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In August 2005 Hurricane Katrina struck Florida, Cuba, Mississippi, Louisiana, and infamously, the below-sea-level city of New Orleans. It claimed over a thousand lives and caused over a billion dollars in property damage, making it the deadliest hurricane since 1928.
The federal disaster relief effort to Katrina was harshly criticized, as The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) struggled to contain damage, utilize available resources, and evacuate refugees – with FEMA Director Michael Brown being unaware of refugees stranded at the Louisana Superdome three days after the storm, despite multiple news outlets covering their plight.
There were severe coordination issues as well, as FEMA caused a bottleneck by preventing local first responders from acting without state permission, and was allegedly slow in responding to Amtrak when they offered to evacuate refugees by the hundreds via their passenger trains.
In the aftermath, FEMA’s director was recalled, and stories came out regarding countless breakdowns of the relief effort.
The House of Representatives report on the situation was damning: “The failure of local, state, and federal governments to respond more effectively to Katrina — which had been predicted in theory for many years, and forecast with startling accuracy for ﬁve days — demonstrates that whatever improvements have been made to our capacity to respond to natural or man-made disasters, four and half years after 9/11, we are still not fully prepared. Local ﬁrst responders were largely overwhelmed and unable to perform their duties, and the National Response Plan did not adequately provide a way for federal assets to quickly supplement or, if necessary, supplant ﬁrst responders.”
Now, nearly 12 years to the date of Hurricane Katrina’s first landfall, another Category 3 Hurricane, Harvey, sets its sights on the Gulf Coast. This time targeting communities from Houston all the way down to Port Mansfield. With over 100 mile per hour winds and the potential to drop nearly ten feet of water on coastal communities that have seen the sea level rise year-over-year for the last century.
So the question becomes, is FEMA ready? Since 2005 FEMA’s changed significantly. Its budget has increased dramatically, with monies being allocated for flood risk analysis, and mapping software, among other initiatives. Most of these initiatives appear to be a direct response to Katrina; allowing local officials to behave more independently and the creation of ‘strike teams’ that can get to any disaster affected area in the country within two hours.
The positives don’t stop there. Current FEMA Director Brock Long served as the Director of Alabama’s Emergency Management Agency, and as one of FEMA’s Regional Hurricane Managers before being appointed as Director. “We’ve gone 11 years without a major hurricane land-falling in the U.S…I worry that a lot of people have forgotten what that’s like.” He said to Bloomberg
However, Long (and President Donald Trump) have stated they want to cut some FEMA funding; suggesting federal flood insurance should be restricted in communities most prone to flooding, as a way to force local governments to have stricter building codes on coastal establishments.
That said, so far, FEMA seems to be doing all the right things in anticipation of Hurricane Harvey – using mainstream Media like CNN and Fox News to warn of the storm’s danger, and social media like Twitter to reach hundreds of thousands of citizens with vital information – an avenue of direct communication unavailable to them in 2005.
Could Harvey be as bad as Katrina? Its unlikely. Hurricane Harvey has weaker winds and can’t sustain its full power as long as Katrina did, and the population density is lower in some communities, as well.
Will FEMA handle Harvey as poorly as Katrina? Probably not. In the wake of Katrina, significant changes have been made to ensure more efficiency on the part of the agency, typified by their ability to work effectively with several state, local, and federal organizations in the wake of Superstorm Standy.
Regardless, FEMA faces its first major challenge in some time, and the first under the Trump Administration. All eyes are on the response, relief, and recovery of this forthcoming natural disaster.