POOR SHELTERING and disorganized evacuation of displaced persons were among the most frequently criticized aspects of the response to Hurricane Katrina. It is now likely that lessons learned from the Katrina experience will help other jurisdictions avoid those mistakes and improve evacuation procedures for future crises.
The Human Factor
One lesson often cited from the evacuation is the need to treat displaced persons with dignity and respect, which didn’t always happen during Katrina. Although most first responders did their jobs compassionately and honorably, there were notable exceptions, says Ross Johnson, CPP, a Nationally Registered Emergency Medical Technician who worked with evacuees in the Houston Astrodome. Some police and fire people were “unsure and distant,” Johnson says, more wary of troublemakers than conscious of shepherding people through the most difficult times of their lives.
He recalls one police officer who wore latex gloves and wielded a large riot club while processing newly arrived Louisianans. “It was just out and out offensive,” he says. These instances demonstrate that first responders require more training in the human factor, so that they treat displaced persons in a disaster not as criminals but as citizens. “Everyone did their best, but everyone had different expectations,” he says. “These were people they had no reason to fear.”
Another area that could be improved was the processing of evacuees. Evacuees were loaded aboard buses and sent to Houston. Only after arrival were they processed. At one point, Johnson recalls, 108 buses were lined up in front of the Astrodome, with arrivals being processed sequentially. “Some people waited all night,” he says.
A better approach would have been to load EMTs or other appropriate personnel aboard these buses, who could have processed the travelers along the way. Also, while buses had water, there was little food on board, creating particular problems for diabetics.
Another problem, according to Johnson, was that some first responders instilled in evacuees the sense that they were helpless victims by not encouraging them to help themselves. Evacuees should have been enlisted to help with their care and housing, he explains. “You need to empower [them], because with power comes dignity.”
When dealing with evacuees, even nomenclature is important, adds Chris Reynolds, a professor of public sector and critical infrastructure studies at American Military University. “You don’t call our citizens ‘refugees,’” he emphasizes. “They are displaced citizens.” He hastens to add that, while serving with the Air Force performing medical evacuations by air after Katrina, he never witnessed a responder being abusive or cruel.
Respect for stricken individuals cuts the other way too. Reynolds, who is also a battalion fire chief and paramedic in Florida, notes that responders are often themselves affected or displaced by the same storm for which they are providing relief. “They have their own families to worry about,” he says.
The Florida county where Reynolds works offers responders “stress debriefings” and other counseling. It’s also important for them to get temporary housing, if necessary, if they are expected to keep working on the relief effort.
It’s been widely reported that the poorest residents of New Orleans were the least likely to be evacuated. That’s undoubtedly true, but overshadowed was the efficient departure from the city of people who had their own cars, vans, motorcycles, or trucks. And that success was driven by an evacuation plan that was implemented in remarkably little time, according to Brian Wolshon, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Louisiana State University (LSU), and a faculty member at LSU’s Hurricane Center.
When Hurricane Ivan hit the region (though it ended up missing New Orleans) in 2004, says Wolshon, the evacuation of New Orleans was hindered by slow-moving traffic, clogged highway intersections, and other problems. Wolshon says he worked with the Louisiana Evacuation Task Force, made up of state transportation and police officials, to come up with a better plan for moving traffic during evacuations.
What they came up with was “very aggressive,” says Wolshon, “beyond what I thought was feasible.” For example, state officials ordered lane reversals (or contraflow lanes) so that all traffic would move out of at-risk areas. Officials even arranged with Mississippi to extend contraflow lanes into that state. They also eliminated tie-ups at the intersections of major arteries by stationing police to prevent vehicles from exiting from one highway to another.
The plan was put into place only in June 2005 and implemented less than three months later when Katrina struck. Within 24 hours, more than one million people evacuated the stricken area by personal vehicle. That stands in sharp contrast to the traffic backups in Texas before Hurricane Rita.
The efficient evacuation is exceptional given that there are only about a dozen major roads out of the region, says Wolshon. “It’s my guess that...in the future you’re going to see that this is the most effective evacuation in the history of the United States”—at least for the people with their own modes of transport.
