What Katrina Can Teach Us

What Katrina Can Teach Us

Gregory Button made his first trip to the Gulf Coast in September, and he’s been back more than a dozen times since then to assess the needs, both met and unmet, of Hurricane Katrina evacuees. The storm and its aftermath were the focus of Button’s HBHE 661 seminar this year, “Communities in Crisis.” Four students from the seminar helped Button, an adjunct lecturer in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, conduct interviews with evacuees in Austin, Texas, over spring break. Five other students spent time in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, working on an environmental justice project that Button and other researchers are conducting. The parish experienced a “disaster within a disaster,” says Button, when Katrina caused over one million gallons of crude oil to spill in an adjacent region.

Button says he and his students have been struck by the large number of Katrina evacuees who continue to have numerous unmet needs more than six months after the initial crisis. Asked to reflect on the lessons to be learned from the hurricane, Button offered the following:

“Given the complexity, severity, and magnitude of the disaster it is difficult to say what one thing we as a nation should learn from such an event. While the failures to respond are writ large by this most recent catastrophe, inherent in many of the current failures are failures that on a small scale have plagued our response efforts to earlier disasters, including the 2004 hurricanes, Hurricane Andrew, the Northridge earthquake, and going back to Hurricane Hugo.

“In large part, these failures stem from FEMA, which since its inception in 1979 has placed more emphasis on funding and preparedness for potential attacks from an enemy without, be it nuclear attacks during the Cold War period or bioterrorism in the present day. For example, during the 1980s, FEMA spent almost $3 billion preparing for the threat of a nuclear attack and only $23 million on planning for natural disasters. Bipartisan governmental reviews criticized this approach as too one-sided and blamed FEMA’s inadequate response to Hurricane Hugo in 1989, in large part, on this imbalance.

“Moreover, recent congressional testimony by top former and current FEMA officials clearly demonstrates that under the Department of Homeland Security, even some monies allocated by Congress to FEMA for disaster preparedness and response were used instead to address terrorism.

“This skewed approach has ignored how ubiquitous natural disasters are, and the fact that within recent decades in North America disasters have occur-red not only more frequently but often in greater magnitude than in previous decades.

“The recent proposal to abolish FEMA will render the nation even more vulnerable to disasters in the months to come. The more prudent approach is to separate FEMA from Homeland Security and, as the recent bipartisan Senate report on Hurricane Katrina states, replace political appointees with seasoned, professional emergency-management and disaster professionals. Whatever FEMA’s present faults, it would take far too much time to create a new bureaucracy. Given the recent plethora of natural disasters, we can’t afford to wait that long. The solution is to enhance and strengthen the agency and guide it with a public policy that maintains the delicate balance of preparing for natural as well as human threats.”

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