Case Study Emergency Management Case Study

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Emergency Management: Hurricane Katrina and Lessons Learned

In late August, 2005, Hurricane Katrina became the 11th named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season and was its most deadly and destructive. The federal and state governments' responses to this natural disaster have been heavily criticized in the mainstream media as well as by the hundreds of thousands of victims of this disaster in the years that followed. Although it is far too late for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, there were some valuable lessons learned from the disaster that have been used to help formulate improved responses in the future. This paper provides a review of the relevant peer-reviewed and scholarly literature concerning the emergency management of Hurricane Katrina, followed by an assessment of the various lessons that were learned. A summary of the research and important findings concerning these lesson learned are provided in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

Background and Overview

On August 29, 2005, the coast of the Gulf of Mexico was struck by Hurricane Katrina, devastating the city of New Orleans and the Louisiana parishes surrounding it, as well as numerous towns along the gulf coast in Mississippi (Cahoon & Herz, 2006). Although the devastation caused by the storm was far-reaching and long-lasting, the effects were especially pronounced in New Orleans itself. In this regard, Cahill (2010) reports that, "In 2005, when natural disaster hit New Orleans, Louisiana, in the form of Hurricane Katrina, life came to a standstill. No aspect of city life was left untouched by the hurricane. It destroyed not only neighborhoods but also the city's infrastructure" (p. 278). The impact of the massive storm on New Orleans and surrounding parishes overwhelmed and quickly exhausted the available emergency management resources. In addition, Hurricane Katrina's widespread effects and long-lasting devastation resulted on billions of dollars worth of losses as well as massive relocations of citizens (Cahoon & Herz, 2006).

Although a great deal of criticism has been directed at the emergency management of Hurricane Katrina, there were still countless episodes of heroism in the face of adversity that characterized the response. Moreover, the citizens of New Orleans were given ample warning of the imminent approach of Hurricane Katrina, but many chose to ride it out as they had in the past. Nevertheless, it quickly became apparent that the federal and state responses to this disaster were inadequate. For instance, according to Bitto (2007), "The events surrounding Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and other catastrophes, called forth heroic responses that demonstrate the need for genuine collaboration within communities and among environmental health professionals, public health agencies, multidisciplinary first responders, and other organizations" (p. 28). A February 2006 audit of emergency operations placed the death toll from Hurricane Katrina at 1,330; however, it was also noted that 2,096 remained missing (Monmonier, 2008). By the end of 2005, approximately half a million of the 1.1 million persons evacuated had not returned (Monmonier, 2008). Notwithstanding the heroism that was repeatedly demonstrated during the immediate aftermath of the storm by emergency responders and ordinary citizens, the emergency management response was deemed wholly inadequate by most observers and analysts alike and these issues are discussed further below.

Emergency Management Response

The purpose of emergency management planning for many cities involves formulating plans that clearly define appropriate emergency response and preparedness issues (Edgington, 2011). Notwithstanding the obvious need for this type of planning for New Orleans, some critics have charged that the city fathers have chosen to ignore these issues in favor of other development initiatives, and leaving the planning and emergency management up to the state and federal governments (Edgington). This point is also made by Birkland (2006) who also suggests there was a lack of executive oversight and preparedness at many levels of government, but also points out that September 11, 2001 was still fresh in the minds of nervous Homeland Security authorities that were seeming to have trouble even keeping up with what color the terrorist alert should be for a given day. As Birkland notes, "The shift of FEMA's emphasis to response to terrorist attacks should not be overstated" (p. 137). The complacency that can erode even the most thoughtful emergency preparations was also cited in the lessons learned from Katrina by Birkland who reports:

[FEMA] continues to support state and local responses to natural disasters, and during the 2004 hurricane season its performance was viewed as relatively good. FEMA did, however, respond to a series of storms that, even in the aggregate, were far lest catastrophic than Hurricane Katrina, and a series of storms that primarily struck Florida, which had learned from Hurricane Andrew and had taken effective steps to prepare for, respond to, and mitigate natural disasters. (p. 137)

Interestingly, and perhaps disturbingly, the racial and class issues identified by resonate with criticism leveled again emergency management authorities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Although there have been marked improvements in the emergency management solutions in the post-Katrina era, the lesson learned here is that the same level of resources that were devoted to restoring and preventing recurrences of devastations of East Coast properties (read, white people), appeared to outweigh the needs of the overwhelmingly black citizens of New Orleans, many of whom were impoverished already. As Birkland concludes, "This was not the case in Louisiana, which was demonstrably unprepared for a storm of the size and scale of Katrina, regardless of FEMA's failures" (p. 137).Despite the lessons learned from these events, Birkland argues that the Bush administration failed to follow-up on many of the recommendations that emerged from the cross-disciplinary analyses that resulted. Moreover, Edgington suggests that there has been a basic lack of long-term planning for the aftermath of hurricanes that are a frightening part of the city's history. In this regard, Edgington emphasizes that, "Planners, however, give little attention to the likelihood of a major disaster, and even less is given by all professionals to longer-term recovery and reconstruction issues" (p. 4).

Given the repeated series of hurricanes that have devastated New Orleans time and again, the city fathers should be outright experts in emergency management planning by now. After all, there are lessons to be learned from every disaster if the effort is made to identify them, and after a few such devastating events, it is reasonable to suggest that those tasked with emergency management should have gained enough expertise to formulate timely and insightful, coordinated cross-disciplinary responses to disasters, even in the Godzilla class. As Edgington concludes, "The desired outcome is for communities to emerge from post-disaster recovery and long-term reconstruction safer and less vulnerable to future calamities" (p. 5). Nevertheless, even the harshest critics of the emergency management planning in place for New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck concede the massiveness of the storm. While Hurricane Katrina was not entirely unprecedented, human population and investments in infrastructure, especially oil and gas resources, made this an especially "wicked" storm. According to Getha-Taylor (2007), "Hurricane Katrina, has been described as a 'wicked problem' where the time to react was short, no single organization had all the answers, and the cost of failure was enormous" (p. 7).

Hindsight, of course, is 20-20 but in reality, the sluggish response of federal and state authorities was apparent in the immediate aftermath, causing some observers to suggest that there may have been a racial element involved. From this perspective, the poor black people who were stranded on rooftops and forced to seek shelter in an overcrowded Astrodome with no food or water were deemed less worthy of an expensive, mounted emergency response campaign compared to say, New York City. For instance, Patsdaughter (2005) points out that, "Journalists and human rights advocates have raised questions about the role of race and class in the grossly inadequate preparatory and emergency responses of government officials to residents and hurricane evacuees in New Orleans" (p. 75).

In truth, the enormous scope of the disaster challenged governmental responses at all levels. In this regard, Getha-Taylor (2007) advises that, "In fact, the response to Hurricane Katrina involved government authorities on the local, state, and federal levels, and the response required the coordination of at least ninety-three disaster relief organizations, as listed by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, and countless private-sector companies to deliver services to the public in the wake of the hurricane (p. 7). Because every disaster represents an opportunity to learn how to respond better in the future, it is important to identify lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, and these lessons are discussed further below.

Lessons Learned

One of the fundamental lessons learned is that complacency can erode the effectiveness of existing emergency management planning and responses, and contingency plans for disasters of all scopes should be formulated. For instance, complacency appears to have adversely affected the federal government's ability to respond effectively to Hurricane Katrina. According to Birkland (2006), "The successful federal response to the 2004 hurricane season may have lulled FEMA into a belief that it could effectively handle Hurricane Katrina, which it manifestly did not do"…

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