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Managing Emergencies and Disasters


The level of America’s preparedness in dealing with emergencies and disasters has been tested by many disasters and emergencies. The top ones that have had far-reaching effects are the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Gustav, and the BP Oil Spill. The responses to these disasters were different in several ways. Some had a well-planned response that reduced casualties and damage to property. Others had far-reaching environmental damage due to poor response. In this research paper, the responses that were made during these four disasters and emergencies will be compared. Areas of success in dealing with these issues will be pointed out. Areas of failure will equally be pointed out and the lessons that were learned by the parties that were involved. Did the parties apply the lessons they learned from these disasters? This question will be answered in the research paper.

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The Disasters and the Responses

The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

This manmade disaster occurred on the 24th of March 1989. An oil tanker named Exxon Valdez struck a reef on the coast of Alaska spilling what has been estimated to be fifteen million gallons of crude oil (Markle 1998, pp.30-32). The fatigue that the crew members had, the poor state of the tanker, and the bad weather are considered major causes of the collision that led to the spill. The total amount is still an issue of the contest between environmental groups that claim that the total crude that was spilled was more than twenty-five million gallons and the company that estimates the total to be slightly above ten million gallons. Unlike the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that was deep under the water, the Exxon Valdez spill occurred on the surface. It spread over more than two thousand square kilometers of coastline and covered more than twenty-five thousand square kilometers of ocean waters. The damage that the Exxon Valdez oil spill caused is still being felt in the coastal areas where the oil reached. The water life that was affected included the numerous bald eagles that died, the thousands of salmons that were killed as well as otters and other forms of water life. The lives of the local people who depended on fishing salmon were thrown off balance as they were unable to access their source of income (Markle 1998, pp.19-22).

The Response to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

After the spill, the company, Exxon Mobil, the federal government, and the state of Alaska were caught off guard. The oil spread over a large surface before ideas such as the spray of dispersants and the burning of some of the oil would be implemented. The explosion or burning of the oil worked to a reasonable degree compared to the dispersant proved to be ineffective due to the lack of waves and the windy conditions that are necessary to make the dispersant reach as much oil as possible. The geography of the coastline where the spill occurred did not help matters. It is rocky and this made it hard for skimming boats to clear the oil. The responsibility of dealing with oil spills done by companies is in the hands of these companies. It was therefore expected that Exxon Mobil should have moved a bit faster to deal with the spill. But this is not what happened. The residents as well as the federal government that got involved in the case later on through lawsuits considered the Exxon Mobil response inadequate. Indeed, had the explosion been carried out early, the oil would not have spread to a huge area as it did (Markle 1998, pp.56-57). The situation would have been even much more different if there had been a concerted effort that included the use of other methods such as skimming.

The BP Oil Spill

This is also called the deepwater horizon spill. It occurred in the Gulf of Mexico on the 20th of April 2010 and continued till the 12th of August 2010. It is considered to be the largest oil spill in the history of petroleum. More than two hundred million gallons of oil were spilled into the waters at the Gulf of Mexico. At the time of the explosion of the oil rig that led to the spill, eleven employees of the company died. Seventeen others were wounded in the confusion that ensued. The damage that the spill caused is likely to reverberate over a long time in the Gulf of Mexico and across the United States as well as the world. Water life took the hardest hit. The number of sea birds that died was too high (Mason 2010, p.1). Other sea animals that died include shrimps and crabs. The economic impact of the spill has been felt by the residents of the Gulf of Mexico as well as the citizens of the larger United States due to the interconnected nature of economic activities. The Gulf residents make their living from the fishing and tourism that takes place in the area. These activities were disrupted (Jones & Jervis 2010, p.1). People in other parts of the US and the world who relied on shrimp and other types of seafood from the Gulf of Mexico had to go without these supplies due to oil contamination. It is important to note that there is still concern over seafood from the Gulf of Mexico because it may be having traces of oil.

The Response to the BP Oil Spill

The response from BP was extremely poor. The company underestimated the magnitude of the spill and therefore used shaky methods to handle the initial flow of crude oil into the waters. The shaky means included the usage of boats that were sweeping the floating crude into the shore where it was collected. The later addition of other mechanisms such as burning the oil is something the company should have done earlier on. The recruitment of the local people who participated in the collection effort for the pieces of crude that were scattered along the shores and the beyond was done at a slow pace and a later date. The company also took a considerably longer period to come up with a way of stopping the leakage (Mason 2010, p.1). This is an indication that the company had not considered the fact that such an incident was a possibility. It is therefore a pure case of poor foresight on the part of the company’s management.

