Energy & Environment

Disaster's Wake

The aftermath of Katrina and Rita has states and localities dusting off their disaster-response plans. But there's more they could and should be doing.
by , | November 2005

Peter O'Neill thought the levees would hold. Everyone in the city did. It was wishful thinking. Rapidly rising waters breached the clay walls, sending water into the streets, filling them like kiddie pools until only the pitched rooftops of houses were visible.

The catastrophic flooding was bad enough. Then fires broke out, and there was no way for fire fighters like O'Neill to drive pump trucks into the deep water without swamping the engines. fire fighters could only watch as some of the city's most beloved historic buildings burned. Rescuers in skiffs were lucky to get all 150 people stuck inside the flaming structures--people who had ignored mandatory evacuation orders--out alive.

This is not New Orleans, 2005. It was Grand Forks, North Dakota, 1997. The Great Flood--a "500-year" event--submerged 90 percent of the city's homes and businesses and charred 11 downtown buildings, many down to the water line.

Locals today don't like comparing the epic snowmelt that swelled the Red River to the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina. Grand Forks is only one-tenth the size of New Orleans, and bad as the property damage was, no one died there.

Yet in the wake of Katrina, it's useful to look again not just at lessons from Grand Forks but all kinds of disasters of the past decade. Whether the calamity was natural or manmade, common themes emerge.

First among them is a sense of denial. Nobody, from citizens up to their mayors and governors, wants to believe that their "big one"-- whether that's a hurricane, earthquake, wildfire, tornado or terrorist attack--will occur on their watch. "Right up until the dikes actually broke, we thought we'd survive it and hold back the waters," says O'Neill, Grand Forks' fire chief. "Nobody thinks it'll happen to them."

Katrina has changed that--if not permanently, then for at least as long as the images of Gulf Coast flooding, fires, looting and human suffering linger in Americans' minds. State and local officials across the country are cracking open their emergency plans. They're asking: What did we forget? "There are lessons to be learned from every type of critical incident," says Michael Sturm, emergency operations chief in Oakland County, Michigan. "Emergency plans need to be living, breathing, working documents, not something that gets thrown on a shelf."

What follows is a series of nine questions that leaders of every city, county and state should be asking right now. The questions are based on interviews with experts and on the battle-tested experience of places that have seen life-threatening crises. There's the Grand Forks flood that nearly wiped out the city; the Chicago heat wave of 1995 that killed more than 700 people; the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City; Seattle's Nisqually earthquake of 2001; the electrical blackout of 2003 that plunged eight states in the Northeast into darkness; and San Diego County's wildfires of 2003 that burned 2,800 homes and businesses. Plus, of course, the latest catastrophes now on everyone's mind: Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

What's chilling about lessons from each of these is not that officials didn't have emergency plans in place. They did. It's that even well-crafted plans, when put into action, don't always perform as expected. "Ask any health preparedness expert in the country and they will tell you they're not surprised by Katrina," says Shelley Hearne, executive director of the Trust for America's Health. "Unfortunately, a Katrina-like response could happen in any city in this country."

1. WHO'S IN CHARGE?" "LOUISIANA HAD A SYSTEM ... BUT DID NOT UTILIZE IT."

In the aftermath of Katrina, several hundred tourists and New Orleans locals tried marching out of town, evacuating on orders of the New Orleans Police Department. They were stopped on a bridge by police from the neighboring town of Gretna and told to turn back. "Who was coordinating Gretna's police action with New Orleans' police action?" asks Dutch Leonard, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Chain of command has been a front-burner issue ever since 9/11, when disagreements between the New York City police and fire departments were said to have gotten in the way of rescue efforts at the World Trade Center. The bipartisan 9/11 Commission recommended that emergency response agencies across the country adopt a management structure known as "incident command": Put the chief of one service in charge of overall response to a crisis and all the other chiefs under him or her.

According to federal directives, state and local agencies were supposed to have incident command systems in place this past September. Some cities are very well trained in incident command, especially ones that have adopted it as an everyday way of handling routine emergencies like car crashes. But turf battles in other cities have slowed progress. Only a month ago, more than four years after 9/11, did New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg put his police chief, Ray Kelly, in charge of incident command for major emergencies--and that move still faces political hurdles.

