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Lessons learned: Katrina and now Houston show how people, not just government, are key to effective

POSTED: September 1, 2017 10:50 p.m.
Jennifer Graham/

Linda Young Landesman, the author of several widely used books on disaster management, believes that "whole community preparedness" has improved disaster response.

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The historic flooding that accompanied Hurricane Harvey when it stormed ashore the Texas coast Aug. 25 brought to mind disasters of yesteryear, among them Katrina, the category 5 monster that drowned New Orleans 12 years ago.

In the wake of Katrina, which displaced thousands of Louisianans, some of whom never returned, analysts wondered if the nation had learned any lessons. Streets are still flooded in Texas and rescue operations continued Thursday, but so far, it appears that the answer is yes.

It started raining love in Texas hours before Harvey blew in.

The early response to Harvey, both public and private, is evidence that Katrina and other catastrophic storms have permanently changed the way the nation prepares for and responds to disasters, experts on emergency preparedness say.

“There’s been a dramatic improvement,” said Linda Young Landesman, a nationally recognized expert on disaster management and author of several widely used textbooks on emergency preparedness.

“There’s been a community response, a community resilience, that we haven’t seen in another disaster,” Landesman said.

That's due in part to a strategy that federal officials began to emphasize after Katrina. The approach, called “whole community preparedness," calls for everyone, not just the government, to play a role in preparing for natural disasters, terrorism and pandemics.

This approach was comically illustrated in a snapshot that went viral during Texas flooding. The picture showed a dog, later identified as a German shepherd mix named Otis, walking down a wet street carrying a bag of dog food he’d found.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency hasn’t called on dogs to join the emergency response, but the agency says that individuals, businesses, faith groups, nonprofits, schools and media must be prepared to help.

“During Katrina, people just came together and did a lot of the rescuing. (In Houston) I’ve heard people saying, if people are out there who can help, please do. These folks have mobilized, and they’re assisting. That’s one of the things that came out of Katrina,” said Susan Bledsoe, a New Orleans resident whose mother's home was destroyed during Katrina and later rebuilt.

As Bledsoe and other New Orleans residents marked Katrina's 12th anniversary Tuesday, pelted by rain from the outer reaches of Harvey, federal officials warned that, as in Louisiana, it will take years for Texas to recover. More than one-quarter of the nation's fourth most populous state has been affected by the disaster, and the extent of the damage and loss of life is not yet known. (Thirty-eight people were known to have died as of Thursday, and more than 88,000 homes have been destroyed or damaged.)

It's clear, however, that Houston needs all hands on deck as the flood water recedes, and that every American has a role to play in helping Texas to recover and in preparing for the next disaster, wherever it occurs.

“Ideally, emergency management is preparedness, response and recovery," said Tim Frazier, faculty director of the emergency and disaster management programs at Georgetown University's School of Continuing Studies in Washington, D.C. "It’s more than one phase. And a good recovery is preparing you for the next event.”

'What love looks like'

Many people believe Katrina was not just a natural disaster but also a humanmade one, as the city suffered from what is widely considered an insufficient government response to the catastrophe that was responsible for more than 1,800 deaths and damage that exceeded $100 billion.

Frustrated New Orleans residents stepped in to rescue their own, and one of Katrina’s legacies is a “Rosie the Riveter” response to disaster relief: “We can do it!” whether FEMA shows up or not.

This time, FEMA was on the ground in Texas two days before Hurricane Harvey hit. But the agency still embraced the civilians who poured in to help as the storm lingered.

Most notable among the civilian relief efforts in Texas was the work of the Cajun Navy, a grassroots group formed during Katrina. Through social media, the group mobilized to recruit Americans with boats to help with water rescues in Texas, and its Facebook page became a sort of clearinghouse for other people to provide financial and other types of aid.

"This is what love looks like," wrote Jennifer Pannell DelPonte, a social worker who lives near Washington, D.C., on the Cajun Navy's Facebook page.

Katrina and subsequent disasters also established a network of reciprocal caring. From Boston to Baton Rouge, volunteers mobilizing to help Texas said the storm gives them a chance to repay Texans for helping out in their own times of need.

“My family and I, we had 3 feet of water at my house last year; now I’m looking at it completely from the other side: How can I help? What can we do? Because we know exactly where they are,” said Jeff Johnson, program director at WRQQ-FM, a radio station in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that is holding a supply drive for Texas this week.

Citing Texas’ outpouring of support after the Boston Marathon bombing, the mayor of Boston sent high-water rescue equipment and launched a fundraising drive.

Red Cross volunteers drove in from states including Vermont, Michigan, Arizona and Ohio. Sports stars raised money, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urged Catholic churches to hold special collections this weekend, and funds have even set up to help horses and dogs affected by Harvey.

