for assisting neighbors to evacuate, providing security, pooling resources and information.


4) Community Preparedness:

Citizens expected more from their community emergency services. This is probably from an unrealistic expectation that the emergency services, being specially trained in emergencies, would not suffer the same sort of damage or inconvenience as the individual citizen. It is also apparent that community emergency services and preparedness committees need to concentrate on getting community cooperation and participation in localized emergency planning and community organization.

At a very localized level, communities should give seminars, send mailings, look for other opportunities (including local network or cable stations) to educate their local populace about emergency preparedness and community organization.

Individuals should:

  • Know what your local community has prepared for volunteers, emergency services, staging areas, evacuation, shelter, power, food, water, etc.
  • Know your roll in the community emergency plan
  • "Communities" can include town, parrish, housing community, neighborhood associations, church communities, community centers, Rotary, Optimist, VFW, American Legion, etc


5) City and State Emergency Plans:

The city and state emergency plan suffered what is known in many technical fields as a "triple failure". A triple failure results in all redundant back up systems going offline. Not only were backup systems destroyed, but the three main pieces of a good emergency plan were either destroyed or missing.

Communications: Regular phone lines, cell phone towers and radio systems were either destroyed or inoperable at the distance required. Radio stations and news stations were also off line. Leaders failed to take advantage of satellite communications available by national news organizations on the ground to pass information to emergency personnel and citizens who were gathered at specific locations. Mobile PA systems were not available or unable to reach the city to inform the citizens.

Emergency equipment and personnel: Some emergency equipment and personnel were moved from the city, but some remained inside, unavailable after the flood. The infrastructure damage was so immense that equipment could not move in and out of the city except for boats. Private boats that might have been used in the rescue process were also destroyed by the hurricane. The damage was so extensive over such a distance that other back up equipment from other towns were also unavailable or needed to help the rescue effort in those towns. There appeared to be no plan to use emergency equipment and personnel from throughout the state except for the state police which could not be the only source of equipment and personnel. Appears that emergency debris removal equipment was not staged or not as many as was needed for the size of the emergency.

Leadership: Once the triple failures began to happen, the situation quickly spun out of the control of the local and state leadership. "Outside the box" thinking seemed to be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the situation and good leaders that could pull everyone together seemed like they were missing. The local and state leadership also failed to appoint a spokesperson that could act as a liaison with the media to release info and organize communication processes. Blinded by lack of communications and unable to assess situation, leadership seemed unable to decide the next action for 24 hours after the disaster and then did not call for federal assistance from including getting other National Guard Units or active duty military units which then took another 48 hours to get on site and organized for rescue and relief efforts. Federal leadership should have demanded that the governor authorize federalization of the rescue mission prior to the actual emergency considering the the predicted magnitude of the emergency or at least been federalized within the first 24 hours of the disaster.

Triple Victims: Hurricane, flood and destroyed emergency plan left citizens to survive on their own for five days.

  • Know your city and state plans for emergency response to a natural or man-made disaster.
  • Know where staging areas for evacuation or emergency assistance can be found.
  • Know who to contact for assistance with evacuation if you are elderly, medically compromised or otherwise limited. Emergency phone numbers should be kept in multiple places and on your person.
  • Insure that your state or city emergency plan includes back up systems, such as satellite phones and an appropriate threshold for declaring a situation federal.
  • Insure that your state or city emergency plan includes plans for organizing evacuation of citizens using public transportation when warnings are first issued.
  • Be prepared to organize your own relief and rescue if trapped within the city.
  • Be prepared to organize leadership within your group or community should established leadership be unavailable or incommunicado.
  • Be prepared to to organize a spokesperson for your group or community.
  • Look for opportunities to organize communication using available resources such as national news.

2 comments:

Solomon2 said...

Why did the waters surge over the levees of the drainage canals, and not the walls of Lake Pontchartrain itself?

On the Levees of New Orleans

Tom said...

Hey Kat, you forgot one:

"The Perfect Storm: Strategies for the Coming Weeks"

Translation: "How to use a national tragedy for maximum political advantage."