Leaving the above aside, the care that was supposed to be accorded to the wildlife that was affected by the oil was not timely. It took BP and the other parties such as the state governments as well as the federal government several days to come up with a way to care for birds that were covered by oil and would not even move or breathe properly. It was also not adequate in the sense that only a small number of the affected birds were eventually washed and placed in conditions where they would recover. The other birds, crabs, turtles, and other sea creatures that were affected by the spill died (Jones & Jervis 2010, p.1).

The other vital player in the response team, the federal government also displayed a degree of weakness whereby a long time was taken before the company would be given stern instructions on how they need to handle the disaster to reduce the negative impact on the environment and the economy. The strict instructions to the company came late and directly from the president who had to visit the disaster area personally and express his displeasure with the company’s efforts in dealing with the disaster. This is something that should have been done earlier on by junior officials.

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Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina went down in history as the disaster that exposed the level of unpreparedness the United States had as far as natural calamities are concerned. This has since changed as we shall see in the case of Hurricane Gustav that came much later in 2008. Hurricane Katrina began with a less formidable force at the coast of Florida where a few people died and the property was destroyed. By the time it reached Louisiana, it had reached its highest in terms of strength and all that followed was destruction. More than one thousand five hundred lives were lost and property worth more than eighty billion dollars was destroyed. The levees that had been put in place to hold back floodwaters failed miserably. The result was the heavy flooding that buried people’s residences underwater for weeks (Cooper & Block 2006, pp.28-29).

The response to Hurricane Katrina

The National Hurricane Watch rightfully expressed their concern over the ability of the levees to hold back the floodwaters. It is expected that the governments should have taken these concerns seriously and monitored the hurricane to take any necessary step if it proved to be dangerous (Cooper & Block 2006, pp.47-50 ). But what happened? The floodwaters swelled and the levees collapsed. The people of New Orleans began drowning and their property began getting covered by water with little response from the government. After the hurricane, the government displayed more inability in dealing with the aftermath. The diseases outbreak that followed the floodwaters is something that should have been expected. But it was not until after people began dying that a weak effort was directed towards taking care of the victims.

The people whose houses were destroyed spent several months and years in some cases living in trailers. There was no clear plan to help them rebuild. Even the monetary donations that came from individuals and organizations were spent in an unclear way. There was no plan to help the school-going children whose education had been put to a sudden stop by the hurricane. The sick, the disabled, and veterans of Louisiana did not have help from their government. It is for this reason that the president of the time, George W. Bush saw his poll numbers sink (Cooper & Block 2006, pp.87-90). The American people and a watching world felt that his administration did not do all that it was able to do to reduce the impact of the disaster before it occurred or deal with its aftermath in a way that would have reduced the suffering of the people. It was a disaster that will live in the minds of most Americans in general and Louisiana residents in particular for generations to come.

Hurricane Gustav

Hurricane Gustav affected more than four countries in the August of 2008. These countries include the United States, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, and the Cayman Islands. It began as a small storm in the capital of Haiti and by the time it turned into a full-blown hurricane and reached the United States, it had killed more than eighty people. The total number of lives lost was more than one hundred and fifty. Property worth more than four billion dollars was also destroyed by this hurricane. This was a small percentage of what Hurricane Katrina had done more than three years earlier as already noted elsewhere in this research paper. Why is there a difference in the numbers of people killed by Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Gustav? Is it that Hurricane Gustav was extremely weak compared to Hurricane Katrina? It is possible that hurricane Gustav killed such a small number of people and destroyed fewer properties due to its relative weakness when compared to Hurricane Katrina. But it is also true that more people would have died in the wake of Hurricane Katrina had the authorities not staged a smart response (Nossiter 2008, p.1).

The Response to Hurricane Gustav

The authorities in the United States took the information about hurricane Gustav seriously. They, therefore, moved with speed and warned the people that if they were not willing to move, they would have themselves to blame. There was also an attempt to evacuate people forcefully to avoid any casualties. Those who had the chance to move their movable properties such as cars did so thus reducing the overall damage caused by the hurricane. There were also plans to deal with the aftermath which included medical care as a way of avoiding waterborne diseases (Nossiter 2008, p.1). Accommodation plans were also made for both the long term and the short term depending on how long the hurricane waters would have stayed on the surface. It so happened that the hurricane turned out to be pretty weak compared to Hurricane Katrina. Its casualties were few and the floodwaters were limited when compared to the waters that flooded the Louisiana area during hurricane Katrina.

