Sunday, April 14, 2013

What Went Wrong in the Response to Hurricane Katrina?

Eye of the Storm

Hurricane Katrina was a devastating category 4 hurricane, that hit the Gulf of Mexico and various Southern regions of the United States at the end of August, 2005, causing some of the worst damage in Americas history, estimated at $100 billion . When the storm made landfall, it had a category 3 rating on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale—it brought sustained winds of 100-140 miles per hour—and stretched some 400 miles across. The storm itself did a great deal of damage, but its aftermath was a  catastrophic tragedy. The US background of the preparation and response to Hurricane Katrina is complex and multifaceted. Many people view the failure of our Government and response teams to the loss of life and property for many Americans during Katrina. Why did the official response seem so lackadaisical and unprepared, and has the preparedness of our Federal Emergency Management Agency(FEMA) returned to prominence that it once was under President Obama?

Hurricane Katrina occurred four years after the attacks of 9/11, three years after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and one year after the DHS had created a National Response Plan. However, there were many underlying and mind boggling facets of the unpreparedness of our nation to protect against mother nature that never happened. When the levees protecting New Orleans gave way under the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina, the most common explanation at the time was that they simply weren’t built to withstand a storm of such ferocity. Thus emphasizing the extreme unpreparedness of the US Government. The response plan should have been prepared for the worst possible situation, however, the US got lazy and conceited. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built most of the New Orleans flood-control system in the 1960s, including levees to withstand a Category 3 storm. Katrina blew in as a Category 4, packing winds up to 217 kilometers per hour (Kintisch, Eli). A levee is a natural or artificial flood bank that follows along a river or canal path. A levee failure occurs when a break, also known as a breach, occurs. Levees protecting New Orleans from adjacent Lake Pontchartrain failed, inundating 80% of the city to a depth of up to 8 meters. Engineers in charge of maintaining the levees concluded that the failures occurred because of poor design or poor construction, leading to enormous flooding and associated damage. The poor response of action arose to the failure of managing risk factors.

Figure A                                                           
The systems in place to respond to disasters are complex. Disaster response is addressed first at the local level; if the problem proves to be too big or difficult, state governments are called in. If it is too much for the state government to handle, the national government steps in. State governors make the request to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which studies the request, makes a recommendation and passes the documents to the White House. The president is the official charged with issuing the declaration of disaster . As Katrina threatened the Gulf Coast, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco issued a state of emergency on Aug. 26 and on Aug. 28 sent a letter to President Bush requesting a disaster declaration for the state in order to release federal assistance. The letter had to travel through points in FEMA before the federal government could respond. FEMA deployed regional responders before Katrina made landfall, but a major federal response wasn't evident until days later. The hurricane crippled many state and local emergency agencies in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama leaving them unable to respond without federal help . While many were looming aimlessly in the ruins that was New Orleans, President Bush was tucked away in his cozy oval office, seemingly not being a productive Commander in Chief to the struggling citizens of New Orleans. A more fidgety and irritated Bush than usual, was continuing to hear a jumble of conflicting reports about the number of refugees in the New Orleans Convention Center and the whereabouts of two trucks and trailers loaded with water and food that were supposed to be delivered. Furious, he interrupted and glared at the camera transmitting his image back to Mississippi, and New Orleans (Tumulty, Karen). "I know y'all are trying as hard as you can, but it ain't cuttin' it," the Commander in Chief barked. "I wanna know why. We gotta do better."

The communication breakdown from the federal government left many residents without supplies and nowhere to move, thus being stranded with no outside help. FEMA’s director, Michael Brown, turned down personnel and supplies offered by police forces and emergency crews at the state level, leaving yet another miscommunication between governments and more civilians stranded for their life. Another communication breakdown and unpreparedness occurred on the state level; the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, hesitated for several hours before deploying the evacuation order. Because of Nagin’s timely manner in ordering evacuation, many civilians were left stranded in the storm without basic necessities, causing many deaths.

