Sorting out Katrina: the lessons so far

The president and Congress have promised inquiries into what went wrong.

Out of the chaos wrought by hurricane Katrina, at least one major good may emerge: better plans to deal with the next disaster.

The country - indeed, the world - can see that better preparation is needed. The stumbling response to Katrina, from the local level on up, has already produced a round of recriminations between Washington officials and some political leaders from the region. Over the next weeks and months, a series of federal investigations may produce more solid details about what went wrong. From this may flow recommendations for US disaster response reform.

Meanwhile, some lessons from Katrina are already apparent, say experts. Among them: Keep your eyes open. One of the major reasons help did not race in quickly, they say, is that in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane New Orleans did not appear too badly damaged. Officials and first responders may have relaxed a bit - and then realized that the levees had given way.

"I think that the major problem was a lack of recognition of how big this problem was," says Thomas Kirsch, an emergency physician and disaster expert at Johns Hopkins University.

Another obvious point is the importance of communications. After the attacks of Sept. 11, failures of fire and police department radios complicated response efforts at the World Trade Center, and perhaps led to unnecessary casualties. After flooding washed over New Orleans, phone lines died, as did most cellular communications, and first responders had little means of discovering who needed what help where.

"Communication is essential," says Paul Light, professor of organizational preparedness at New York University.

State and local governments need to take into account the fact that individual Americans are usually not prepared themselves for natural disasters, Professor Light adds. They will look to government to tell them what to do.

That means plans have to take into account everyone - not just those who can evacuate via car, or those who can get to an evacuation center. To this point, many of those hardest-hit by the disaster appear to be the elderly, the poor, and members of racial minorities.

In essence, disaster response needs to recognize that sometimes the worst-case scenarios, or something very close to them, do come to pass. The situation in New Orleans could conceivably have been worse, if the city had taken a direct hit and Mississippi River levees had also given way. But the stutter-step disaster, with flooding following the hurricane, was bad enough.

"I think this is going to cause all of us at the state and local level, and federal, too, to rethink how we go about preparing and responding," says Dewayne West, president of the International Association of Emergency Managers.

In Washington, President Bush and Congress pledged to open separate investigations into the federal response to Katrina.

The Senate Homeland Security Committee is moving quickly, laying groundwork for public hearings as early as next week. A terrorist attack could produce chaos similar to that of Katrina, but with no warning, and perhaps the added danger of chemical or biological weapons, noted lawmakers. Thus Washington needs a thorough understanding of how to do better next time.

"Governments at all levels failed," said Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, the panel's chairwoman.

Meanwhile, in the House, majority leader Rep. Tom DeLay (R) of Texas was pushing for a joint House-Senate inquiry. On Tuesday tempers reportedly flared during a meeting between House members and Cabinet secretaries responsible for response to Katrina, with both Republican and Democratic members charging that the situation was worse than the administration was admitting.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York, and many other Democrats, called for the restoration of independent authority to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA's effectiveness has been compromised by its inclusion as a sub-agency within the Department of Homeland Security, said Senator Clinton in a broadcast interview on Wednesday after a visit to refugees at the Astrodome. She urged that an independent commission study the federal disaster response.

"The people that I met in Houston, they want answers.... I don't think the government can investigate itself," she said.

FEMA has come in for harsh criticism for its actions in the hurricane's immediate aftermath. Its director, Michael Brown, waited until five hours after Katrina had made landfall before sending Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff a memo that proposed dispatching 1,000 federal emergency workers to the region, according to an AP report.

FEMA had prepositioned small teams in the region, but the memo may have represented Mr. Brown's first move toward sending concerted help.

Meanwhile, state and local officials in Louisiana themselves will have to answer questions about how it was that thousands of people came to be stranded in the Superdome and the New Orleans convention center with inadequate food and water.

At a Washington briefing over the weekend Secretary Chertoff noted pointedly that "our constitutional system really places the primary authority in each state with the governor."

There are also questions about whether Army Corps of Engineer projects to shore up the New Orleans levees were starved of funds by the administration, due to the expense of the war in Iraq.

"Their money went to other priorities, and Louisiana knew it, and they knew that put them at risk. On so many levels things didn't go right in the planning," says Alice Fothergill, a University of Vermont rapid response disaster expert and a professor of the sociology of disasters.

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