Lessons From Disaster Response

By: Grainne Rhuad

Five years after Hurricane Katrina decimated communities in two States, Louisiana and Mississippi, people are still left with distaste in their mouths over how response to our home soil disaster went down.  Listening to the buzz on the internet as well as various news outlets one begins to note that there are many minds about how the United States should be involved in other relief efforts.

With the most recent natural disasters in Haiti claiming an estimated 23,000  and the current Chilean death estimate at 820,  I began to wonder what actual  Katrina survivors thought about the U.S. providing help to these foreign, albeit desperately poor, countries when we dropped the ball in such a big way here on our own turf.

A quick search by any reader will find people stating things like “We should stay out of it and take care of our own.” But just as often you find, “We need to show we can do better and it doesn’t matter where we do it.”

What struck me was the fact that a huge amount of fundraising went into helping Haiti immediately.  And unlike other disasters, it didn’t slack off.  One blinding example of this is the remake of ‘We Are The World’ to benefit Haiti, which I think also was well timed to clean up Michael Jackson’s slogging name after his untimely death.

To be fair other agencies like Bridging the Gap, which helps to provide clean water in countries in need, issued the statement that they have been in Haiti all along and will continue their efforts there, however they won’t take away from other countries who also clearly need water.  In short, they are on the ground, have always been on the ground and won’t be changing their program for a photo op.

I was still curious as to how an everyday American citizen who lived through Katrina would respond to our all out efforts to look like Mr. Big for other countries after treating Mississippi and New Orleans like rotten Step Children.  So I went and talked to one.

Jennifer Murphy is a twenty something young woman who grew up in Gulfport, MS.  She was just looking forward to beginning college and starting out her life plans when Katrina hit.

Gulfport is about an hour and a half drive to New Orleans, depending on traffic and speed. During Katrina their family hunkered down at her Father’s home in west Gulfport and was hit by the eastern eye wall of Katrina which passed over the house they took shelter in.

She states:

“We (my mother, brother, and I) were going to stay where we were. My father called my mother the morning of the 28th and told her that we needed to get out. My brother and I had stayed up the night before, all night, and didn’t get to bed until 7 that morning. Thirty minutes later, Mom was telling us to pack some things. We did. We were mainly concerned about water rising. We were between the beach and the bayou. So we went to Dad’s. Most people go away from storms. We sort of went toward it. But my father’s house was further from the beach.

I didn’t sleep all that day. That night, we began to feel the coming winds of Katrina and nervousness took over. I watched the news until the wind knocked out the cable. My father had a battery-powered radio and we used that to fill the silences. But then it really began and I sat on the sofa opposite the fireplace; eyes widened in horror, watching the metal curtain breathe. I kept asking my father if it was right that it was doing that. He told me a dozen times yes. The wind coming down the chimney had a hollow whistle. I was horrified and kept looking around the room, thinking they were all going to die. Nearly everyone I loved was going to die…my mom, my brother, my dad and step mom, my two sisters, my grandmother, my dog… It is what kept me awake. Everyone slept but me.

As it became worse, everyone woke. The sound of a small tornado ripping through the backyard is enough to do that—makes for one hell of an alarm clock. There was the sound of massive oaks exploding, uprooting, and snapping. And then the eye came and it was quiet. When the eye passes, winds shift. When the winds shifted, it felt like the house was going with it. The walls shook. To this day, it has been the only time I felt I was going to die along with those I love.”

In the aftermath with no help arriving she and her family decided to return to their apartment home, before the local police and military could close the roads. They went back towards what they knew and what was comfortable as we all might in a similar situation. The human instinct is to know and to try and fix, this is what they did. They had a townhouse which on their arrival they found the bottom floor received 5 ½ feet of water. The upstairs had been left untouched. She states, “We had just actually moved from another unit, which still had some of our things left in it downstairs. That unit not only received the water but a pine tree fell on what had been my bedroom.”

