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Hurricane Katrina and Failures of Emergency Management Operations

Introduction: Overview of the Hurricane

The apocalyptic scenes following the destruction caused by one of the biggest disasters in American history, the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, were a direct reflection of the U.S. government’s failure to prepare for and respond to such a natural hazard. The Hurricane came from the coast of Louisiana on August 29, 2005, immediately resulting in a Category 3 storm as winds reached the speed of over 120 miles per hour (Gibbens, 2019). The overall damage caused by the devastating aftermath of everything that followed is estimated to be worth $108 billion although the true loss is 1200 people who died as a direct result of Hurricane Katrina (Gibbens, 2019). Furthermore, the disaster highlighted the social-economic and racial divide in the United States as African-Americans from low-income communities were affected the most. Nicholas Lemann (2020), a columnist for The New Yorker, calls Hurricane Katrina not a natural disaster, but rather a man-made catastrophe. The flawed response of the federal government to the hazard uncovered a number of deep-rooted issues, particularly in regards to the nation’s emergency management capabilities.

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Impact

In order to grasp the effect the 2005 Hurricane has had on the nation, it is important to examine the official impact indicators. Thus, the damaged area of land was close to 90,000 square miles, with almost 300,000 homes destroyed as a result of the disaster (Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, 2006). The unemployment rate in Louisiana has increased from 5.6 to 12.1 percent from August to September 2005 (Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, 2006). More than 1.7 million were left without power after the tornadoes and storm, and 8 millions of oil spilled were a result of the Hurricane as well (Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, 2006). Moreover, the population of New Orleans has decreased three times from the year 2000 till 2006. Some argue that even 15 years later, Louisiana has still not recovered from the disaster, with certain public figures even suggesting the complete abandonment of New Orleans is needed to properly restore the city.

Timeline

Even though the official date of the Hurricane is August 29, 2005, there is a need to discuss the events that preceded it. On August 23-24, early stages of a tropical storm are detected in the Bahamas, with it moving towards Florida and Nassau (Gajanan & Brait, 2015). On August 25, the storm concentrates and strengthens before arriving to Miami and being classified as Category 1 Hurricane. Although the Hurricane weakens as it crosses Florida, it strengthens within hours over the Gulf of Mexico, with both Mississippi and Louisiana declaring a state of emergency in August 26. A day after, Katrina doubles in size and is declared a Category 3 Hurricane (Gajanan & Brait, 2015). On August 28, the storm speeds up reaching as high as 175 miles per hour, which classifies it as a Category 5 Hurricane as it reaches New Orleans.

The failure of New Orleans’ levee system causes major flooding. On September 1-3, Louisiana and New Orleans, in particular, are faced with looting and other crimes as chaos emerges and hundreds of carjackings, shootings, and rapes are reported (Gajanan & Brait, 2015). On September 4, it is estimated that the around 27,000 National Guard troops are in Louisiana, with Clinton and Bush announcing a Hurricane Fund. Evacuation and recovery efforts slowdown after September 7 but continue on for a couple of months after.

The Use of All the Phases of Emergency Management

Mitigation

When it comes to mitigation efforts, they are divided into two primary categories: structural and non-structural measures. Taking a structural approach implies the integration of new technologies, construction, and engineering. In regards to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the State of Louisiana at large historically relied on “a federal system of levees, floodwalls, and pumps to provide the primary protection from flooding” (Nance, 2009, p. 26). In 2004, the Army Corps and Orleans Parish managed to make the system more secure through a number of improvements (Nance, 2009). They included expanding a pump station and reconstructing some parts of a box culvert. The goal was to make the process of re-directing flood waters more time- and resource-efficiently. Arguably, the completion of such a project reduced the risks of a hazard to the point where experts could no longer rely on past disasters to project future risks. Despite that, the Army Corps of Engineers acknowledged the potential threat of a levee breach, which prompted them to repeatedly petition the local authorities for action (Cole and Fellows, 2008). Unfortunately, after months of warnings, experts received a formal decline from decision makers on the pretense of budget cuts, particularly associated with levee upgrades.

Therefore, it is apparent that there was no mistakes in the critical intelligence collection process. The authorities knew of the risks and potential consequences of hurricane storms but failed to initiate efforts to increase the security of the region accordingly. Cole and Fellows (2008) suggest there was more than enough relevant information for officials to take precautionary measures and start to mitigate risks. The threat of a hazard similar to Hurricane Katrina was assessed years prior to the events of August 2005, which indicated high risk. In addition, evidence demonstrates that “accurate Hurricane advisories were issued 36 hours before landfall; storm surge forecasts were issued 32 hours before” (Cole and Fellows, 2008, p. 216). Thus, the flooding system in New Orleans was too vulnerable to sustain a storm. The authorities did not implement the appropriate engineering and construction measures. For instance, there was a need to build more resistant levees and install emergency pumps.

As for the non-structural measures, they include policies, regulations, training, and raising awareness. Starting in 2004, the federal authorities invested in a planning exercise, which involved local and state officials (Edwards, 2015). This training and education program was based largely on scientific predictions of a disaster similar in scale to Hurricane Katrina. Unfortunately, draft plans developed as a result of the “Hurricane Pam” initiative remained incomplete in 2005 (Edwards, 2015). At the time Katrina hit, many Louisiana residents were at risk of loosing their property or dying as a result of the limited regulatory non-structural mitigation efforts. For example, “large swaths of the city were allowed to be constructed with slab-on-grade construction and many residents in elevated homes were allowed to inhabit the first floor” (Nance, 2009, p. 26). People throughout New Orleans were not even required to have flood insurance as massive areas of the city had not yet been classified as floodplains. It is evident that prior to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, the federal and local officials failed to incorporate mitigation efforts into their decision-making process.