But having a system in place is not enough. Bill Killen, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, told the U.S. Congress in September that, in response to Katrina, "Louisiana had a system based on" incident command "but did not utilize it."

Katrina has some experts wondering if a parallel command system is necessary to coordinate political leaders, too. "Look at 9/11," says Leonard. "Rudy Giuliani did the talking, and there was Governor Pataki standing behind him the entire time, not pushing himself forward but basically standing there, warranting, 'and the state says so, too.' That was effective and useful. In Katrina, you immediately had different people at different levels pointing fingers and criticizing each other. That wasn't helpful."

2. HOW MUCH MANPOWER DO YOU HAVE? YOUR RANK AND FILE MAY NOT BE ABLE TO REPORT FOR DUTY.

All emergency plans rely heavily on "first responders." Police are supposed to keep civil order; fire fighters evacuate buildings; emergency medical technicians tend to injured persons; and public works crews get lights, telephones and water running. Katrina exposed a big flaw in that plan. What if many of your rank and file won't, or can't, report for duty? Nearly 250 New Orleans police officers--15 percent of the force--went AWOL. Here's a more sobering thought: First responders are likely to take the brunt of mass-casualty events. On 9/11, 409 of the people who died at the World Trade Center were fire fighters, cops and medical technicians.

Workforce issues are not just a question of first responders. King County, Washington, is working on its survival plan for a severe influenza pandemic. The plan presumes that 30 percent of the public and private workforce would be infected and unable to do their jobs. Similarly, one assessment of New York City's response to the 2003 blackout noted that skilled workers such as electricians or plumbers have been overlooked in emergency planning. The report by a mayoral task force called for development of an "essential skills" database of public and private employees--people who could help with traffic control, staff ferry landings or respond to non-crisis needs of vulnerable citizens.

External forces can have a big impact on manpower. Many Louisianans still believe that Katrina would have turned out differently had one- third of the state's National Guard not been stationed in Iraq at the time. Prosaic concerns, such as vacation schedules, also matter. Consider that Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley was on vacation when his city began to sizzle in July of 1995. So was Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick when the lights went out in August of 2003.

There are also lingering questions about how states and localities share manpower during a crisis. Julius Ciaccia, Jr. is Cleveland's water commissioner and steered his system out of a complete shutdown during the blackout. He knows a thing or two that he'd love to share with New Orleans' water people and hands-on assistance he'd like to provide. "We see this situation in the Gulf, and we're all anxious to pitch in and help," Ciaccia says. "Nationally, we need to think through what roles we should be playing. Some communities sent crews down there just to go and find something to do. Then we're like, 'Jeesh, should we do that?'"

3: HOW WILL YOU COMMUNICATE? THROW YOUR OFFICE PHONE, PAGER, BLACKBERRY, CELL PHONE AND COMPUTER OUT THE WINDOW.

Just before Katrina slammed into New Orleans, Scott Domke, a member of Mayor Ray Nagin's staff, had set up an Internet phone account. Two days after the hurricane hit, he found a working socket in the conference room of the hotel where the mayor's inner circle was holed up and managed to patch together eight telephone lines through his laptop computer. "For the next five days," the Wall Street Journal reported, "virtually all communications out of New Orleans by the city's top officials depended on Mr. Domke's laptop and this single Internet phone account."

That was the good news. The bad news is that Nagin and his staff had spent most of the first two days after the storm in a communications black hole. Most landlines and cell phones were down and batteries on backup satellite phones drained quickly. Nagin's team used police radios, but those, too, were spotty.

Communications outages during disasters are all too common. During the blackout in New York, the city's emergency operations center lost telephone service, and cell phones for consumers and government officials alike couldn't handle the overload. Emergency staff in Oakland County, Michigan, relied on ham radio operators to get through the blackout. Want to prepare for a disaster? Try throwing your office phone, pager, BlackBerry, cell phone and computer out the window.

If crisis communications is tricky for managers, it's even harder, and more a matter of life and death, for first responders. On 9/11, incompatible radio equipment left police officers unable to communicate with fire and rescue workers. The same was true in the San Diego County wildfires in 2003. Municipal and county rescue agencies couldn't communicate with state forestry workers--their radios didn't work together. Even fire fighters had difficulty communicating with each other, as departments from different jurisdictions called to the scene used separate radio systems.