Prior to Katrina, government officials tended to keep public involvement at arm’s length, preferring coordinated public efforts that did not put private residents at risk physically and financially, said Jeff Schlegelmilch, deputy director of The National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute in New York City. Potential liability was a common excuse for people not getting involved when others needed help.

"But what we've found more and more is that we need these folks to step up and be part of the solution," Schlegelmilch said.

Ideally, he said, that should happen before a disaster strikes. If a large church wants to serve as a shelter during a future storm, for example, it should reach out to its local government now. Likewise, if a group of people want to form a grassroots rescue team like the Cajun Navy, they should coordinate with local and state officials to see if there is any sort of licensing or permissions they must obtain.

And the Red Cross welcomes volunteers, but they must undergo training before being sent to a disaster zone, so that's another thing people should plan to do in advance of emergency.

Solving 'wicked' problems

Landesman, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said another reason disaster response is improving is local communities and the federal government typically spend time assessing what went wrong when the disaster is over. Because Houston is still awash with floodwater, it’s too early to assess how Texas performed.

“There will be a study about the response, and they will figure out how to improve for the next megadisaster,” she said.

One aspect that has already drawn criticism is the city of Houston's decision not to issue an evacuation order, criticism that Schlegelmilch says may not be fair, given the challenges presented by multiple layers of government that have conflicting priorities. Also, the path and scope of a storm may not be evident until after the window of evacuation has passed.

"People die when people evacuate, so it's not a no-brainer," Schlegelmilch said. "When you're talking about a hurricane that runs from the southern tip of Texas all the way to New Orleans, there's no local jurisdiction on the planet that can make that kind of decision on its own and expect to have it done consistently across the board.

"Further, when you're evacuating a whole community, they have to go somewhere, which means it's going to affect other communities."

Disaster managers call such dilemmas "wicked problems," Schlegelmilch said, "and evacuation is one of the most wicked of problems that emergency managers have to deal with. You have to make a decision that costs the least amount of lives based on very imperfect information as the storm approaches."

State and local officials sometimes disagree on whether an evacuation is warranted, and the nation needs better coordination on how evacuations are ordered and planned, he said.

That said, there's no value in pointing fingers after the storm has passed. "I have no doubt that each local official made the best decision they could with the information they had. But it was inconsistent and it wasn't done uniformly," Schlegelmilch said.

"After the long-term work is done, we really need to have a very grown-up conversation about this (how evacuations are done), and I hope it doesn't turn into a blame game.

"It's not an unsolvable problem; it's just an incredibly difficult problem," he added.

At Georgetown University, Frazier also said that Katrina showed how politics can interfere with effective disaster response.

"The challenge is, do we know how to do the right thing, and if we know how to do the right thing, what are the reasons that keep us from doing the right thing? Sometimes they're economic; sometimes they're political," he said.

"It's a shame that we have to have an event like this before we get everyone's attention. The positive side, if there is one, is that we can learn some lessons."

The long haul

Experts in disaster preparedness agree that the people of Texas will need help long after the state dries out. Three years after Katrina, a North Carolina State University study on how mental-health professionals responded during the hurricane noted the importance of long-term aid.

"One of the most profound concerns of the Gulf Coast area residents was whether there would be anyone who knew or cared about their ongoing struggles after the immediate crisis had passed and the media had left their communities," the authors wrote.

Bledsoe, the New Orleans resident who evacuated to Memphis during Katrina, said people affected by Harvey are in shock, and that shock may soon be replaced by despair.

“People need a lot of care, love and support right now to let them know they’re not alone and that there is a community to help them get back on their feet," she said. "That’s the biggest part — to feel that you’re not alone and you will have support get through the coming days.”

After Katrina, Bledsoe said, “We really felt that people cared, and it wasn’t coming just from the government; it was coming from individuals.”

At times, it was difficult to accept help, she said, but learning to do so helped her to understand the depths of goodness that can reside in strangers.

"I saw how willing people were to assist and how deeply compassionate people can be," Bledsoe said. "It was mind blowing. It was if people had waited all their lives to come to the need of others, and here we were in the thousands needing someone to lift us up. And they did. Katrina brought out the worst and the best of people. But, what I remember most is the kindness of friends, family and total strangers."

Bledsoe, who is 57, has lived in New Orleans since she was 12 and has no plans to leave.

"It took years for much of the infrastructure and people to come back and for the rebuilding to happen," she said. "There are still groups of volunteers that come down from other parts of the country to help us. They will now direct their good deeds towards Texas and rightly so.

"People are so incredibly resilient. The message to victims of Harvey ... you will get through this and there is help."
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