Lessons learned: Hurricane Katrina

18 Aug

As we near the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the massively botched response that followed, I’d like to share a few reflections on what we all can learn about disaster response  from the Hurricane Katrina experience.

1) Same issues, different country. Those of us in “developed countries” easily come to believe that our issues are somehow different from everyone else’s when it comes to disaster response domestically. But as I look back through documentation and watch the old footage on Hurricane Katrina the thing that jumps out at me more than anything else is simply how very much the same it was to pretty much every other disaster that I’ve been part of the response to in other countries.

In terms of the big issues, by which I mean things like why it took so long to get relief goods and services into New Orleans and rural Mississippi, the highly politicized nature of the decision making around whether or not and if so how the United States Federal Government would respond, the humanitarian accountability issues, the degradation of security at the epicenter, or simply the challenges of keeping children with their actual parents during the evacuation, the response to Hurricane Katrina was textbook typical.

The Mississippi River Delta so happens to be in one of the most resource enabled countries on the planet, but during the response to Hurricane Katrina it might just as well have been another country with a name ending in “stan” or “ia.”

Action point: While respecting culture and custom, per the Code of Conduct, I will treat all disaster survivors as I would want my own family to be treated, should they ever be themselves disaster survivors.

Action point: I will take extra care to keep my own ethnocentrism in check while on an international response. Any local dumbassery that I might encounter in another country can and does happen in my own as well.

2) “It’s too big! I remember once not long after the earthquake near Padang in western Sumatra, being interviewed by an Al Jazeera journalist who tried very hard to get me to say on camera that the government of Indonesia had inadequately planned for and responded to that disaster. The fact that some buildings crumbled and some citizens perished was proof, and so the Indonesian government was deserving of blame. There was (and remains) plenty of criticism of FEMA for how it handled the Hurricane Katrina response – the majority of it rightly earned, in my opinion. But even so, it needs to be recognized that whether we’re talking about western Sumatra or southern Louisiana, no government could have adequately prepared to respond to a disaster of that magnitude. No government could have adequately prepared for the kind of devastation that we saw in Aceh or Port-au-Prince or Gujarat or Sendai or the lower Ninth Ward..

Community resilience and disaster risk reduction are all good and well. Disaster mitigation, prepositioning relief supplies, and early warning systems of various kinds are similarly worthwhile. They’re all things that humanitarians and donors should invest in. But I think that we need to keep the perspective that responding to a big disaster is too large a task for any one entity. A big disaster is a big disaster precisely because it outstrips local capacity to respond. And Hurricane Katrina became a big disaster the moment the first levee broke.

Hurricane Katrina showed us that the US Government needed help; they should have asked for help. Help was offered; they should have accepted.

Action point: I will not make outrageous assumptions or claims about what an NGO can realistically accomplish in disaster response.

3) Disaster response is political. It just is. Always. Hurricane Katrina was political before it even made landfall, and exponentially more so after. From the fraught discussion of whether or not to even declare a state of emergency; to disaster survivors being prevented at gunpoint from fleeing to safety; to appointments of particular individuals into particular positions in the FEMA-led response; to the way the response differed between, say, central New Orleans and the lower Ninth Ward, the response to Hurricane Katrina was highly politicized from start to now.

Like every other disaster that has ever been responded to, ever.

Action point: I will to the best of my ability stay and also keep my employer and colleagues focused on the needs of disaster survivors.

4) Information. As a humanitarian professional, I don’t think I can overstate the importance of information in a disaster response. Having access to good quality, accurate, timely information is absolutely critical to task of delivering relief interventions which actually respond to the needs of disaster survivors. Hurricane Katrina showed us all what happens when disaster responders don’t have the right information. They hold off on making critical decisions, or make wrong decisions. When information is lacking trucks with relief food and NFIs go to the wrong sites, or tens of thousands of survivors languish without any kind of support in a sports stadium.

What really hit home for me, though, was the importance of simply telling disaster survivors what’s going on.

