Lessons of Disaster

New Orleans We keep a constant hurricane watch at my house. Anyone who has ever had the eye of a hurricane pass over them, keeps their eye on every hurricane. Having just seen the impact of Harvey in Houston and Beaumont, I have been upset over some of the lessons forgotten since Katrina. I have daily texts from a friend and comrade in Puerto Rico about the continuing lack of power and water there from Hurricane Irma. We watch for news of friends and their evacuation from Miami and Tampa-St. Petersburg.

But, let’s focus on the positive for a minute. I wrote a book a couple of years after Katrina called ACORN, the Rebuilding of New Orleans and the Lessons of Disaster (2011, Social Policy Press), so let’s see what lessons have been learned, because some of this is better news.

  • After Katrina it took four days for federal authorities to even get approval for the military to help the stranded population. Reportedly there was virtually no delay in getting military into help after Harvey.
  • FEMA has spent $2 billion after Katrina to assist communities in making disaster plans and training local officials, and 80% now have confidence in their plans, compared to 40% in 2005.
  • Training of federal and local authorities is now aligned and collective.
  • FEMA now positions supplies at designated shelters before the storms hit, not afterwards when too often they are also blocked by flooded roads and impassable conditions.
  • After watching people in the Katrina footprint refuse evacuation because they couldn’t leave their pets to die, Congress passed a law requiring emergency mangers to make provisions for animals. In Houston existing kennels were evacuated and other kennels were set up in advance to be ready.
  • DHHS forced hospitals in the wake of so many tragedies in Katrina to have emergency plans and train their personnel to handle them. Reportedly some rough edges were still dragging, but talking to a friend whose mother was in a nursing facility in Houston, the response was much more effective.
  • FEMA now accepts volunteer help rather than resisting assistance from citizens even when overwhelmed allow the possibility of organizations like the Cajun Navy to move from Louisiana to Houston and Florida in order to be on the scene to help in evacuations and recovery.

It’s not perfect. There are still huge arguments over whether to shelter-in-place or evacuate. Houston’s mayor elected to not make evacuation mandatory. Florida’s governor gave an unparalleled order for over 6 million to evacuate. These are apples and oranges, but this debate will continue.

Fortunately, cell phones are now ubiquitous so it is easier to communicate with more people and issue emergency warnings.

All of this is progress, but we still have a long way to go.

We asked Amazon’s robot thing, Alexa, about Hurricane Irma. She didn’t understand. We asked about weather in Miami and then in Fort Meyers, and Alexa said there was rain and tornado warnings. Then we asked about storm surge, and Alexa was clueless. The moral of that story is simple. It still is going to take all of us on the ground to key an eye on hurricanes continually, because we have been there and done that.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Lesson from New Orleans Flooding: Money Matters

August 5th, 2017

New Orleans    Rolling from the dry of central Wyoming to the humid of New Orleans always takes a little climatic adjustment, but it’s not a bad thing. The weather forecast says rain and thunderstorms are expected daily throughout the week. The same prediction has been largely fulfilled over the last week. In New Orleans, this rainy season in the near tropics is called, “summer.”

Thoughtful people and friends ask, “how’s the flooding,” given the constant Weather Channel and news reports of the 9 or 10 inches of rain that fell within hours a week ago inundating parts of the city, especially the center of the bowl that defines New Orleans geography around the Mid-City section, close to where our main Fair Grinds Coffeehouse is located off Esplanade. Really, the local response is more shrug than a sigh, because from all local reports, it wasn’t that bad, though it is hugely worrisome for other reasons as we fear the storm next time. An estimated two hundred houses flooded. That’s terrible and tragic for the families involved, but, frankly, it’s a long way from “call out the lifeboats.”

Heads have rolled, but understand this clearly, they have rolled because of something rare in government anywhere today. These Sewerage & Water Board and Public Works officials were forced to resign or fired not because of the flooding or the inability of the drainage system to handle the deluge, but because they were not transparent: they didn’t tell the truth. They claimed the system was working at full capacity, and it was not. It was working at about 56% capacity. Of some 200 odd pumps about 15% were inactive, which isn’t good, but neither would have normally been catastrophic, but, welcome to climate change, this was an unusual rain event. The drainage system is New Orleans, when it’s working a full tilt, is amazing and, frankly, world class. It can handle almost 3 inches of rain an hour. Storms that would shut down other cities, are routine in New Orleans, and the system has been designed historically to deal with a lot of water.

Perhaps the usual strength of the operation has lured too many New Orleanians into a false security from city hall to stoop steps though, and that has been the current awakening. The horror is that the deluge revealed that three of the five turbines that run the drainage system were offline, two since an early downpour this summer and one for almost four years. For that to be allowed to happen without preparations during hurricane season is unconscionable, and has to be addressed.

A high ranking board member resigned in protest, blaming the city officials for not having produced cash to improve the system and claiming S&WB was being unfairly singled out. Once again, they fell – or were pushed – on their swords, as they should have been, because they were not forthright with the citizens, not because of a big rain and some flooding. Brickbats are being thrown at a couple of million that has been stuck in planning and unspent to clear out storm drains, and that’s a valid beef, but most of that was for drains in common spaces. There’s a drain across the street on my block. I’m not confused though. It’s my responsibility to get shovel in hand every couple of months and clean it out. Why would I take a chance?

Some of the system, including the corkscrew apparatus, that sucks the water out of the drains is more than 100 years old. There are estimates that it could take $1 billion dollars to totally upgrade and modernize the drainage system, which is a pretty steep price tag for a lower income city. This is part of the national crisis that Trump and others like to talk about, but few are willing to pay for.

We are close to the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Daily we read about the dangers of climate change on challenging environments like those of our precious wetlands and coastal areas in Louisiana.

We really don’t need too many more wake-up calls. We need everyone up and down the line to start putting their money where their mouths are.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail