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Hurricane Katrina, USA – failure develop the capacity to respond to “a truly catastrophic event”

1280px-New_Orleans_Survivor_FlyoverHurricane Katrina formed over the Bahamas on August 23, 2005, and crossed southern Florida as a moderate Category 1 hurricane, causing some deaths and flooding there before strengthening rapidly in the Gulf of Mexico. The hurricane strengthened to a Category 5 hurricane over the Gulf of Mexico, and then reduced its strength to a Category 3 hurricane when it made landfall on the 29th August in SE Louisiana. It caused severe destruction along the Gulf of Mexico coast from central Florida to Texas, in part due to the storm surge it created.

New Orleans flooded as its levee system failed. A U.S. House of Representatives Bipartisan Committee report (issued 15th February 2006) – “A Failure of Initiative” – said, “Our investigation revealed that Katrina was a national failure, an abdication of the most solemn obligation to provide for the common welfare. At every level – individual, corporate, philanthropic, and governmental – we failed to meet the challenge that was Katrina.”

The U.S. Senate Report, “Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared”, stated that failures of government, “were not just conspicuous; they were pervasive.” They added that, “The results were tragic loss of life and human suffering on a massive scale, and an undermining of confidence in our government’s ability to plan, prepare for, and respond to national catastrophes.”

Among the many factors that contributed to these failures, the Senate Committee found that there were four overarching ones:

1. Long-term warnings went unheeded and government officials neglected their duties to prepare for a forewarned catastrophe;

2. Government officials took insufficient actions or made poor decisions in the days immediately before and after landfall;

3. Systems on which officials relied on to support their response efforts failed; and

4. Government officials at all levels failed to provide effective leadership.

The Senate Report added, “These individual failures, moreover, occurred against a backdrop of failure, over time, to develop the capacity for a coordinated, national response to a truly catastrophic event, whether caused by nature or man-made.” The Report also found that, “Compounded by leadership failures of its own, the federal government bears responsibility for not preparing effectively for its role in the post-storm response.

FEMA was unprepared for a catastrophic event of the scale of Katrina. Well before Katrina, FEMA’s relationships with state and local officials, once a strength, had been eroded in part because certain preparedness grant programs were transferred elsewhere in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). With its importance to state and local preparedness activi- ties reduced, FEMA’s effectiveness was diminished. In addition, at no time in its history, including in the years before it became part of DHS, had FEMA developed – nor had it been designed to develop – response capabilities sufficient for a catastrophe, nor had it developed the capacity to mobilize sufficient resources from other federal agencies, and the private and nonprofit sectors.”

There was little situational awareness, very poor coordination of intelligence and media – “DHS was slow to recognize the scope of the disaster or that FEMA had become over whelmed. On the day after landfall, DHS officials were still struggling to determine the ‘ground truth’ about the extent of the flooding despite the many reports they had received about the catastrophe; key officials did not grasp the need to act on the less-than-complete information that is to be expected in a disaster. DHS leaders did not become fully engaged in recovery efforts until Thursday, when in Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson’s words, they ‘tried to kick it up a notch’; after that, they did provide significant leadership within DHS (and FEMA) as well as coordination across the federal government. But this effort should have begun sooner.

DOD also was slow to acquire information regarding the extent of the storm’s devastation. DOD officials relied primarily on media reports for their information. Many senior DOD officials did not learn that the levees had breached until Tuesday; some did not learn until Wednesday. As DOD waited for DHS to provide information about the scope of the damage, it also waited for the lead federal agency, FEMA, to identify the support needed from DOD. The lack of situational awareness during this phase appears to have been a major reason for DOD’s belated adoption of the forward-looking posture necessary in a catastrophic incident.”

An estimated 1,800 people died as a result of Hurricane Katrina, and total property damage was estimated at $108 billion. On 29th August a storm surge caused by the hurricane caused 53 different levee breaches in greater New Orleans, submerging eighty percent of the city.

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