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.