These problems have received much attention in recent years. Yet interoperability remains an elusive goal. Some blame Congress for failing to allocate underutilized radio spectrum to first responders. Others blame the local agencies, many of which want to keep their familiar technology; no one wants to be the one to have to buy new equipment.

4: HOW WILL YOU MANAGE THE MEDIA? IMAGINE HOSTING THE MICHAEL JACKSON TRIAL WHILE QUELLING A DISASTER.

In 1995, when summer temperatures in Chicago peaked at 106 degrees, thousands of elderly and infirm residents stayed in their hot apartments without air conditioning. The images that initially appeared on TV and in newspapers, however, were of children playing in water spewing from fire hydrants. Local and federal officials responded by cracking down on the kids. Meanwhile, more than 700 adult Chicagoans quietly died, off camera.

In the era of 24-hour cable news, any big disaster, and even a small one, is likely to receive intense media coverage. Managing the swarms of reporters is like hosting the Michael Jackson trial in the local courthouse while simultaneously handling a human crisis. To be sure, media attention can help get important information out to the public. But the media can also hinder officials by setting an agenda driven by powerful images. Consider the dilemma of New Orleans police after Katrina. On the one hand, they needed to rescue citizens trapped on rooftops. On the other, they were pressured by televised images to stop looters.

"Local media play an enormously important role in disaster preparation and response," says Eric Klinenberg, a New York University professor whose 2002 book, "Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago," was critical of that city's response to the heat emergency. None of the local media outlets took the approaching heat wave seriously, and Klinenberg believes that this impeded officials' response. "A city can work with local media to prepare them for these kinds of events," he says.

In general, it's a good idea to have someone in charge of handling reporters. At bare minimum, someone needs to answer the phones (if the phones are working, of course). That was a problem in Seattle after the Nisqually earthquake in 2001. Part of the city's emergency response involved installing a public information officer who handled media calls. Because damage from the earthquake was limited, Seattle scaled back much of its emergency response efforts--including the public information unit--24 hours after the initial quake. Media calls, however, continued for several days.

Sometimes, the media literally get in the way. That was the case in Grand Forks. Efforts to douse the downtown fires from the air had to be halted because there were too many media helicopters hovering over the scene.

5. HOW DO YOU GET THE WORD OUT TO THE PUBLIC? AN INCONSISTENT MESSAGE CAN MAKE THINGS WORSE.

The media is an invaluable tool for alerting citizens of an impending crisis or informing them about such things as evacuation routes or safe shelters. But the foremost concern is putting out a consistent message.

Inconsistency among officials' statements became a devastating complication during the Chicago heat wave. As bodies piled up in the Cook County medical examiner's office, the chief examiner began telling officials and the media that the city was experiencing a heat emergency. But Mayor Daley publicly questioned the medical examiner's statements and accused him of fanning the flames of crisis. "It's very hot," Daley said in a press conference during the heat wave. "But let's not blow it out of proportion."

The inconsistent message--which played out in the media over several days--confused residents and exacerbated the heat wave's effects. "Because the mayor's office refused to acknowledge the disaster," Klinenberg says, "none of the city's agencies responded. All the city needed to do was to treat this like an emergency."

Relying on traditional forms of media can constrain officials' efforts to communicate with the public. That's certainly a lesson learned by leaders in San Diego in 2003, when wildfires tore through residential areas of the city. Officials there debated whether to initiate the city's emergency alert system, which would flash warnings on television about the fires to city residents. But the system had a serious time constraint: An alert message could be no longer than 90 seconds. Because of that limited capacity to provide information, officials were afraid that an alert might actually exacerbate the crisis, and residents trying to flee one fire might end up driving toward another one.

New technologies make it easier to avoid such problems. During the 2003 blackout, Wayne County, Michigan, used its "first-call" system, also known as "reverse 9-1-1." The program automatically dialed 320 homes a minute with instructions on where to find bottled water and cooling stations. New York City is devising a system for emergencies that would text-message critical instructions directly to people's cell phones.

