Milken Institute School of Public Health researchers discuss lessons in planning and response.
On Sunday, Aug. 29, 2005, a Category 3 hurricane pummeled the Gulf Coast, setting into motion a series of unprecedented events that would leave 1,833 dead and millions homeless. By nightfall, New Orleans was underwater.
The levee system built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect the city from such an event failed. Though New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (D) issued a mandatory evacuation Sunday morning, thousands of residents remained in the flooded city, waiting to be rescued from their home attics, elevated highways or huge city venues-turned-shelters. Around 30,000 evacuees sought shelter in the Louisiana Superdome. There, they fought to survive in abhorrent conditions without adequate food or water for five days.
Ten years later, questions about what went wrong on the days leading up to and after Hurricane Katrina hit land—and who is to blame—still linger. But a bigger concern hovers quietly in the background: Could it happen again?
Experts say local and federal government officials knew, maybe for years, that a storm as powerful as Katrina was due to strike. Now, sea levels are continuing to rise. Over the past 20 years, the annual rate of rise has been .13 inches, twice the average speed of the preceding 80 years. Almost every coastal city is in danger of floods.
"...We would still be pretty quickly overwhelmed by any large-scale event."
Rebecca Katz, associate professor health policy and management
The intensifying effects of climate change and the growing concentration of populations in hazardous areas means that another catastrophe is not only likely, but “inevitable,” said Sabrina McCormick, a George Washington University researcher who studies the effects of climate change and how communities respond to environmental disasters.
“The number of disasters and their economic costs are increasing, especially in developed countries like the United States,” said Dr. McCormick, an associate professor in the Milken Institute School of Public Health. “So there is this creeping severity.”
A United Nations report released in 2013 shows that economic losses from disasters totaled around $2.5 trillion since 2000 and warned the number would continue to escalate.
The probability of impending extreme weather events has some preparedness experts wondering whether lessons learned from Katrina would have any impact on how officials and communities respond to natural disasters of the same magnitude.
“For me, this anniversary is an interesting opportunity to look back and say, ‘What has happened in the past 10 years?’ Your basic question of, are we more prepared?” said Rebecca Katz, an associate professor health policy and management in the Milken Institute SPH.
The simple answer, Dr. Katz said, is “yes.” In the years since Katrina, the federal government has funded programs to create more “resilient” gulf communities and a “weather-ready” nation. The White House has forged collaborations with community groups in disaster-prone areas and enacted new policies to better address the needs of vulnerable populations during disasters.
But as to whether the United States could effectively handle another destructive hurricane, Dr. Katz is less optimistic.
“We are more prepared than before,” Dr. Katz said. “But my personal opinion is that we would still be pretty quickly overwhelmed by any large-scale event.”
What Went Wrong
The most egregious mistake made in response to Katrina, in Dr. McCormick’s opinion, happened long before the hurricane made landfall.
“Scientists had been predicting this kind of hurricane for years. Government folks knew this was a possibility,” Dr. McCormick said. “And yet, preparedness measures were not put into place, especially for vulnerable populations like the poor and the elderly.”
Officials’ “lack of foresight about what was definitively to come,” she said, was a significant contributor to the loss of more than 1,000 lives, Dr. McCormick said.
Months before Katrina hit, local, state and federal officials saw the impact of a hypothetical “Hurricane Pam,” which predicted, with eerie accuracy, the defeating impact that Katrina would have on the coast. Some leaders have since argued that not much could have changed in terms of policies and procedures in the few months between the Pam exercise and Katrina. But many were still left wondering why there was not a better plan in place to begin with—or if there was, why did no one follow it?
“We don’t know exactly how bad it is going to be, or how many hurricanes we’ll be seeing, but we have a general sense of the trends. And yet there is a great lack of consideration of these projections.”
Sabrina McCormick, associate professor of environmental and occupational health
As a result of a lack of foresight, communication or leadership, New Orleans was not prepared to evacuate the thousands of residents who did not have vehicles to leave town, had nowhere to go or were unwilling to leave. Many elderly who took refuge in the Superdome died without their medications, and some of the dead bodies were left there for days or weeks.
Dr. Katz said she believes, at the local level, that Katrina has made communities more cognizant of how to address vulnerable populations during times of catastrophe. Every hospital, for instance, is now required to have a clear plan of how it would move non-ambulatory patients in the event of an emergency.
“If you walk away from Katrina and you do not have a plan for your vulnerable populations, a plan for people with pets, a plan for non-ambulatory citizens, then that’s something that needs to be addressed right away,” she said.
But Dr. McCormick notes that much of the infrastructure that broke down during Katrina is still vulnerable, which is indicative, she thinks, of politicians’ unwillingness to accept the true risk of future disasters. According to recent news reports, New Orleans’ redesigned levees are more resilient than the ones that broke open during Katrina. However, engineers warn that they are not strong enough to protect against significant flooding.
“Here is yet another example of the exact same thing that happened before Katrina,” Dr. McCormick said. “We don’t know exactly how bad it is going to be, or how many hurricanes we’ll be seeing, but we have a general sense of the trends. And yet there is a great lack of consideration of these projections.”
There are two obvious solutions to the problem: invest in infrastructure and stop people from moving into dangerous coastal locations. But neither of those efforts seems foreseeable.
“It’s a lack of political will and public ignorance about risk,” Dr. McCormick said. “It’s a lack of incentives and measures to keep people out of those areas.”
So, what now? As New Orleans and parts of the Gulf Coast continue to pay for mistakes of the past, how do we ensure history does not repeat itself?
“It’s been a busy 10 years,” Dr. Katz said. “There is a pretty robust community of public health experts scattered at every level, from the local, to the state, to federal working on these issues.”
Since Katrina, disaster preparedness researchers have developed a new body of studies in unique topics like the mental health implications of catastrophic events, how children cope with disasters and how to build resilient communities. Simply building awareness and data around these issues, she said, may help to mitigate the damage of future events.
She said one of the greatest lessons learned from Katrina is less about making response and preparedness plans and more about implementing them at the community level.
“You can have all the plans and policies in place, but there are always going to be people who make an individual decision not to evacuate,” she said. “Reaching out to people takes a lot more than just saying, ‘You should leave because this is dangerous.’”
Real preparedness, she said, involves coordinated outreach and identifying all the people in any given population who may need different types of assistance based on individual needs. And it’s also critical for people to take responsibility for their own safety—for families to make plans about how they leave their town in the event of an emergency, where they would go, what they should take with them.
She stressed that there is a fine line between preparedness and hysteria, but also emphasized that real preparation takes a multi-level approach from governments, communities and individuals.
“It’s an interesting discussion I have every year in my class,” Dr. Katz said. “If you had to evacuate the District, a lot of people don’t have cars anymore. How would you get out? What food do you have in your kitchen? How long would it last you?”
Only time will tell how the horrors from August 2005 will influence future disaster response. The only certainty, many experts say, is that another catastrophic natural disaster will come again.