It’s hard for me to watch documentaries like Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke without wanting to reconstruct in my own head how I would have managed things differently had I been the Senior Relief Coordinator in charge of the response inNew Orleans. But one lesson from the Hurricane Katrina experience that can more than many others be applied universally in disaster response is the importance of letting disaster survivors know what is happening outside the disaster zone and what is going to happen to and for them. For example, on balance, one week is not a particularly long lag-time between a disaster event and evacuation or scale-up of relief intervention. It took more or less four days to get the first outside responders into Aceh after The Tsunami, and another several days to really get things rolling; it took more than a week for relief support to reach some parts of ruralSichuan following the big earthquake; andHaiti… well, we’re all familiar with Haiti.

For sure, one week stuck in the Louisiana Superdome without adequate sanitation, food or water would not have been pleasant. It was a big disaster. It would have been uncomfortable, unsanitary, stinky… Straight up, it would have sucked. I can’t help but believe, though, that things would have gone better than they did had people simply been told, “look, realistically you’re going to be here about one week. We’re very sorry that we can’t get you out of here faster, but it will take about a week to relief ops and evacuation going…”

Action point: I will tell disaster survivors what is happening, even if I can’t help them.

4 Responses to “Lessons learned: Hurricane Katrina”

  1. Angela 18 August, 2011 at 4:14 pm #

    I really enjoyed the action points.
    Now, as with all lessons learned, comes the difficult job of actually putting them into practice.🙂

  2. PMR 18 August, 2011 at 5:41 pm #

    Another great post, J. I wanted to offer that the US actually did accept international assistance. Everything from cans of water from Israel (really travels badly when on pallets) to baby food from France got shipped over, as well as USAR teams who made their way across the border from Mexico (and didn’t speak English…) and elsewhere. There were the usual suspects of NGOs used to working internationally who showed up to “coordination” meetings in Baton Rouge and were flummoxed by their inability to immediately access information on local capacity: “Come on! This is America!” I was most struck by one of my workmates who grew up in that area and who could not get over the devastation in N.O….he couldn’t sleep, could barely eat, though was doing his job. Now that is the experience that we need to all try to learn from.

  3. Ken 18 August, 2011 at 6:26 pm #

    From here on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I appreciate and agree with your perspective here. A couple of things–the hurricane, in particular the storm surge, was a major disaster here, where it came ashore before the later levee breaks in New Orleans (the hurricane itself would not have been particularly noteworthy in New Orleans, unlike some of the low lying coastal areas well south of the city that were badly impacted by the storm surge). The potentially extreme circumstances that could be caused by a storm of this magnitude that actually comes in and hits New Orleans with full force is something we should consider ourselves forewarned of for the future.

    I would also point out that most of worst impact in Mississippi was in well-populated towns along the coast–not actually rural.

    Regardless, I do want to say with deep appreciation how important it was to us here to have an outpouring of volunteer assistance–particularly over the long months of “mucking out”, repair and rebuilding.. My church hosted roughly 8,000 volunteers working with local residents in groups staying for various durations from around the country over the course of the first year after the storm and these people did make a tremendous difference, both in terms of getting work done, and lifting spirits. Volunteers are not the best solution, I understand, in many situations involving expensive and time consuming international travel, cultural barriers, the need for special expertise and such–nonetheless, aid professionals should not be unduly cynical about the power of volunteer efforts in other situations, however.

    It does seem to me that the commonalities you note of domestic relief work with international relief work also suggests that people who want to work internationally could gain experience here. We have plenty of rural poverty in the Mississippi Delta and in Appalachia for instance, aside from natural disasters.

  4. charlotte 23 August, 2011 at 7:25 am #

    Thank you for this!

    I work in international education, and part of my job involves mentoring undergraduates doing research and service learning in developing countries. (It’s a long story how I came to this, and it’s one of those “Let’s fix the system from the inside out” jobs.) Many of the action points are quite relevant to students in these situations, too. I will be sharing this post with them.

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