Hurricane Katrina was the worst disaster to hit the United States since the 9/11 attacks. In the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, the US Department of Homeland Security came up with a host of plans and restructured FEMA at the cost of billions of dollars. Despite all the spending and planning, the chinks in the armor were apparent before and after Hurricane Katrina. The forecast of the Hurricane along with its destructive capability and target path gave several cities ample time to evacuate hundreds of citizens before the storm struck. There were two days warning from 24 August 2005 until 26 August 2005 when the storm hit the Gulf of Mexico.
The city of New Orleans however; responded in a lackluster manner. They ordered the evacuation only on 27 August 2005 when it was too late for thousands of citizens to get to safety. In addition, the city gave up several options and opportunities offered to them during those two days. Eventually it fell to the city’s police and fire services to deal with the devastation left behind by Hurricane Katrina. The FEMA guidelines expect the State machinery to cope up with emergency relief and rescue. However, in the case of Hurricane Katrina, the level 1 storm system destroyed the entire infrastructure required to launch such a massive operation.
Without an exception clause in the rulebook, the federal rescue did not come until after three days. The police and fire services pressed into service immediately attempting to rescue citizens from trapped homes and buildings. Eventually the natural disaster flushed out street gangs that began warring for turf ground hindering the relief work. The lack of support from federal agencies and lack of local infrastructure became unbearable for the police who eventually started to abandon the cities (Moynihan, 2012).
The lack of communication hit an all-time low when FEMA diverted hundreds of firefighters from neighboring states who volunteered to help. These personnel were part of orientation presentations during the first forty-eight hours immediately after Hurricane Katrina. Their deployment swung into action only after the irrelevant presentations including sexual harassment in the workplace. The justification offered by FEMA was that local governments had to contribute during the first two days.
In all, the catastrophe due to Katrina was lesser when compared to the failure of FEMA, local governments, and the Federal government that contributed to the actual loss. The disaster management structure declares that the emergency responders have to come only from the local governments. However, when the region is razed to the ground by a Hurricane, the local response will not be effective. FEMA and the US Department of Homeland Security have the same structure for both terrorist attacks and natural disasters. While a terrorist attack only destroys a portion of a neighborhood, a natural disaster wipes out an entire city. Uniform planning for all emergencies are ineffective.
In addition, the first response of different states and cities were not uniform. The worst response was from the city of New Orleans. The Mayor ignored requests from Amtrak to transport civilians from the city on 24 August 2005. He also declined to use school buses for emergency evacuation purposes even as the sea began to enter the city. The use of the National Guard personnel from New Mexico met with indifference from the Federal government. The food supplies emptied at Federal campsites on the first day itself. FEMA did not anticipate the number of potential refugees. There was no food stocked for survivors in the cities either.
The leadership roles in this disaster only existed prior to the incident and after for press releases. They failed to make any impact on the governing of relief and rescue measures. The FEMA leadership was unprepared for a disaster of the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina. They did not have adequate food or supplies to offer. They were unaware of the personnel available to engage in the emergency response since the storm wiped out telephones, mobile networks, and satellite communication (Adams et al, 2012).
FEMA’s director was unable to coordinate the volunteer firefighters, New Mexico National Guard, and hundreds of other volunteers effectively. Their timely deployment will have saved the lives of civilians and police officers. Moreover, there was no protocol or procedure to reach the President directly. Any aid that came from him was either late or only for use in rebuilding. It was only after three days when Coast Guard cutters engaged in the rescue operations.
Local law enforcement and firefighters faced with overwhelming odds stacked against them braved the devastation for as long as possible. They had completed much of the rescue even before federal resources came into the affected areas. However, the police had to first rescue their own. More than seventy percent of the police force trapped inside their own homes and the lack of a viable communications system, they struggled until 28 August 2005 to gather their numbers together (Anderson and Farber, 2006). The delayed evacuation order from the Mayor made it impossible for a comprehensive search and rescue with thirty percent of the city flooded in New Orleans. The failure of the police contributes to its leadership. The inability of the police to persuade the city managers to sound the alarm two or three days earlier is a critical factor.
The lessons from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina include the necessity to involve federal infrastructure from the time of the initial warning and not three days after the storm wreaks havoc. FEMA’s infrastructure enables airlifting civilians in large numbers. They also have the capability to restore communication infrastructure instantly for use in rescue operations. The role of local agencies such as police and firefighters is important to guide federal personnel into affected areas. However, the rescue capabilities of the federal agencies are specialized and more appropriate in comparison (Fuentes and Hunt, 2006).
The leaders including the Mayor of New Orleans, the US President, the FEMA director, the US Department of Homeland Security director, and that of local agencies exhibited ignorance and incompetence to handle the situation despite several warnings from weather forecasts. Their indifference carried on even after the storm ravaged the US coastline. The Mayor of New Orleans did not order an evacuation until half of the city’s residents were trapped in some building or property. He refused to use the school buses to transport civilians from the flooding city citing lack of insurance (Adams et al, 2012).
The directors of FEMA and the US Department of Homeland Security pled their case to unexpected devastation. Their preparations were inadequate for the task. The local agencies did not have contingency planning and were themselves trapped inside houses. They could not discharge their duties until a day later since they were busy rescuing their own. The US President did not send troops or any other rescue personnel in a hurry. It took the US President seven days to send help. None of these leaders owned up responsibility for the blunders and continued to pass the blame around (Adams et al, 2012).
The fact is that a natural disaster is a force of nature and we do not have the capability to predict the type of damage it can inflict. Hence, the foremost action is to have a unified command for natural disaster management. This command will take charge of the situation as soon as the storm system is classified as lethal. Instead of waiting for authorizations, this command must swing into action and use local agencies for logistical purposes only. Local agencies have to keep their machinery in order to attend to the regular activities. Only then, there is will be conducive atmosphere for conducting rescue operations.
Moynihan, D. P. (2012). The Response to Hurricane Katrina. Retrieved from: http://irgc.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Hurricane_Katrina_full_case_study_web.pdf
Anderson, W., and Farber, D. (2006). This Isn’t Representative of Our Department. Retrieved from: https://www.law.berkeley.edu/library/resources/disasters/Anderson.pdf
Fuentes, R., and Hunt, J. (2006). Operation LEAD: New Jersey's Statewide Response to Louisiana in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Retrieved from: http://www.policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display_arch&article_id=808&issue_id=22006
Adams, T., Anderson, L., Turner, M., and Armstrong, J (2011). Coping through a Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina. Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. 8(1), 1-15. DOI: 10.2202/1547-7355.1836