Hurricane Katrina: Rethinking Disaster Relief Response

Hurricane Katrina was third major hurricane and first Category 5 hurricane of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season. The storm surge from Katrina caused catastrophic damage along the coastlines of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama while the hurricane is estimated to be responsible for $75 billion in damages, making it the costliest hurricane in United States history and the deadliest U.S. hurricane with a death toll of over 1,418 people since the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane. Yesterday, the White House released their own findings of the disaster's relief response and related reccomendations in a 228-page report titled “The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned“.

White house katrina report

Several news agencies online have published various view points on the White House Katrina report such as the International Herald Tribune who stated that “the report recommends a more active role in handling major disasters for the Department of Defense but does not give details on how such changes might be made”, Reuters AlertNet commented “the 217-page report acknowledged inadequate preparation for the storm but it did not single out anyone for blame” while an article in the New York Times said that “the report indirectly echoed frequent criticism that the Homeland Security Department was too focused on possible terrorist strikes”. BBC News found that most reccomendations in the report “focus on the need for communication between government departments, federal agencies and relief organisations” and the online edition of TIME answered the question of whether the report says anything which hadn't been said before by stressing that it (report) “is hell-bent on looking forward as this happens to be politically convenient”.

katrina chopper view

I've gone through the 228-page report but I noticed that much of Main Stream Media have failed to give readers and viewers a realistic picture of the reccomendations stated in the report yet and so I decided to focus upon some of the reccomendations by asking the various people and organizations who were involved with Katrina relief efforts on what they thought of the reccomendations featured in the White House Report and their suggestions on disaster relief response on the whole. This blog posting is the first of a 4-part series on Hurricane Katrina: Rethinking Disaster Relief Response where I will be featuring interviews with Skype Journal, a telecom engineer from New Jersey, a paramedic at Ambulance Service of Manchester, a lawyer from Suburban Chicago and Internet2.

On page 104, Reccomendation#37 in Appendix A of the White House's Katrina Report, Communications has been identified as a critical challenge during disaster response where it is said that inadequate situational awareness during the response to Hurricane Katrina resulted in decision makers relying on incorrect and incomplete information. Now in order to restore operability and achieve interoperability, the report has found that there is a strong need for rapidly deployable, interoperable, commercial, off-the-shelf equipment that can provide a framework for connectivity among Federal, State, and local authorities.

So I asked the editor of Skype Journal, Philip Wolff, whether he agreed with the statement that although available technologies can provide short-term operability and support long-term interoperability for emergency responders, the DHS (Department of Homeland Security) should consider commercial, off-the-shelf solutions in order to keep pace with technology changes. I also asked him what are the other alternatives that the DHS should consider which can be implemented and here is what he had to say:

“I generally agree, but I think there are several other points which are important. First, by all means gear up; take your credit card to the store and pack up, understanding that your gear will be obsolete every nine months. Next, look at how policy changes may create entirely new capabilities”.

“For example, the president could have distributed mobile phones to evacuues and directed the local phone company to become a call forwarder for the duration of the emergency so calls to numbers in the impacted area would ring to evacuees in diaspora. This would provide communication continuity for millions in a day or two. This would, of course, involve temporarily altering the roles of phone companies with respect to numerous FCC regulations, but nobody will complain in time of emergency.”

“As more conversations take place over the Internet, emergency management must also assure continuity of those channels. What happens when a biohazard shuts down the teams that sustain Blackberry, Google, Microsoft, or Yahoo email, IM, texting and telephony? While the Internet plumbing may be more flexibile and resilient than traditional voice systems for many threats, they are exposed to distinct threats, risks, and points of failure of their own. So communications continuity plans and field response communications plans are incomplete without an Internet communication strategy.”

Reccomendation# 76 on page 117 states the need for a public communications coordination capability for crisis communications at the White House be developed. The report suggests that a senior White House Communications official will be tasked with overseeing the public communications coordination capability and one of his/her responsibilities include establishing a permanent strategic communications capability, to facilitate messages to the public, the media, and all departments and agencies.

At this point Philip stated that:

“First, sure, go ahead, create a White House office that specializes in speaking for the President on real-time disaster and military issues. I'd have thought this was already in place. “

Given that technologies like VOIP (Voice Over IP) and SMS played a major role in assisting post-Katrina relief efforts, I asked Philip what his thoughts were on the best system to facilitate these messages to the public and all other relief actors during a disaster response mission:

“Second, empower every agency to communicate, without clearing it with powers that be. Decentralize authority, trust people on the ground, and prepare. Provide scripts and templates for foreseeable announcements, test and wargame the effects of those announcements, and explore how different media channels work in different communities (where is FEMA‘s MySpace page?)”.

“Third, encourage a flood (excuse the expression) of news and information to emerge from every point possible, official and not. More information is not always better, but almost always. The Internet (and those who use it, like CNN) is better able than ever to collect, organize and share information. Channels now include Internet media like blogs, wikis (web sites the public can edit and update, the most famous being the million entry Wikipedia), phone trees, chat, and mobile phone texting. Publish everything that goes on (unless you have an active opponent with the ability to change tactics) as input to those who make sense of it all in real time, including the public.”

“Fourth, use software news aggregators to help people find their own way through the news. Tools like search engines like Google, PubSub, Technorati can help people find information. Is there a gap? Publish it and people will respond.”

Philip continued to comment futher on the report's reccomendation to develop a public communications coordination capability for crisis communications at the White House by stating that:

“The proposal for a White House office is not sufficient in that it presumes bottlenecking mass communication at a central point. While it makes sense to have a spokesperson for the disaster response, acknowledge and accept that this is a messy business and that you may not want to have the problems associated with pre-911 intelligence (warnings made but filtered out, information not getting to the right people, alerts taking too long from trigger to public warning). You are probably better off using existing PR systems but rehearsing them more effectively. “

*Thanks to Neha Viswanathan for helping out with the structuring of this 4-part series on Hurricane Katrina: Rethinking Disaster Relief Response


  • Ronny Max

    Hurrican Katrina was a category 5 while at sea. It came to shore a strong category 3. Most of the demage happened when the levees broke and tital waves swept ashore. Therefore, the number one problem was not the response but preparness. As far as the federal response, when we went through the big-5 Hurrican Andrew, most of us were happy the locals were in control. The goverment can move resources and offer trailers, but it can’t replace the people who care for their homes.

  • JoAnna R.

    Hello. I am a 22 year old student at Virginia Commonwealth Univserity. I just got back from volunteering during my spring break to do service in New Orleans. I couldnt believe at how parts such as the 9th ward, and St. Bernard Parrish looked like the storm went through yesterday. I am researching for my Sophmore english thesis, and would like an feedback as to what questions to ask, that need asking. Also, if anyone would like to hear about my experiences staying at a volunteer camps, I would gladly reflect or answer any questions.

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    We are now working to rebuild waveland MS and have many projects in place and others in the works. Please help if you can with any of our projects or just by passing our site on to all your contacts.

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