6. WILL THE PUBLIC DO WHAT YOU SAY? "THE EXPERIENTIAL KNOWLEDGE OF REGULAR PEOPLE IS MISSING."

Grand Forks is used to floods. When the snow melts each spring, conversations turn to how high the Red River will go. "People have had flood parties here," says Deputy Fire Chief Mike Flermoen. "They think it's not going to be that bad. Or they live on the fourth floor, so they figure the water won't ever get to them."

But 1997 was different. The waters were rising so high, so fast, that Mayor Pat Owens made her citywide evacuation order mandatory. Most residents took it seriously and left. But 150 people stayed downtown in buildings that later caught fire. "They were putting the lives of our first responders in danger," says Owens, who is now retired. "And we didn't know if we could get in to save them."

The situation was much worse in New Orleans, of course, where an estimated 100,000 people stayed despite Mayor Ray Nagin's mandatory evacuation order. After the storm, much was said about how many of the city's poor didn't own cars. But that was only part of the problem. On September 16, the Washington Post published a poll of New Orleans evacuees sheltering in Houston. More than half said that they could have found a way out of town before the storm hit. The largest number of people who stayed behind said they didn't think Katrina would be as bad as it was. Many others said they worried about their property, were physically unable to leave or had to care for someone who was unable to leave.

Dr. Roz Lasker, a researcher at the New York Academy of Medicine, doesn't find any of this surprising. Lasker recently led a yearlong study of how people might react to two kinds of terrorist attacks: a smallpox outbreak and a dirty-bomb explosion. What she found was that in both circumstances, massive numbers of citizens would likely ignore official instructions on what to do.

In the case of smallpox, emergency plans envision the public reporting to schools or clinics to get vaccinated. Lasker found that 57 percent of the public would not automatically follow that order, either because they don't trust the government, don't think smallpox is a big deal, or worry that the vaccine might make them sick. In the dirty-bomb scenario, plans typically call for people to "shelter-in- place" because staying indoors provides protection from contaminated dust and radiation. Yet Lasker found that only 59 percent of the public would stay inside for as long as they were told to. Many would leave to pick up their kids at school or to take care of other family members.

As Lasker sees it, the weak link in emergency planning is that the planners don't solicit much feedback from the public. Plans tend to envision how the public SHOULD respond, not how people are LIKELY to respond in the moment. "Planning and policy making has become professionalized and technical," Lasker says. "What's missing is the experiential knowledge of regular people."

In addition to considering the public's response, officials need to think about the emergency plans of businesses, nonprofits and regional entities. One water district in King County, Washington, for example, has plans to shut off the water system in case of an earthquake. That's something fire departments in the area should know about. Before the 2001 quake, there was little coordination between public officials and non-governmental groups, but the county has been trying to rectify that.

7. WHAT'S YOUR HOSPITAL CAPACITY? THOUSANDS OF CORPSES WITH NO PLACE TO GO

During the Chicago heat wave, hospital after hospital reached capacity. Almost half the city's emergency rooms went on "bypass" status, meaning paramedics had to drive victims to a different facility. At the time, Chicago officials had no system for monitoring emergency room intake throughout the city. "If they'd been able to see what was going on in the emergency rooms," says Eric Klinenberg, "they could have seen the extent of the heat emergency."

In the wake of a disaster, it's essential that officials have the ability to know what's going on at area hospitals. Emergency room coordination is crucial to ensuring that victims receive immediate care. In the Seattle area during the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, a hospital capacity Web site served as a valuable tool for emergency responders looking for available emergency rooms. But the site wasn't always accessible, and it offered inadequate information about the types of injuries and patients being admitted. Public health officials were able to tell which hospitals were full, but they couldn't rely on the Web site to determine how many people were affected by the quake. Instead, they resorted to calling each facility individually.

Were a wide-scale bioterror attack to occur, or a severe flu pandemic, the problems Chicago and Seattle faced would be multiplied by a hundred. In June, the Trust for America's Health issued a report on readiness for an outbreak of a deadly new strain of influenza. Pandemics occurred in 1918, 1957 and 1968, and public health officials are increasingly concerned that the next one may be on its way. The Trust predicted that a severe pandemic would kill 540,000 Americans and hospitalize 2.4 million. To put that in perspective, there are fewer than a million beds in U.S. hospitals.

