Katrina's Implications for Disaster Management: Lessons Learned From New Orleans

Two months after Katrina, what have we learned? Graham Stroh analyzes Katrina's disaster management lessons on law enforcement, communication and social infrastructure.

October 31, 2005, 7:00 AM PST

By Graham Stroh

Photo: Graham Stroh

A major disaster can be defined as an event that destroys, in whole or in part, infrastructure supporting a city, such as roads, airports, railroads, hospitals, fire and police protection, mail service, water and other necessities. In such a situation, the working infrastructure is outside the disaster area while people and failed infrastructure remain inside the disaster area. Ferrying relief in and people out becomes the first priority.

As we saw in New Orleans, after a disaster wipes out a city's entire infrastructure, looting and lawlessness will occur. Lawlessness can detract from rescue operations or even make them impossible, as when FEMA suspended rescue operations when rescuers were in danger of being attacked.

In the disaster zone, police and firemen will be stretched thin, and will not be able to both help people and protect property. In addition, these police and fire units, made up of local residents, will be personally affected by the disaster. While it might seem counterintuitive, as more and more people leave the city, the opportunity for lawlessness increases, not decreases. Thus, if the decision is made to evacuate a city, the National Guard must also be deployed in order to bolster local law enforcement efforts. Local law enforcement officers can best help local citizens by capitalizing on superior knowledge of the impacted area, whereas the National Guard can provide basic peacekeeping services in any locale.

An additional group of responders who must be taken into consideration are private individuals who volunteer in the rescue, recovery, and cleanup efforts at natural disaster sites. This large, often growing, group should not be ignored, and should be plugged into communications, food and shelter in order to increase effectiveness. In order to successfully utilize this willing force, communication and infrastructure parallel to the official response operations must be created, in and of itself a substantial coordination effort.

Communication among responders seeking to accomplish different tasks is critical. In major disasters, however, backup linkages for communication networks go down completely, and a ready alternative is needed for both rescuers and victims. In the absence of television, radio and internet, dropping leaflets, using bullhorns, or providing talking points to all responders are effective alternatives for communicating to citizens in the disaster zone.

A major evacuation of a city also means that stakeholders are dispersed and unable to easily participate in the rebuilding process. For example, this can significantly distort the rebuilding process in New Orleans, where the poorest citizens have been moved to distant refugee centers, while wealthier citizens are staying with friends and family closer to the city, and are thus far better situated to return to New Orleans and guide the rebuilding efforts. To begin and participate in the rebuilding process, refugees must do more than wait in camps. Small jobs, some as simple as receiving per diem wages to use trucks to gather debris, can actually help turn the victims into saviors of their city and aid in rebuilding the lost social infrastructure. Thinking of ways to turn victims into saviors can be difficult, as each victim may require a different compassionate and empowering solution, but this process is necessary for an inclusive rebuilding effort.

For disasters like Katrina, we have seen that there is a fine line between over-reacting and not responding enough. In order to get adequate attention, leadership at the local and state level must over-react to a certain extent, but not cry wolf -- not an easy balancing act. Government response to disasters is inevitably inefficient, messy, mistake ridden, and wasteful of money, all characteristics that can sideline careers in government. However, success in disaster response is not measured by the number of positive press releases, but by the responders' confidence that their decisions are ultimately helpful to neighbors in need.

New Orleans will prove that substantial disaster recovery is not as simple as reconstructing the buildings that were lost. The disaster extends miles in each direction along the Gulf Coast, where towns are stressed with new temporary and permanent residents. There will be no one master plan for rebuilding, and no one single administrative coordinator. Rebuilding and resettling people on their own property are the first order of business; compliance with new plans, codes and visions comes second to recreating the social infrastructure that existed before the disaster. In the end, the rebuilding effort should be able to repair both the floodwalls and the social infrastructure to a higher standard.

Graham Stroh received a B.A. in Economics from Bard College in 1999. In May 2005, he received a Master of City Planning from the University of Pennsylvania, where he focused on international planning practices and domestic security planning.


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