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Preparedness

As for preparedness, the process usually involves pre-planning, resource allocation, and budgeting. Preparation efforts in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama included a variety of actions. They included “county and state preparedness and disaster response training (…); the establishment of local, state, and federal command structures (…); activation of emergency operations centers” and many others (University of North Texas, n.d., p. 59). Each state activated its National Guard in preparation to Hurricane Katrina as well. However, the authorities did not have reliable and efficient operational plans for such a disaster, which slowed down evacuations and subsequent hazard response. Cole and Fellows (2008) note that around 70,000 people failed to evacuate from the city of New Orleans alone. The reasons for that are as follows: assumptions about the negative consequences, unclear messages from the local government, a lack of means to evacuate. The messages distributed by state and local authorities were unclear to many New Orleans residents. They included phrases such as “voluntary” and “highly suggested” (Cole and Fellows, 2008). It made it very confusing for people to understand the true scale of the disaster coming their way.

Another aspect of the government’s failure to prepare for Hurricane Katrina appropriately is the breakdown of communications. Situational awareness and centralized command were impossible in many regions Katrina hit due to the communication channels being immobilized. The failures of equipment resulted in the agencies often having no opportunity to communicate and share critical intelligence with each other. Thus, officials were left with limited knowledge, equipment, and broken communication channels, which were all crucial resources to plan for and respond to the disaster. In terms of budgeting, it is apparent that the funds offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) were distributed inefficiently. For instance, despite the generous grants for emergency communication networks many federal agencies received, the results were a disappointment (Edwards, 2015). This suggests that the level of preparedness for Hurricane Katrina was inadequate, given the existing forecasts and scientific warnings at the time.

Response

In regards to the Hurricane Katrina response, the efforts by the federal government and the private sector were rather polarizing. On the one hand, certain agencies performed especially well. Edwards (2015) notes that “the Coast Guard rapidly deployed 4,000 service members, 37 aircraft, and 78 boats to the area” (para. 12). The primary reason for such efficient efforts by both the Coast Guard and the National Guard was their decentralized structure as they relied primarily on local decision-making. The response from the federal government, however, was characterized by supply failures and indecision, which affected redundancy and continuity of operations in the long run. Furthermore, federal authorities obstructed the assistance of the private sector. For example, FEMA blocked the delivery of emergency supplies initiated by the Methodist Hospital in New Orleans (Edwards, 2015). The private relief response could have played an even bigger role than it already had if the federal authorities did not obstruct.

Recovery

The recovery from Hurricane Katrina was a series of efforts enormous in scale and price. The authorities developed a number of research and evaluation initiatives to oversee the distribution and use of the funds provided. There were efforts directed specifically at FEMA’s efficiency in delivering relief (Plyer, 2016). In terms of funding, out of more than $200 billion, which covered the majority of the losses, $195.5 came from the federal authorities, $30 billion from insurance companies, and $6.5 billion from private donations (Plyer, 2016). Despite such an impressive federal and private-sector financial assistance, the State if Louisiana suffered from fraud and abuse. The aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina generated thousands of scams and schemes. Estimates suggest that around $2 billion in aid provided to affected individuals were invalid (Edwards, 2015). The federal and state officials could have done a better job at checking the validity of assistance requests.

Recommendations for Improvements

After the tragedy and destruction caused by the events in 2005, the authorities had to learn a few important lessons. The primary one is for the federal government to assist rather than usurp the power of local and state governments. The United States would be more prepared for the next disaster as large in scale as Katrina if there were a regional structure to the overall federal response initiatives (Carafano & Keith, 2006). The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) needs to have regions responsible specifically for mitigation and preparedness efforts. The organization of the National Guard has to be modified as well. Thus, the federal authorities could thus use the Guard in the pre-planning and preparation programs (Carafano & Keith, 2006). Carafano and Keith (2006) recommend “moving the National Disaster Medical System back into HHS from DHS” (para. 3). This could ensure that there is a unified and centralized command when it comes to the federal public health response. Lastly, DHS has to initiate and invest in the development of the preparedness culture. Promoting community preparedness is key to ensuring individual residents are prepared to listen to authorities, to evacuate, or to assist in any way.

References

Carafano, J., & Keith, L. (2006). Hurricane Katrina lessons learned: Solid recommendations. Heritage. Web.

Cole, T. W., & Fellows, K. L. (2008). Risk communication failure: A case study of New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. Southern Communication Journal, 73(3), 211-228.

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Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. (2006). Hurricane Katrina: A nation still unprepared. Web.

Edwards, C. (2015). Hurricane Katrina: Remembering the federal failures. Cato. Web.

Gajanan, M., & Brait, E. (2015). Hurricane Katrina timeline – how the disaster unfolded 10 years ago. The Guardian. Web.

Gibbens, S. (2019). Hurricane Katrina, explained. National Geographic. Web.

Lemann, N. (2020). Why Hurricane Katrina was not a natural disaster. The New Yorker. Web.

Nance, E. (2009). Responding to risk: The making of hazard mitigation strategy in post-Katrina New Orleans. Journal of Contemporary Water Research & Education, 141, 21-30. Web.

Plyer, A. (2016). Facts for features: Katrina Impact. The Data Center. Web.

University of Northern Texas. (n.d.). Pre-landfall preparation and post-Katrina impact. Library UNT. Web.

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