Moving Forward: ASPA Katrina Task Force: This Year's Discussions Highlight Improving Local Emergency Mitigation, Preparedness, Response, and Recovery Planning

Article excerpt

On April 3, 2005, the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) received its first report from the Hurricane Katrina Task Force appointed by then President Don Menzel. Because the hurricane and flooding revealed many gaps in American emergency management, President Menzel selected ASPA members who were emergency management practitioners or academics who study emergency management to examine the disaster and its management. They began a multiyear review and discussion that includes recommendations for improvement. The Denver conference, six months after the event, featured a panel discussion on immediate research and trends. The task force continues its work and looks forward to a second edition of its report in panel format at the next ASPA annual meeting in Washington, DC, in March 2007.

The Denver panel focused its discussion on questions developed by the task force and ASPA's Katrina Advisory Group, also created by Don Menzel. The discussion leader, Bev Cigler, used these questions to elicit key facts and observations from task force members as well as from the highly engaged audience.

This summary that follows includes information helpful to public agency leaders in improving local emergency mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery planning. The questions are followed by comments from the Denver session.

Slow, Inadequate Response

To what extent was the slow and inadequate response to Katrina a result of the scale of the disaster?

D. C. Jensen said that the scale of the disaster was the most influential factor in the event. Louisiana had held exercises for years and had responded well to actual events before. The Hurricane Pam exercise with the federal government included planning for the same impacts, and Louisiana officials repeated the planning sessions in May 2005. Jensen pointed out that public officials can exercise and plan, but this does not prepare a community for every actual event. In 2005, Louisiana's plans were overcome by the event's size. Lenneal Henderson elaborated on Bev Cigler's comment that the hurricane itself was the most predicted event in history. On August 29, 2005, the Times Picayune headline was, "New Orleans dodges the bullet," but then came the catastrophic flooding of the city when the levees failed.

Bruce Baughman noted that Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, a disaster of biblical proportions, but planning could have been better. He suggested that the greatest cause of failure was the lack of investment in detailed planning. In 1997, the states at risk had identified the issues, but nobody was willing to pay for detailed plans for the actual elements of a catastrophic disaster operation. Alabama and Mississippi called for mandatory evacuation seventy-two hours before the storm, but the residents did not cooperate for a variety of reasons. Some people simply did not believe the government's warning. Alabama had had three hurricanes in eleven months. Many people had left the first two times, but not the third, experiencing "disaster fatigue." Most problems in New Orleans were based on the failure of the population to evacuate the area. Instead, many chose vertical evacuation within their own homes. This was an option in New Orleans, and the government agencies should have had adequate search and rescue assets in their plans. The State of Louisiana used marine police for water rescue. In retrospect, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) should have mobilized its specialized units in advance of the storm, such as urban search and rescue (USAR) teams, disaster medical assistance teams, and the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) connections. Locals waited for FEMA's response effort to fail under the demands of the event before going for state-to-state aid through EMAC. Frances Edwards noted that a disaster covering ninety thousand square miles is bound to create problems for the transportation of support equipment and response personnel once roads and airports are damaged. …