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Deadly Precedent: Crisis Response to Katrina

As many Americans sit at home under a shelter-in-place order due to the Coronavirus Pandemic, the health care professionals on the front lines battling this virus, trying to save lives, barely have the supplies and resources needed to put up a sustained fight, if they have them at all.

When this virus first originated in China and began to devastate its population with amazing speed, the U.S. government response should have been to immediately consult with the top epidemiologists in the country to ascertain what supplies would be needed (masks, gloves, ventilators), identify strategic locations where emergency hospital beds could be deployed, ensure there were enough testing kits available, and begin immediately working on a vaccine.

But as we have learned from the daily fear-mongering and anxiety producing news reports, there are not enough masks, gloves, ventilators, or testing kits. A vaccine is 12–18 months away. State and local governments are scrambling, after the fact, to repurpose city, state, and even abandoned buildings to act as “field hospitals.” Hospital ships of the U.S. Navy are being deployed to act as floating hospitals so as “not to overwhelm” the healthcare system. “Social Distancing” has now become a regular part of our everyday lexicon.

Many states have had to resort to shelter-in-place orders for its citizens to stop the spread of the COVID-19.

As a result of failing to act quickly enough, the U.S. now has the dubious distinction of having the most Coronavirus cases of any country in the world, more than Italy (who has the oldest population in Europe) and China (where the virus originated). China is reporting that the spread of the virus is now slowing down in that country.

Unfortunately, there is a precedent of failed response by the U.S. in times of crisis. And, with deadly consequences.

Hurricane Katrina

According to the National Hurricane Center, Katrina formed quickly and grew rapidly in intensity on Wednesday, August 24, 2005 as a tropical storm, and then as a CAT 1 hurricane on Thursday, August 25, 2005.

Katrina caused widespread damage and destruction as it moved across Florida, weakening as it went.

Then, she entered the Gulf of Mexico.

Once in the Gulf, she refueled with the warm waters, reformed and re-energized.

Katrina grew to a CAT 5 storm, and its track showed to make a bullseye on the city of New Orleans, Louisiana.

I was raised in Louisiana and I visited New Orleans many times. The city sits below sea level, and is protected by a series of flood walls and levees that protect the city from the bodies of water that surround it. But the city is prone to flooding.

As a Louisiana resident, I remembered that Katrina was the first natural disaster that both the Governor of Louisiana and the Mayor of New Orleans had to deal with while in office. They were inexperienced in dealing with a crisis of this magnitude.

And it showed.

Failures at all Levels

As soon as Katrina entered the gulf and its track become known, that was the time to act. But the Governor and the Mayor, and FEMA were overcome with hesitation and indecisiveness. Their failure to provide competent leadership in a time of crisis was accentuated by piss poor plans and failing to anticipate the needs of its citizenry, a big portion of which was poor, elderly, and many did not own or have access to personal modes of transportation.

These officials simply failed to take the approaching hell and high water that was Katrina seriously enough. This resulted in many citizens, in flood prone areas all over the city, also failing to take Katrina seriously who decided to stay in their homes and ride out the storm. This was a mistake that would prove fatal.

With proper planning and the issuance of a mandatory evacuation well in advance of the approaching storm, many deaths could have been prevented.

Without that mandatory evacuation declaration and a solid plan, many nursing homes in the area did not evacuate their residents. The rationale being: the residents could die in transit without the proper care, medications, and necessary medical equipment.

They failed to stage and utilize the appropriate resources necessary for evacuation, like city transit buses and school buses. News images showed these buses sitting in parking lots unused and submerged in flood waters.

They failed to demonstrate command and control. The majority of the city’s police force walked off the job in a gross dereliction of duty. There were some National Guard troops present, but not nearly enough to do the job.

Because there was no evacuation plan, the Mayor of New Orleans designated the Superdome as a “shelter of last resort”. Many of the people who couldn’t evacuate were forced to make their own way to the Superdome, and eventually the Convention Center as well.

Many people would be responsible for their own lives on August 28–29, 2005, making decisions that meant the difference between life and death.

They would become the 1st first responders.

I remember one famous story was of a young man who commandeered a school bus, loaded as many people as he could, and drove them to a shelter at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas.

As an employee of a retail department store in Baton Rouge, LA, I myself spent the night of August 28th (my 41st birthday) and all day on the 29th inside the store to make sure nothing happened to the building. Because of Katrina’s size, hurricane force winds were registering in the Baton Rouge area, some 65 miles away. I can vouch for that as I foolishly ventured outside on Monday the 29th.

The Aftermath

At the last minute, Katrina had made a small turn toward the east as it made landfall at Buras on the Louisiana coast as a strong CAT 3 hurricane. Katrina’s eye would pass over the Mississippi Gulf Coast, wiping the town of Waveland, MS off the face of the earth.

It pushed unprecedented storm surge into the bodies of water that surrounded the city of New Orleans. This storm surge caused the levees and flood walls to breach, sending flood waters into the city. Homes and entire neighborhoods along those levees and flood walls were inundated.

The City of New Orleans was under water.

The people who stayed behind to ride out the storm either died in the rapidly rising flood waters, or barely survived by climbing into the attics of their homes. They later punched a hole in the roofs and were trapped, surrounded by water, sometimes waiting for days to be rescued.

The conditions at the Superdome and Convention Center deteriorated quickly, with an unsanitary environment taking its toll.

We all sat and watched in horror as the news images showed the Big Easy and it’s descent into hell.

The dead bodies began to pile up. Poor souls waiting for help that didn’t come. Lack of food, water, and medications simply caused some to die and their bodies were just left on the street, some covered with anything that could be found. I remember one person died in their wheelchair. Someone simply covered them with a sheet and walked away.

And the heat. It was unforgiving.

Katrina hit on Monday, August 29th. FEMA and additional National Guard troops didn’t arrive until Friday, September 2nd. They brought food and water for those who had gone five days without it. They brought a convoy of buses to take those at the Superdome and the Convention Center to shelters in other parts of the state and in Texas. State agencies and private citizens began making search and rescue missions by boat. Slowly, the flood waters began to recede.

Failure to Plan was Planning to Fail

Hurricane Katrina was the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. There was plenty of time to make better decisions, the right decisions. There was a golden opportunity months earlier to create robust emergency preparedness plans during the Hurricane Pam exercise in July, 2004. Pam was a scenario in which a fictitious CAT 3 hurricane hit New Orleans, causing widespread devastation. But, the opportunity was lost because officials simply did not take the situation serious enough. They did not think the Big One would ever hit the Big Easy because up until August 29th, 2005, it hadn’t.

Proper planning prevents piss-poor performance. The crisis response to Hurricane Katrina was exactly that-piss poor!

Thanks for reading.

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Tony Thomas

I’m a Grandparent, military veteran, and college football junkie. I operate the website thegridironnews.com. Email: amichael0864@yahoo.com.