How to cope with future storms: learn from hurricane survivors

Harvard talks to 2,000 Katrina survivors, and Florida holds public meetings. Also sought: first responders' input.

Dorothy Stukes could think only of family as she sat in the filth and squalor of the New Orleans Superdome in the days following hurricane Katrina.

A son, daughter, and four young grandchildren were missing. "I spent five days [in the Superdome] not knowing if they were alive or dead," the grandmother says.

Six months later, her family is reunited and living in a rented apartment in Houston, hoping one day to to return home to Metairie, La. But Mrs. Stukes is not yet ready to sit back and quietly forget the miseries inflicted by one of the biggest natural disasters in US history.

As founder of the Katrina Survivors Association, backed by community group ACORN, she wants the voices of those affected by last year's hurricanes to be heard in high places. Recently, she led a delegation to Washington to tell lawmakers about the experiences and frustrations of the survivors. Listening to these details, she says, is crucial to preparing and responding to any similar catastrophe in the future.

It is a message being repeated around the country. Beyond high-level reviews of the government's relief efforts, several studies are instead turning to the public - to those who experienced the 2005 hurricanes firsthand and now have suggestions for how to deal with future emergencies. Both the state of Florida and Harvard University are soliciting input from survivors, and an independent panel appointed by the Federal Communications Commission is reviewing the experiences of first responders.

These efforts are intended to appreciate the lessons learned at the grass-roots level - and to potentially implement these lessons quickly, since the 2006 hurricane season begins June 1.

"We were the ones who saw what happened. We were the ones who were left behind, who learned from this experience, and who were let down," Stukes says. "We should have a voice in every decisionmaking place in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and everywhere else where people depended on this government for support, and were failed."

Citizens have also been involved in the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, whose recommendations have been studied by Mayor Ray Nagin for a recovery blueprint. Although the commission's focus has not been on future emergencies, some of its discussions on rebuilding have included consideration of other natural disasters.

Harvard Medical School, meanwhile, is undertaking a two-year study of Katrina survivors. With hundreds of thousands of evacuees from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida still scattered across all 50 states, such research has been daunting. Now, Harvard's interviewers, supported by a $1 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, plan to talk to 1,000 survivors from New Orleans and 1,000 from other areas affected by Katrina.

To find suitable interviewees across the United States, they are using cellphone lists and other contact information from the Red Cross, and they are visiting hotels where the Federal Emergency Management Agency has paid to house evacuees.

It is the first comprehensive research into the health of Katrina survivors, says Dr. Ronald Kessler, professor of healthcare policy at Harvard and the project's director. "It's a unique opportunity to help policymakers monitor the unmet needs of people whose lives were, and may continue to be, severely impacted by this unprecedented disaster," he said at a press conference to announce the project. The first results should be published this spring.

In Florida, which was hit or brushed by eight major hurricanes in 14 months, most recently Wilma in October, politicians have been listening avidly to grievances at a series of public meetings. The input, they say, will help shape the policies of Gov. Jeb Bush's "culture of preparedness."

At the meetings, residents have aired frustrations about gas shortages, delays to the restoration of electricity, and failures in the supply chain of water and ice. One Delray Beach resident said her elderly husband, a kidney patient, had to wait a week for a full session of dialysis because of problems restoring supplies at hospitals.

"We're not going to find band-aid solutions. We're going to find real solutions," state Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla (R) of Miami, chairman of the state's Committee on Domestic Security, said at one meeting.

At the same time, Governor Bush is moving forward with his budget proposal for the 2006-07 fiscal year, which includes $565 million for hurricane "preparedness, response, and recovery." Among the budget's provisions: $302 million to help alleviate a shortage of affordable housing exacerbated by the recent storms, $5.3 million for a public- education campaign, $42 million on a two-week sales-tax holiday for storm supplies such as portable generators, $46.7 million for improvements to hurricane shelters, and $30 million for permanent electricity generators at every special-needs shelter.

In the days following a hurricane, one of the biggest problems has been the inability of emergency services and first responders to talk to one another when phone lines and communications equipment fail.

Telecommunications companies and public-safety officials have been invited to testify to an independent review panel appointed by the Federal Communications Commission. The panel has already held two meetings in Mississippi. In June, the panel will recommend to Congress how to improve disaster preparedness, network reliability, and communication among first responders.

Katrina highlighted the need for a comprehensive nationwide response plan with "everybody on the same page," says Gil Bailey, emergency telecommunications manager for Mississippi's Harrison County.

Experts in crisis management agree that consultation is an essential tool in minimizing risk. "The key is spending time to make strategic decisions based on the knowledge you've gained," says Mark Abkowitz, an adviser to President Bush and director of the Center for Environmental Management Studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "We need to learn from mistakes, and that means a willingness to change."

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