The Comparisons

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill and the BP Oil Spill

The response given to the Exxon oil spill in 1989 is not any different from the one witnessed in the BP oil spill in 2010. In both cases, the companies underestimated the ability of the crude oil to spread in the ocean waters. Also, both Exxon and BP responded incrementally. They began with small-scale control measures and ended up putting up their best efforts when the crises had reached monumental levels with large-scale destruction of the environment. The behavior of the federal government is slightly different in that in the Exxon Valdez spill, the government played a minor role in the response. It came in full force when a court case was launched against Exxon. In the case of BP, the government was concerned and involved right from the time the oil rig exploded whereby the National Guard moved in with speed to search for the missing BP personnel who were later assumed to be dead as they were missing by the time the well as being sealed. The government also remained on sire carrying out its checks in the effort to deal with the disaster and ensuring that BP took measures to help both the local people whose lives had been thrown into disarray and the wildlife.

The similarity in the two oil spills is that the responses in both cases were hampered by poor weather. In the case of the 1989 Exxon oil spill, the dispersant that was being used would not work due to t the absence of windy conditions that would have hasted the mixing of the oil with the dispersant. The Gulf Spill also got its share of bad weather through storms that made the personnel stop the burning and skimming efforts for a while. Thus in both cases, poor weather conditions affected the effectiveness of the responses.

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Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Gustav

There are numerous differences in the response that was staged in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and what was done later during hurricane Gustav. During the time of Hurricane Katrina, the federal government did not do anything as far as the evacuation of the residents of New Orleans was concerned (Cooper & Block 2006, pp.32-34). This is why many of them ended up getting trapped in the floodwaters and eventually dying. The aftermath was also poorly handled. Waterborne diseases broke out killing many more people and accommodation arrangements were so poor that people ended up living in trailers for a very long time. There were no clear plans for rebuilding and even the education of the school-going children were heavily affected by the poor response of the government.

On the other hand, the government at both state and federal levels moved with speed and alerted the people on the possible dangers of Hurricane Gustav. They were advised to evacuate and those who refused were forced to do so (Nossiter 2008, p.1).

Successes and failures in both four instances

In the oils Exxon and BP oil spills, the companies failed miserably. The BP case is particularly notable for its failures given that it had the Exxon history to learn from. It should have been even more aggressive considering the enormity of its task since it was dealing with a well and not a spill from a vessel.

In the case of hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Gustav, the response to Hurricane Katrina was a failure. The lack of evacuation, before and during the rising of the floodwaters and the mediocre response after the hurricane is the failure indicators. But the response to Gustav was a huge success in that evacuations were carried out leading to fewer casualties.

Lessons learned

The government and the companies that deal with oil seem to have learned less from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. This is why the response to the BP oil spill was lackluster. The government on the other hand seems to have learned that proper warnings and evacuations are necessary during hurricanes. This was done in Hurricane Gustav and the effect was a reduced number of people who died.

Overall Preparedness

The government may have learned some lessons as far as dealing with Hurricanes is concerned. But oil spills are still an issue (Burger 1997, pp.56-57). The evidence is the swift and well-coordinated response to Hurricane Gustav after Hurricane devastated New Orleans whereas the BP oil spill was dealt with poorly even after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.


From this research paper, it is clear that the response to hurricanes improved from the poor one witnessed during Hurricane Katrina to the good response witnessed during hurricane Gustav. Therefore the lesson of proper coordination may have been taken by the government. Bu tin the case of oil spills, there is evidence of lack of preparation. There is evidence of poor coordination and delay in responding powerfully.


Burger, J., (1997). Oil Spills. New York: Rutgers University Press.

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Cooper, C & Block R., (2006). Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security, (1st ed.).New York: Time Books.

Jones, C., & Jervis, R., (2010). Oil Spill Takes Toll On Tourism On Gulf Coast. Usa Today. Web.

Mason, R., (2010). BP oil spill: Suicide of fisherman ‘distraught at spill. The Web.

Markle,S.,(1998).After the Spill: The Exxon Valdez Disaster, Then and Now. New York: Walker & Company.

Nossiter, A., (2008).New Orleans Starts Up, But Not at Full Power. The New York Times. Web.

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