Some neighbors had stayed for the storm and they reported that the water from the Sound came in and met the water from the bayou and that there had been white caps moving between the buildings. Some of the apartments did not make it at all. One building was missing an outer wall. A loft apartment had been scooped out of its building. Cars were where they were not supposed to be, including hers, which became a boat and then a submarine and had moved about twenty feet to the northwest of where it had been left.

They spent eleven days there, after the storm, without electricity. They slept in their beds at night and during the day they had a makeshift tent, to protect from the heat and sun.

“We hadn’t really many supplies; so the neighbor boy and I went out into the parking lot and spelled out what we needed in siding for the helicopters flying overhead. Our first message had been ICE. It was really hot. Not even twenty minutes later, an Air National Guard chopper landed on what had, at one time, been a putting green and motioned us over. He came with ice. We knew he’d be back, but we spelled out other things—Water, MRE—anyway. It gave the kid something to do…and me, too. After each spelling out, the same chopper would land, giving us what we had written out. Our last message in siding had been Thank You.”

Jennifer states, “I haven’t thought about the details in nearly 5 years. I will always remember though.”

Eventually, the family drifted and split up. Jennifer and her brother talked their mom into leaving. She didn’t want to leave her family and the only reason she and her brother stayed those 11 days without electricity and sanitary water had been their mother, so she could process what was lost. She finally went to Florida with her boyfriend for a while. Jennifer and her brother went back to Gulfport to their father’s, where they stayed for a several weeks until a FEMA trailer had been delivered. “We stayed on my father’s property. I had the bedroom and my brother had the couch. FEMA trailer life is not the best, but it is better than nothing.”

In speaking of FEMA like most other people who have been interviewed Jennifer states “FEMA, of course, came in with aid; but more aid came from the local military and out of state churches and groups. FEMA had been ill prepared and I haven’t much faith in them. It took weeks just to get one small trailer and that really is the only good from them. Although, the chemicals used in the manufacturing of those trailers has caused a great many to develop difficulties with their health. FEMA did send out “agents” to evaluate losses and reimburse people for what had been lost, but the checks did not amount to much. MEMA had also been involved, however I am unclear to what degree.”

Stations had been set up in various parking lots for the distribution of water, ice, and MREs. It had been tough getting to these places when your car had been drowned and those that hadn’t been were nearly running on fumes because there had been no gas left. But it was really the out of town and state volunteers who were here to help that made the biggest difference.  Some even went door-to-door making sure needs were being met. There had been one group from Alabama that found out about her mother’s and uncle’s medical conditions and brought a nurse to check their vitals and glucose levels and make sure they had their medications. It had been the military and the civilians from other states that brought the aid. So many stayed to help rebuild lives, donate clothing, food, and diapers.

She goes on to explain that they were in a fortunate position; a Naval Construction Battalion Center is in Gulfport. Keesler Air Force Base is in the next town to the east, Biloxi. There is also an Air National Guard nearby.  Not everyone who was affected was in such a fortunate place.

When asked how she thinks government agencies could have responded better Jennifer says, “FEMA and MEMA should have arrived sooner. It isn’t rocket science. A natural disaster is about to happen…um…what should we do? Seriously, it is common sense. Now, and I’m not sure where it is exactly, there is a warehouse stocked with what would be needed, if/when another Katrina crashes through”

Which begs the question, where are these stores exactly?  And what is stored?  Where does it go and who accounts for it?  Because it is clear that this was the plan on paper beforehand too and it never occurred.

Which leads to the question how prepared are we for natural disasters now?  What did we learn?  When the Earthquake hit Chile Feb 27, 2010 both Hawaii and Southern California were issued Tsunami warnings.  This put me a little on edge.  Living in California and working with an agency that cooperates with disaster response I know that a lot of talk was given to getting prepared after Katrina.  But mostly that is what it was, talk.  It is still being held up in talk groups and planning committees.  We have done little beyond rescinding a stupid law that forbade people from storing a year’s worth of food to make a difference in our preparedness for natural disaster.  Last Year’s fire season showed that.  A community in my locality full of the elderly and poor was unable even to leave the fire zone in an orderly manner, as there was only one way out of town.  Granted our Congressman Wally Herger has worked hard to advocate for a change in that dangerous situation but nothing concrete has been put into place.

