What Katrina has wrought, four years later
New Orleans will never be the same. Neither will Americans' view of government's role in disasters.
For the survivors, hurricane Katrina lives in memories, photographs, and the empty spaces left by lost friends and objects.Skip to next paragraph
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Its immediate toll was tragedy. The storm that crashed into New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast four years ago wreaked a shocking $80 billion in damage and resulted in 1,836 confirmed fatalities. But since then, its overall legacy has broadened and, one hopes, has not been all bad.
Count these among the lessons it taught and the changes it spawned:
•Volunteers matter a lot in a time of crisis.
•FEMA's mission has shifted from a top-down to a bottom-up approach.
•New appreciation has emerged of the need to retain and restore wetlands to help absorb storm surges.
•Storm-tracking capabilities have advanced in ways that improve public safety.
•Hurricanes have moved to the center of the climate-change debate.
The limits of centralized response
The storm four years ago ripped apart the fabric of New Orleans, but it also left a deep impression on emergency response workers nationwide. It showed, for one thing, how volunteer efforts – churches, college students – played a much more important role than expected and how the centralized response, led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), alienated many of the same people it was intended to help.
After Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) overhauled its National Disaster Plan, incorporating a more bottom-up approach and going back to its roots as a civil, not military, response unit. FEMA's current director, Craig Fugate, is intent on setting policy to reflect his belief that citizens are less victims than crucial first responders.
In fact, Mr. Fugate has changed FEMA's mission statement from "protect the nation from all hazards" to a more collaborative offer to "support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together."
As exemplified by last year's responses to hurricanes Ike and Gustav, evacuation models have improved since Katrina's landfall. Instead of standing idle in parking lots, buses – and even locomotives – were employed to get poorer residents out of harm's way and into charity-organized shelters, sometimes hundreds of miles away.
But one thing Katrina has not forestalled is the seemingly unstoppable migration of people to the coast. "From a policy standpoint, Katrina changed a number of things," says Jay Baker, an emergency response expert at Florida State University (FSU), in Tallahassee. "But I'm not sure from a public perception of risk it really changed much."
Nature as friend, not just foe