Lessons of Katrina Tested by a Hurricane Season Like Few Others

(CN) – Close to the entirety of Puerto Rico remains in the dark and without sufficient food and water in the wake of a ruthless Hurricane Maria that barreled across the island and uprooted the lives of its 3.5 million residents.

Reports of people clamoring to escape from small San Juan Airport seem like déjà vu. A week earlier, Hurricane Irma pummeled the Florida coast, forcing residents to flee by land and air. And only a week before Irma, Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas Gulf Coast, charged toward Houston and lingered for days before leaving behind 19 trillion gallons of rainfall and a swath of near unfathomable destruction.

Images of Houstonians, Floridians and now Puerto Ricans, traipsing through waist high water carrying children or tugging belongings in boats while seeking dry ground were reminiscent of the soggy hell Hurricane Katrina unleashed on New Orleans 12 years earlier.

The failure of New Orleans’ levies immediately on the heels of Katrina, and the deadly flooding for the city’s Ninth Ward, shocked the nation.

It also inspired the Senate Committee on Homeland Security to commission a 737page tome “Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared,” which analyzed the federal response to the disaster and its failure over 28 chapters.

In an interview with Courthouse News on Tuesday, physician and former New Orleans health commissioner Karen DeSalvo  said since 2005, she sees some of the hard lessons learned by the President George W. Bush in how his successors, first Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump have responded to subsequent natural disasters.

Since Katrina, emergency management officials have used every platform available to remind residents of hurricane-prone locales that the time to prepare for a potentially catastrophic storm is long before it comes ashore.

This philosophy played out in the weeklong evacuations in Florida ahead of Irma and the scheduling of fuel shipments there. A connected public on social media with access to early warnings and federal emergency updates made independent rescue operations, like those undertaken by the Cajun Navy, truly effective on the ground.

As the aftermath of Katrina showed, however, unanticipated consequences can turn all the preparedness in the world on its head.

During her time as commissioner, DeSalvo restored the city’s outmoded health department established new hospitals and implemented digital recordkeeping which restored a ravaged community’s health records, an especially helpful tool in future disasters.

Recovery efforts, as she learned after Katrina, vary by storm and circumstance. Yet when waters rise and damage piles up at unimaginable rates – much like what is unfolding in powerless Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria hit on Sept. 20 – the problem lies with the United States’ inability to fully cope with the sheer magnitude of a disaster.

Crisis often begins as a slow burn with storms. People are fearful and must make a decision on whether to stay or go, protect their homes and valuables or flee from the elements.

After a storm blows through, the disaster has only truly begun.

Wind damage, flooding, and in the best of times,  the mass exodus of a people returning home, can make a hard situation all the more difficult.

Sensitivity to the chaos after a storm and understanding that the recovery threshold cities, or even entire territories like Puerto Rico, actually have amid real-time fallout, DeSalvo said, is a concept unperfected by the United States.

“For example, in New Orleans [post Katrina], you were basically drowning in an icy pond on a pitch black night, weighed down, yelling for help and people are asking you:  what do you need?” DeSalvo said.

“I don’t know, just start throwing stuff!” is the response, she said.  “There’s a point at which a community is so overwhelmed, it simply doesn’t know how to ask for help.”

Puerto Rico could be pushing up against that threshold now, she said, adding that for all the volunteers and nonprofits helping, the Trump administration could be best served she said, by playing one the government’s more successful hands during the Bush-Katrina era: queuing up military intervention.

“The game changer for us in New Orleans was having the 82nd airborne on the ground. The military come with a lot of resources like prepackaged hospitals, food and transportation. They can build infrastructure, restore power, get tankers of water … They come with the notion that if there’s a problem, they are going to solve it,” she said.

Federal and state response on the mainland has won the Trump administration some praise. The president sprang into action just 15 minutes before Harvey made landfall in Rockport, Texas, when he announced, via Twitter, of his intent to release disaster relief funds.

A week later when it was Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s turn to deal with a hurricane crisis, he jumped headlong into a week of preparation before Irma hit on Sept. 10, evacuating thousands. When Irma struck Cudjoe Key, Scott’s request for disaster relief was fulfilled within hours of his asking for it.

This is markedly different from the federal response to Katrina in 2005.

Though no one could have anticipated that New Orleans’ levees would fail, it would be four days before President Bush approved a $10.4 billion aid package for Katrina victims.  And it would be a few more before he approved another $50 billion.

According to Moody’s Analytics, the combined cost from Irma and Harvey could reach as high as $200 billion.

Congress, in a bipartisan move, approved a $15 billion package for Harvey relief in mid-September, nearly double the original amount requested, with more expected to be released in tranches.

Coordinated planning between both states and the Trump administration should be lauded, DeSalvo said, but there were also chilling examples of how easily the U.S. can misjudge the extent of its capability.

A case in point is the deaths of eight seniors at a Hollywood, Florida nursing home. The elderly residents died after being stranded without air conditioning for days in Irma’s fall out.

A man walks by damage from Hurricane Irma at Sundance Marine in Palm Shores, Fla., Monday, Sept. 11, 2017 (Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

Just last week DeSalvo testified before Congress on the need for expanding health and disaster regulations for vulnerable communities.

“We saw that we have weaknesses, like with seniors, those with disabilities and the poor,” DeSalvo said. “This is the recurring story. They fall through the gaps for all the obvious reasons and those are the very people we must be helping more.”

“There are a lot of assumptions about who will help these people and that’s too many cracks to fall through,” she said.

In an email interview on Tuesday, Houston’s Vice Mayor Pro-Tem, Jerry Davis lauded the federal government and Texas National Guard’s rescue and recovery assistance. His city has committed a “significant amount of its reserves” to recovery efforts, especially when it comes to debris removal, he said.

The largest hurdle now is getting commitments from state and federal leaders to fund projects that mitigate the threat of structural flooding or loss of life.

“These funds must be advanced and not reimbursed,” he said.

When things get ugly, DeSalvo noted, the U.S. is better at response than preparation.

Rough surf surrounds Boynton Beach inlet as Hurricane Irma hits in Boynton Beach, Fla. (Jim Rassol/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

“But that’s not the way it ought to be. You need all hazards planning and that requires funding and requires paying people to be emergency personnel,” she said. “It’s about spending pennies now, not dollars later.”

There are small solutions yet to be fully considered by the feds too, she added.

“The last time we made investments in preparedness was 9/11. There was a lot of opportunity. Now, for less than $500,000 we could send public health service commissions to embed with state and local officials and test out preparedness tools, so we’re not doing it in the middle of a disaster,” she said.

DeSalvo worked under the Obama administration when Hurricane Sandy skipped up from the Bahamas and struck the Mid-Atlantic in 2012 causing $75 billion in damages. Sandy, despite its strength, only really posed infrastructure response problems, she said.

Health disasters, like the potential for a resurgence of the Zika virus in fetid Puerto Rico, can change everything.

“During the Obama administration, we thought a lot about how to create a flexible enough structure so that it wasn’t cookie cutter,” she said. “What I see happening from outside, though I can’t say exactly, is the Trump administration leveraging the current infrastructure and that’s telling that there’s an underlying system. I hope they will build it and only get better.”

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