In the areas of Los Angeles and San Diego where Tsunami warnings were issued scads of stupid people headed towards the ocean to check it out instead of packing up for Palm Springs or someplace else inland for a couple of days.  And let us not forget Los Angeles has a huge homeless population both in Venice Beach and in the downtown area both of which would be affected by a possible Tsunami.

This question of the poor, the forgotten the insane leads me directly to the problems facing countries like Chile and Haiti.  These are countries whose disaster toll was greater than it needed to be due to the fact that people there were poor.  Pictures coming out Haiti show buildings collapsed that with a little bit of rebar would have held.  It is striking that on an island that measures 29,530 sq mi (76,483 sq km), the Dominican Republic which has long been supported by the U.S. and hence has more resources suffered a lot less damage.

It was also somewhat unsettling to see movie stars rushing off in their airplanes to save the day, church groups kidnapping children under the guise of help and unscrupulous corporations scooping in using a disaster to get a foot hold on nation rebuilding.  Let’s not forget these are the same people who have turned a blind eye to child slavery in Haiti even when it was painfully clear it has been occurring for well over 20 years and people were asking for help. (See BBC report)

Back to the U.S.’s natural disaster named Katrina, I was wondering what a survivor thought about the massive amount of money, celebrity and response being poured into other countries.  As I said, I had been picking up buzz, albeit not from areas that had recently been through any natural disasters, that we should be more concerned with the care of our own.

In true southern survival style, my interviewee Jennifer Murphy put it this way. “So much had been lost because of Katrina and all can be replaced but the lives and the historical. This is my home and even still it is unrecognizable to me, when I’m driving along the beach. I used to navigate by landmarks. I can’t do that anymore. It’s like a different place. Seeing and living through Katrina, I cannot imagine what the Haitians are going through. It is beyond my understanding. Katrina ranked high on the destruction scale, but not that high.”

One of the things living through something does for a person, (hopefully) is to give them compassion and Jennifer’s statement certainly exemplifies that.

She went on to say, “Haiti and Chile need help like anyone else does. Yes, the government does need to do more for their own here; but Haiti and Chili may not have what we have. We have our neighboring states. We have greathearted individuals who come together and stay months in a place ravaged by extreme winds and high water in order to rebuild homes, churches, and schools, even businesses. FEMA fell a bit short pre-Katrina, during Katrina, and post-Katrina; but our neighbors didn’t.”

It is this mindset that does give hope, our neighbors don’t fall short, and neither should we.  In fact we are nowhere close to done with our work in Haiti.  In 2008 Oxfam issued a report sighting the problems likely to affect Haiti due to climate change.  These problems were mostly due to increases in hurricanes.  Hispaniola lies directly in Hurricane alley and Haiti in particular has been the victim of deforestation, setting up a scenario for bad mudslides before this earthquake.  The earthquake and its resulting damage add to the likelihood that Haiti is only at the beginning of its natural disaster woes.

Line 17 of Oxfam’s recommendations for Haiti was as follows:

“Rich countries that have caused current global warming have the responsibility and the capability to deliver the bulk of funds in order to redress the international injustice at the heart of climate changes.

International adaptation finance will be needed to enable a wide range of measures, from community-led initiatives and disaster risk reduction strategies to long-term national planning and social protection in the
face of unavoidable impacts. Climate change now has to be integrated across all development policy.”

These recommendations were made in 2008 and clearly were not effectively implemented which goes to show as always we wait until it is too late to respond to what we know is eventual.

It is this behavior that has to change.  It is the same behavior that was responsible for our own problems with Katrina  Several years prior to Katrina the city planners of New Orleans clearly mapped out the problems with the city’s failing Levee system they made recommendations to repair them, but the motion was struck down as being too expensive and the disaster unlikely to occur.

How long are we as human beings going to behave like we can ignore the issue of climate change and infrastructure problems?  How many communities and Countries are going to be affected?  How late are we going to show up to the game?

