Although time might have faded some of the memories of the storm that wiped out parts of New Orleans and forced many of the poorest residents out of their homes and city, nobody can be fooled into thinking it won’t happen again.
On this 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, much of the devastation has been cleared, and though leaders are wiser, humans seem to always be taken off guard by large-scale disasters that are nearly impossible to accurately prepare for or predict. Nonetheless, we must learn to prepare for the next disaster, wherever it occurs.
The response during the first few days after the storm was mixed and confusing. Those who could not leave New Orleans depended on overburdened local, state and federal agencies.
Many survivors sought refuge in cities and states that rose to the occasion and helped strangers in need to make a tragic situation more bearable. As many as a quarter million survivors sought refuge in Houston. Others came to Austin and other cities in Texas.
The Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and state and local governments faced rising public criticism. Yet, FEMA was crucial in providing food, shelter and access to resources to survivors scattered across states. Many of the local and nongovernmental agencies’ efforts involved connecting survivors with FEMA and other agents with resources.
But a major lesson learned was that FEMA’s response could be improved, particularly in terms of coordination with local nongovernmental agencies.
In Austin, local nongovernmental organizations met and attempted to coordinate their responses. Those efforts were productive, but the need to deal with government agencies with different rules and procedures made coordinating responses difficult.
Nongovernmental organizations, such as the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster and the Coordinated Assistance Network, helped communities deal with disasters by attempting to coordinate responders at all levels. Coordinating multiple actors on multiple levels of government without an entity with complete authority was a challenge, and duplication of effort and inefficiency were common even as individuals did their best.
Looking forward, state and local governments should continuously update their emergency plans and develop clear lines of responsibility and communication. To prepare for future disasters, we should consider an even greater focus on coordination — especially among local nongovernmental, faith-based and community organizations.
FEMA’s National Response Framework lays out the basics of an effective response at all levels, but the actual effectiveness should be assessed through more frequent rehearsals with a larger range of responders on multiple levels.
And, although the National Guard is clearly a major player in emergency responses, the role of local nongovernmental actors must be emphasized: More effective lines of communication from the local level to state capitals and to Washington are vital.
Texas, like all other states, has many sources of information about how Texans and local areas can prepare for and respond to emergencies, but many people are not aware of these websites and the useful information they contain.
It may be human nature to put unpleasant events out of one’s mind when conditions are normal, but a greater public awareness campaign focused on the large amount of life-saving information that is already available could pay handsome rewards. Texas would benefit from an ongoing program of publicity to direct individuals to useful websites. After all, it is too late to search for information on home insurance once that house is on fire.
In the end, it is clear that a massive tragedy that affects a large number of people over a large area requires a response from agencies and individuals at all levels. At such times, it is always tempting to identify villains, but the reality is that the complexities of most large-scale crises mean that the best efforts of everyone involved will not address all problems. There is no substitute for a response that involves multiple agencies, officials and the general public whose efforts are coordinated to the greatest extent possible.
Ronald Angel is a professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin. His research on the social response to human need in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was cultivated into the book “Community Lost: The State, Civil Society and Displaced Survivors of Hurricane Katrina.”
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