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?