Meanwhile, at higher levels of government, a political showdown was brewing between the White House and Govenor Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana. The Louisiana National Guard was heavily deployed in Iraq at the time of Hurricane Katrina. Troops were going to be sent to Louisiana to help with the storm, but the White House wanted to federalize the troops, while Blanco wanted them to be under state control  . The disagreements between the White House and State government was certainly not helping the effects of Hurricane Katrina. The delayed federal response prompted many questions regarding FEMA’s organization and leadership.

FEMA’s agency director, Michael Brown, had almost no experience in disaster work before he was appointed in 2003 by President Bush, and confirmed by the Senate, to lead the agency. Due to Browns inexperience, many decisions were made that actually hurt the response to the struggling city of New Orleans, leaving the city in utter chaos. American Red Cross officials said that FEMA authorities would not allow them to deliver food to the New Orleans Convention center . Another account states that the Red Cross communicated logistic needs to FEMA, but found that FEMA often failed to deliver promised supplies or delivered inadequate amounts too slowly. For example, the Red Cross requested 300,000 meals-ready-to-eat for Louisiana on September 1. The order was cancelled by FEMA, then reordered, and finally delivered- on October 8 . The issues between the Red Cross and FEMA underlie the problems between incorporating non-governmental organizations into the response network; ultimately not serving the homeless civilians affected by Katrina.

There are many diffrences from the FEMA of 2005, to the current FEMA. Congress began to hold a series of hearings at the end of Katrina, to gather what problems caused Katrina to be such a horrific scene. Much of the difference between FEMA of Katrina and now is the leadership role from the agency director. “FEMA was taken apart quickly under the Bush administration,” says Eric Holdeman, the former head of emergency management for King County, Washington. Michael Brown, head of FEMA during Katrina, was inexperienced and not the right man for the job, which shows in the aftermath of Katrina. However, today efforts are being made to rekindle the glory days of FEMA. First, Congress passed legislation requiring that an experienced, professional emergency management official lead FEMA. The new administrator, Craig Fugate, is a great fit for leading FEMA. Fugate, started his career on emergency managements front lines, serving as a volunteer firefighter, then later becoming director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management. Another major difference between the two areas of FEMA is the incorporation of correct communication between the state, federal, and local government. During Katrina, much of FEMA was disregarding help from The Red Cross, and battling between the White House and the state government. Under President Barack Obama, FEMA regional directors are winning back authority to make rapid, ground level decisions—latitude that was largely stripped away during the George W. Bush era.

The FEMA of today is much more proactive and concerned with the well-being of those who are affected by natural disasters. Lars Anderson, Director of Public Affairs for FEMA posted, “At the end of each week, we post a “What We’re Watching” blog as we look ahead to the weekend and recap events from last week”. This new setup of blogging for FEMA has helped their public perception tremendously by linking their efforts of disaster relief open to the public, so that people can see the efforts of rebuilding. "FEMA is a very different organization than it was during Katrina," says Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. Although Katrina was a total catastrophe, the nation gained insight on how to better handle such situations. FEMA does not wait for the storm to hit, they are being proactive and uses pre-positions personnel, equipment, food, supplies, etc. to prevent future problems like the ones experienced during Katrina. A new comprehensive review of our country’s disaster response system is required, along with more research and development pertaining to protection systems against mother natures unexpected turn for the worst, leaving this nation at a much better chance of survival against natural disasters.

The United States learned a lot about our country after  Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf Coast. A major precaution that is highly regarded as important today ensures that, in the event of another disaster, we are able to co-locate relevant Federal, State, and local decision-makers, including leaders of State National Guards, to enhance unity or effort. As stated above, qualified personnel are leading the new FEMA, which can make the citizens of the US comfortable that Obama’s administration is leaving a powerful mark on the progress and treatment of FEMA. Hurricane Katrina was one of the worst natural disasters to hit the United States. Thousands of people were uprooted and placed in shelters and homes around the country. We need to do all we can do to help the people rebuild their lives and prepare ourselves for future disasters, and it is our duty to help those who are in need, which makes this one of the best countries in the world.

Works Cited

Kintisch, Eli. "Levees came up short, researchers tell Congress." Science 310.5750 (2005): 953+. Biography In Context. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.

Tumulty, Karen. et al. "Living Too Much In The Bubble? (Cover Story)." Time 166.12 (2005): 42-45. Academic Search Elite. Web. 11 Apr. 2013.

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