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…demonstrates…we are still not fully prepared.”
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.
Trump has been active on the twitter front regarding the hurricane as well, re-tweeting a photo of his conversation with Texas Governor Greg Abbot, and a video of Trump meeting being briefed by various FEMA officials ahead of the impending storm.
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.
Dallas News reports FEMA has also set up a command center at an Airfield near Seguin TX, stationed trailers containing supplies, food, and water in San Antonio, and placed FEMA staff at Texas’s State Operation center to make coordination efforts as seamless as possible – while letting Texas officials take the lead.
Abbott activated 700 or so members of the national guard ,the Houston School District announced multiple closing ahead of the storm, a state of disaster has already been declared for multiple counties, and those in power are speaking directly to the citizens regarding what to expect, how to prepare, and how to get out.
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.