The lesson for other jurisdictions, he says, is that “These situations call for the most aggressive forms of traffic management.” If Louisiana residents had seen traffic jams out of their windows, many would have chosen to hunker down rather than evacuate. That decision would have likely cost lives, Wolshon says.
There is still room for further improvements in the process, however. Specifically, jurisdictions, including Louisiana, need to improve collection and dissemination of information on regional traffic, he states. For example, tools such as traffic cameras and embedded strips in highway pavement allow officials to assess vehicle flow and suggest alternative routes in real time. “We’re just not to that point yet in Louisiana,” he says. “Very few states are.”
The Louisiana Superdome turned out to be a lousy place for a long-term shelter, but it was only meant as a short-term shelter of last resort. Other jurisdictions in hurricane-prone areas have taken note of New Orleans’ problems and are reviewing their own procedures on shelters.
Florida’s Brevard County, home of the Space Coast, has seen many tropical storms and hurricanes, and its sheltering plan has been honed from years of experience, says Bob Lay, the county’s emergency management director. Brevard, with a population of a half million, has more than 40 shelters, mainly designed to house the 35,000 residents deemed at risk. These are people who live on the barrier islands or other low-lying areas.
All public shelters are now in schools outside the flood or storm surge zones, Lay says. All new schools must meet building code provisions that go beyond what is required for other types of structures. For example, roofs must be able to withstand Category 5 (greater than 155 miles per hour) winds and windows must have shutters.
In addition, separate shelters serve people with special needs, such as the poor, disabled, and infirm. The county provides for their transportation there, he says, and county contracts with medical suppliers ensure that necessary equipment such as wheelchairs and dialysis machines are available. Before special-needs people are returned home, county officials check the safety of their houses.
Brevard County minimizes the number of people who must be sheltered in public facilities by requiring most mainlanders (who live in safe areas) to shelter in place. Another strategy involves limiting the numbers, types, and population of buildings on barrier islands, the source of many potential evacuees.
Lay is still studying the aftermath of Katrina, but he says that it is likely to reinforce lessons that he learned last year when hurricanes Charley, Frances, and Jeanne struck. A large hurricane or series of hurricanes can destroy housing stock, he notes, requiring shelters to stay open longer than anticipated.
Last year, Brevard addressed this problem by shipping in 1,100 trailers to serve as temporary housing. The next issue will be whether these people can afford to buy or rent housing, Lay says, noting that many displaced people still live in these trailers. “That’s a huge challenge.”
Jurisdictions can do a lot more to make themselves resistant to catastrophes and more resilient to their ravages, say experts. Katrina should be viewed as a “wakeup call” to officials, who should be building communities that are better prepared for disasters, according to Andre LeDuc, director of the Oregon Natural Hazards Workshop.
Building resilient communities from the ground up is difficult, he says, and retrofitting long-established areas is even harder. Funds dedicated to risk mitigation dry up when it’s “bright and sunny,” he says. Realizing that risk mitigation was a low priority in Oregon, LeDuc and others created a statewide collaborative effort among the various levels of government, universities, businesses, and citizens. He calls it a sort of one-stop shop where communities can receive technical assistance on disaster preparation, such as help drafting policies for land use or implementing innovative techniques for reaching out to businesses. About 40 or 50 state jurisdictions have sought assistance through the organization.
“Communities have bought into this collaborative process—that’s unique,” says LeDuc. The body has no political power; it simply serves as neutral ground for information sharing. That neutrality engenders trust.
LeDuc is also trying to move the program beyond Oregon’s borders. He’s talked with representatives of seven other states interested in replicating this model but who “haven’t put the pieces together.” He’s also championing the Safe Communities Act, federal legislation that seeks to encourage land-use planning, stricter building codes, and incentives for increasing community resiliency.
One final benefit of the collaboration is that it seeds the future, LeDuc maintains. Most of his staff is made up of graduate students, he notes. “We not only assist communities on the ground today, but we train decision makers and risk planners of tomorrow on managing the risk process.”
Michael A. Gips is a senior editor at Security Management