Improving Emergency Management from Disasters – Hurricanes Sandy And Katrina And 9/11

Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina and 9/11 were disasters of massive proportions. But what was more disastrous, especially for the latter two, was the emergency response. The silver lining is that lessons were learnt, with some of it being implemented in 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. The cascaded lessons means the United States is prepared better than ever before to deal with any disaster of a similar scale.

Hurricane Katrina lashed the gulf coast of New Orleans on August 2005. It unearthed serious deficiencies in the country’s emergency response. This was not only in the immediate aftermath but also in the long-term recovery of the city’s community.

After 9/11, the emergency response was upgraded to be top-notch. But then it was upgraded with a focus on dealing with terrorism. Emergency response to climate effects remained unconsidered. Until at least Hurricane Katrina and consequently Hurricane Sandy came along.

Hurricane Katrina exposed poor workmanship and planning for emergency situations in such massive situations. Katrina is among the five deadliest hurricanes to hit the United States and the costliest of all. Its effects were worse than its major predecessor Hurricane Camille of 1969, despite the latter making landfall at Category 5 as opposed to Katrina that made landfall at Category 3. This is because the levees and surge suppression systems were inadequate, especially among the most vulnerable groups.

There is now better infrastructure and planning for such disasters; for the immediate aftermath and for the long term. There are now review boards to check the workmanship and tabletop exercises. In the long-term, better buildings and infrastructure have been constructed in New Orleans while there are fortified skyscrapers in Lower Manhattan. Whether the long-term effect of this on the local community is desirable is another matter.

Hurricane Katrina also exposed lack of leadership in a major climatic crisis. The training of the emergency respondents was lacking. The National Incident Management System (NIMS), the template on how to lead and implement crisis operations,could not cope despite its success in such areas as hospitals, terrorism situations and earthquakes. Consequently, there was lack of proper coordination among various responders, with the nominal procedures not being applied effectively. For example, there were clashes between the city and the state, respectively featuring the mayor and the governor. This led to hesitant decision-making that was deadly and costly. Various officials later took responsibility by resigning.

This is unlike Hurricane Sandy where necessary responses were improvised by both the public and private sectors. There was coordination in the immediate response to save lives and minimize costs, with various New York-based media organizations, American Red Cross and even the Senate playing a crucial part. This included in assisted evacuation, sheltering as well as restoring and upgrading infrastructure.

Better organizational structures were in place; with FEMA (Federal Environmental Management Authority) being more empowered to deal with coordination of emergency responsesthat are on a massive scale unlike the bottom-up approach in less severe situationswhere local authorities are more responsible. Hurricane Katrina needed responders from different jurisdictions to deal with many vulnerable people and widespread damage.  These responders perform different tasks yet need to collaborate for enhanced efficacy in their varied operations.  This needs effective coordination of the people, equipment and organizations from the diverse backgrounds.  This scaling up and surge in capacity after Hurricane Sandy was coordinated by FEMA, with various private and public organizations playing a role. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg led efforts to raise huge funds for the initiatives.

A major difference in emergency responders between New Orleans and New York is watch groups. While there were hardly any watch groups during designing and implementation of recovery efforts in New Orleans, New York saw watch groups for various policy causes including climate, the poor and governance.

There are long-term concerns evident in both Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. These include gentrification in urban areas and subsequent displacement of the poor. Hurricane Katrina led to closure of most of public housing in New Orleans to adopt mixed-income and voucher systems. The city also rebranded to attract a younger urban citizenry. New York also changed as a result of Hurricane Sandy, with Lower Manhattan often cited as a prime example of upgrading and displacement of the working class.

There have been major steps in emergency response management over the years. Human-made and natural disasters have streamlined responses to various situations.  Massive disasters caused by the two most recent devastating hurricanes, Katrina and Sandy, have subsequently led to better disaster preparedness with improved leadership, planning and responsibility. More resources have been allocated to emergency response management with the private sector becoming increasingly involved. Better training and coordination is hastened by modern technology.

Nonetheless, long-term recovery strategies need to be fine-tuned to minimize effects on communities. More tabletop exercises involving possible vulnerable groups are also recommended.

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