When Atlantis sinks?

http://www.oxfam.org.uk/resources/policy/climate_change/downloads/oi_report_climate_change_haiti_gathering_storm_en_301109.pdf

 http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/sparc/research/projects/extreme_events/munich_workshop/workshop_info.html

 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/8393085.stm

 http://www.bridgingthegap.org/

14 Comments on “Lessons From Disaster Response”

  1. Your article made me cry. I’m left with mixed emotions. Feelings of disgust and anger toward our government and feelings love love and gratitude for all of those how helped and sacraficed so much. Wake up call people! Be prepared and have your own support networks in place. It’s not a matter of if but of when…

  2. mankind is it’s own worse enemy, so shortsighted, so immature, so forgetful, so blind …. your article is information that has been available forever .. not unlike healthcare debate, the weak and powerful say that reform and equity and readiness is too expensive. No lesson was ever learned about locking the barn door .. so the horse doesn’t escape. Why pay a certain amount now when you can pay three times as much in a disaster ?? Child labor laws required 120 little girls being burned in a New York sweat shop at the turn of the 20th century and those lessons were band aids … we are a species doomed to repeat mistakes .. how much money has been spent on the gulf coast ?? how safe are the levies ?? What is wonderful in your piece is your interview and the response of a truly gracious woman … in the end, we should try to be our brother’s keeper … to aspire to anything less is to de-value all that life and love should make possible. BTW, I love the way your write and the subjects your choose to consider, good for you !! just wonderful ….

  3. Grainne, humanity is crisis-motivated. Absent a real crisis, we don’t act (and as recent history proves, not even then).

    As I speak, we’ve been experiencing de facto spring weather here in Oregon for a month. Trees and plants which should just now be blooming have bloomed and gone.

    This summer will be a hot one — we’ll likely experience the Summer of ’92 (legendary now in these parts) all over again, where the city of Portland had to ration water (imagine – water rationing in Portland) in late July.

    We didn’t recover our full watershed until 1994.

    The people who want to make a ‘religion’ out of climate-change-denial ironically use the same terminology and arguments – when the facts have lined up squarely in the climate-change camp, so strongly that the preponderance of opinion is that we’re probably past any tipping-point.

    The polar cap no longer regulates weather – summers will become hotter; winters colder – storms more frequent and severe.

    The only thing we can do is prepare, not dither.

    Atlantis; indeed…..

    -W

  4. I hope this helps. When it comes to our property, what do we expect in case of loss (hurricane, tornado, earthquake, flood, fire, etc.)? The disaster itself is news. What happens after the dust settles is the story: the aftermath shock. Here is something the public should know: with a little curiosity you can mitigate that shock.

    Insurance policyholders, and more importantly disaster survivors, need to be informed of access to equality–basic rights and information. The internet reaches far more people than anyone would have ever imagined, though difficult to gather those willing to pause, to inspect, to further…to think on their own. And yet, much is available gratis! It just takes looking: http://www.disasterprepared.net/info.html

  5. Kenny Loggins and a few of the musicians he performed with did benefits for Katrina victims. Katrina wasn’t the only screw-up. Hurricane Ike caused major power outages and widespread damage from tornadoes it spawned. In the rich areas where their power was restored in two days, they had all the MREs and ice they wanted. In this area which is less affluent, the FEMA station didn’t have as much as a bag of ice. Getting the power companies to get the power back on in this area wasn’t easy, either. After a couple weeks, I had to put a protest sign on the main street by which the affluent neighbors had to drive by. There were three people on this street who needed medical equipment to stay alive and were having trouble getting generators or any support.

  6. Will you are right, we had better prepare and not dither…and not just for ourselves.

    Human migration is what’s next and in my research I found other countries have plans for this, we don’t even discuss it. What are we going to do with displaced people when there is noplace to rebuild, or it’s unsustainable?

  7. Grainne, the thing that’s lacking in America is education – we’re happy to (you’ve heard me say this before) sit behind our oceaned-borders and pretend that nothing’s ever going to happen – here.