Contingencies for "surge capacity" are a common feature of pandemic plans in all 50 states. But a lot of this planning exists on paper only. "A lot of plans will say that at some point we should do an inventory of nursing homes or hotels that could be commandeered," says Shelly Hearne, the Trust's executive director. "But show me a state that has taken the next step and signed memorandums of understanding so that those hotels know there's an agreement on this. I don't know how many state health officers actually know where their potential morgues will be when they suddenly have thousands of bodies stacking up."

8. ARE YOU READY FOR SECONDARY IMPACTS? "WE FRANKLY DIDN'T THINK MUCH ABOUT FIRE."

When the 2003 blackout hit, it wasn't just the lights that went out. In Cleveland, all four of the city's water plants went down, knocking out water service to about half of the 1.5 million people they serve. Power came back in about 12 hours, but it was another day before it was safe for Clevelanders to drink their water without boiling it. Cleveland's three sewage treatment plants also conked out, forcing more than 60 million gallons of partially-treated sewage to spill into Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River. "We did have a plan for a blackout," says Tim Tigue, director of operations and maintenance for the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. "But we never thought of the whole grid going down."

It is challenging enough in any disaster to contend with rising water, powerful winds or shaking earth, but it's the secondary impacts that can plunge a controllable situation into chaos. That was clear with Katrina, when civil unrest, fires and the lack of power, communications, water and sewer service turned a bad situation into a humanitarian disaster.

Fires in particular are a concern. In the first 24 hours after the blackout in New York City, six times as many blazes broke out as usual--because of people burning candles in their homes. In Grand Forks, floodwaters coming in contact with electric panels sparked the downtown inferno. "It surprised us," says Peter O'Neill, the fire chief. "We put all our efforts into the flood. We frankly didn't think much about fire."

The fire fighters eventually improvised a way to put two engines atop flatbed trucks and then pump the frigid river water to douse the flames. Woes continued, however, even after the big fire went out. Four houses caught fire the next day, forcing city officials to make a devil's bargain by cutting power to the whole city. "When you shut down electricity during a flood, you're essentially giving up on homes where the sump pumps are still working," O'Neill says. That's a tough choice to make, says the chief, but "in hindsight, we'd make that call earlier."

9. ARE YOU FLEXIBLE? "WE CAN'T FIGURE IT ALL OUT AHEAD OF TIME."

In the summer of 1995, as temperatures in the Midwest sweltered at lethal levels, the city of Chicago had a heat emergency plan on the books. The problem? "They had forgotten about it," says author Eric Klinenberg. "Literally, no one remembered that they had a plan. So during this incredible disaster, the city didn't follow its own plan." Moreover, it had been a very long time since officials had updated the plan.

The key to disaster preparedness, officials say, is to think of a response plan as a living document that's constantly revised. Cities across the country took their plans off the shelf after September 11 and added terrorism annexes. Now, after Hurricane Katrina, cities are again dusting off their plans and looking at natural disasters.

But no amount of planning or updating can prepare officials for every possible emergency event. That's why Harvard Professor Dutch Leonard says he worries that politicians and emergency planners typically learn the wrong types of lessons after disasters. They tend to focus on specific problems--say, Houston's evacuation traffic jam before Hurricane Rita--and think narrowly about how to address them. "We shouldn't imagine that we can figure it all out ahead of time," Leonard says. What's more important, as Leonard sees it, is for state and local officials to learn how to improvise. That requires a broader level of thinking about how to manage crises. It also suggests that there be clear lines of authority and sharing of information among decision makers. "If all they're prepared to do is address the scenarios they've thought of, and they don't prepare to improvise, then they'll be caught flat-footed by the next major disturbance," Leonard says.

Clearly, anticipating specific disasters is important. Emergency planners certainly should consider the multitude of possible crises they may face. And the experiences of other cities in other crises-- from New York to San Diego, from Seattle to the Gulf Coast--can provide valuable lessons. But the most important lesson for emergency planners can't be learned from any specific event. Officials need to develop workable response structures that are comprehensive enough to handle specific crises but nimble enough to allow them to respond to all types of disasters. That way, the next time the power goes out or fires go on a rampage or the levees break, they'll be ready.

Zach Patton  |  Executive Editor
zpatton@governing.com  | 

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