    Of course, that’s folly. It’s what killed the Roman empire (that, and abysmal economic management) – one of the biggest human migrations in history all but destroyed the Empire, and that was based on – would you believe it? – climate change.

    The Battle of Adrianople (Hadrianopolis) occurred because of climate-change-induced migration. The irresistible force meeting the immovable object – who wins?

    In this case, the migrants won.

    A cautionary tale, if ever.

  8. You know, it’s nice to talk about preparing for disaster and all – but few people actually *do* just that. The fact of the matter is that we can’t rely on the social order to prepare ahead of time for a crisis: we all have to prepare ourselves for the coming chaos – to that end, I have secured large quantities of canned goods, water, weapons and ammunition to give myself a decent head start when all hell breaks loose.

    I strongly suggest that you guys all do the same…

  9. Christopher I agree, and I think this way of thinking is at the heart of what went wrong here in the U.S.

    We were brought up to believe when we were in trouble, the police,ambulance,government,etc. would be there for us. We are American damn it!

    Katrina and other disasters like it woke us to the fact that they can’t or won’t or a little of both.

    We do need to prepare, and while we’re at it take it a step further and prepare to help others, get involved in planning. It’s past time for us to stop acting like our parents-the government-will see to us.

  10. The key issue involved is certainly climate change. We can’t truly predict precisely where, when and how extensively the heating/ cooling process will distribute its evidence; there are entirely too many factors. As Will said, the Polar caps no longer truly regulate the weather. They’ve shrunk. The earth wobbled. They’ve shifted. While glaciers slough off at an alarming rate north west of Juneau, they are gaining in volume in the south east.

    The sun, when it is out, is much warmer at an earlier date, with lingering warmth well into October. However, i live in a turbulent area of earthquakes, volcanoes, and a brooding Denali range that mysteriously kicks up its own weather. They all contribute to our climate, which in recent years has seen some astonishing storm fronts form directly over the inlet to wander down the mountain range that tumbles into the Rockies, looking for whatever mischief it can perform.

    Will also talks of migrations. In all honestly, i feel that considering we are in a Universal plight, there are no safe zones. Those who have been uprooted from their homes and migrate will probably be those who develop the best survivalist skills. Survivalists are a tough breed, tougher than storing goods and owning weapons. They learn to use whatever is on hand. They develop strong helping skills when faced with other survival victims.

    As small and humble as the homes were in Haiti, the people are survivalists. They know how to re-build. They know how to keep their wants and needs modest. They know how to help each other. Our necessity should be to learn from them as we assist, so we carry the experiences of survival with us.

    Global change means a long ride, so a few weeks preparation isn’t really enough. Survival preparation means so many things; learning basic skills so many people hardly know; like starting a fire with matches, using a snap blade or handiman tool, basic first aid, knowledge of edible plants, sewing by hand and cooking with dried goods; even water gathering and seed collecting. If each person incorporated these skills into their basic preparedness, we would all be better prepared for the long haul.

  11. @ GrainneRhuad – It’s nice to think that we can all cooperate for the sake of mutual survival, but I know all too well that when pressed the animal nature of man comes out: when the worst happens the only people anyone will be thinking about will be themselves and their own. Thus the reason I focus entirely on myself and mine.

    @ Karlsie – of course there’s more to survival than simply storing goods (such as hunting/foraging skills, rudimentary construction, marksmanship, etc…), however a nice stockpile certainly does give one a head start over those who haven’t done anything (hence the reason I suggest everybody do that).

    However, I am yet to meet anyone tougher than a Glock – he who has the ability to best defend what he has will be top dog in a post-social order environment – so my advice remains unchanged: get yourselves some firepower because we are in for a bumpy ride…

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  13. You know, no other country is lax about allowing illegal immigrants to stay.. Europe is extremely hard to dupe, and it’s hard to even get citizenship in a lot of EU countries… but once again America is full of bleeding hearts who would rather band-aid the problem by sticking up for these people instead if suggesting attacking the problem head on and helping them make their own countries better

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