View Full Version : Disaster readiness - why can't even 1st world countries handle catastrophes?

Dagobahn Eagle
05-20-2007, 06:06 AM
In September 2005, New Orleans was flooded when her flood walls broke. When Katrina was on its way, there were experts who bragged that the rescue operation which certainly was going to be initiated was about to set an example for the rest of the world - this'd be the First World at its finest, a textbook example on how to handle a major catastrophe. Watch and see how the USA handles this.

Well, we all know how it really was handled. It was an unqualified disaster. There was no evacuation, no plan on how to handle the refugees, and no plan on what to do with the city itself. The US, the world's only superpower, a nation spending vast sums to help disaster victims globally, failed its own people.

At about the same time in Norway, the remains of Nate and Marie hit shore and caused two landslides. The first hit a single house and killed no one, although it did cause structural damage. On September 14th, the second one swept with it five houses, killed three people, and caused hundreds to be evacuated. Rescue workers dug with their bare hands, and one survivor told me she received 'almost no help' at the hotel she was evacuated to - right next to a freaking hospital. She's also complained about lack of a support group, and seems pretty displeased with the way the city's handled her psychiatric needs after the slide. Norway, like the USA, had failed to prevent the disaster, handle it, and, judging from her experience, cope with the aftermath.

It has gotten me thinking. Norway and the US rank fairly high on the Filthy Rich Countries of the World List, do we not? So... why weren't we ready? Why didn't the authorities in the US secure the flood walls and have a plan ready for the refugees when they knew this kind of thing would happen? Why didn't Norse authorities prepare for landslides when they must have known that sooner or later, when a freak storm found its way here, there would have to be a really bad one? A lot of it can be explained by the simple fact that humans do not care about the future and prefer to hold their horses until it's too late, but I have a feeling that it may be more than that - that disasters are simply not possible to handle. We can prepare for disaster a, sure, but then disaster b hits and we're just as dumbfounded as we'd be if disaster a hit without our preparation. Different disasters require different tools, machinery, experts, medical knowledge, and engineering to handle - a fire department with a 'secondary specialization' in aiding victims of an anthrax attack could still be woefully inadequate after an earthquake, and vice versa.

And the question most worthy, in my view, of thought - and worry, especially now that the world's going to be tormented by natural disasters brought about by global warming: If we can't handle disasters and refugees... what about Sri Lanka and the other poor countries? Or am I too pessimistic here?

05-20-2007, 11:04 AM
1 simple answer:
We're only human, and everyone makes mistakes, so yes, i think you are being too pessimistic.

05-20-2007, 01:04 PM
It's because we are fighting aganist an enemy that cannot be contained. We are fighting against a dangerous foe that always can plot against us. As long as we remain on the defensive, they will only grow more and more powerful.

We must not remain complencant! Just because this foe has been around since the begining of time does not mean that wiping it off the face of the Earth is impossible. I say we launch a military invasion of Mother Nature now and destroy it before it does any more "natural" disasters.

EDIT: On a much more revelant and useful note...

We could just start spending more and more money on pork barrel projects that can protect us from all sorts of natural disasters. The more money we spend, the more we protect from Natural Disaster A. Repeat until we get safeguarded from all Natural Disasters.

Of course, we may have no money whatsoever to enjoy...say...food and water, but that the price we pay for security against nature.

Jae Onasi
05-20-2007, 04:15 PM
I can't speak to the Norwegian situation because I know nothing about it. However, I can comment on the Hurricane Katrina situation, having friends who live in that area, knowing a couple FEMA officials (county only, no one high level), having a sister who went down with her church to help with the clean-up and care of the affected people, and in general being such a weather geek that I know a lot about hurricanes and tornadoes.

This is an incredibly complex issue--disaster response is not as simple as 'let's send stuff and get them help." There were definitely system-wide failures that are now being addressed, but I think even if every thing had gone absolutely perfectly, there would still have been widespread devastation that would take months or years to resolve.

Dagobahn makes the comment that there were no plans for evacuation, refugees, or New Orleans itself. That's not accurate. Every city, county, and state is required to have disaster plans and New Orleans, LA, and MS were not exempt. They did have disaster plans, they did order evacuations, and they did have some arrangements in place for refugees. However, the timely and adequate implementation of those plans was sorely lacking.

For Katrina (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Katrina), there was a constellation of problems that came together to make the disaster far worse than it would have been. Make no mistake--it was bad no matter what was done. However certain actions combined to make the disaster response worse.

First, and most important, the storm itself was unbelievably powerful. New Orleans/LA and MS were not prepared to be hit by the third strongest hurricane to ever hit the US. No one is ever prepared to get hit by a storm that has a 902 mB central pressure at its strongest (most hurricanes have a much higher pressure than this--closer to 1000). When it hit LA, its pressure had only risen to 920mB. The lower the pressure, the higher the storm surge (the wall of water around the eye created by the winds and low pressure), and the stronger the winds whirl around the eye of the storm. At its peak, Katrina had sustained winds of 175 mph (280 kph). When it made landfall, maximum _sustained_ winds were still 120 mph/205 kph. That doesn't include wind gusts which were much higher. The storm had hurricane-strength winds for 150 miles inland, with MS bearing the brunt of the storm. The hurricane-force windfield was huge--240 miles wide in diameter, and the tropical storm force windfield was wider still. So a very large area of MS and parts of LA and AL experienced winds in excess of 75 mph for quite some time.

The storm surge in parts of MS were 28 feet above sea level, and the highest measured storm surge in New Orleans before the sensors failed was 14 feet. The levees were 23 feet above sea level. Imagine a wall of water 3 stories high and you get an idea of how big just the surge was. The actual waves on top of that as best as could be measured were 55.5 feet high--some of the buoys closer to the eye were destroyed by the storm. So, you could have had a wave 82 feet above sea level hitting land (8 stories tall!). This was almost 60 feet higher than the levee height. Even if the waves were not that high when Katrina hit land, the wave heights were still well above the levee height when combined with the storm surge. In addition, it only takes a couple _inches_ of water to move a 2 ton truck. Imagine the sheer power of miles of 80 feet tall waves of water and the massive destruction it could do. In MS, storm surge flowed inland 12 entire miles, flooding everything there.

In addition, the hurricane spawned a number of tornadoes which added to the destruction--51 total, 11 of which were in MS. Rainfall was up to 18 inches in some places. Over a million people were without electricity and natural gas after the storm, and gas stations were flooded and inoperable without electricity. Coastal communities were literally leveled--buildings, trees, everything was flattened. Roads and bridges in the areas hit by the storm were either destroyed or underwater and impassable as a result. I know a paramedic who lives in southern MS, and he noted that they had trouble responding because of the rain, wind, and trees covering the few roads that weren't underwater.

You can have the finest emergency response team in the world, but nothing is going to be able to cope immediately with thousands of square miles of utter physical destruction. The total destruction area was about 90,000 square miles. That's about the size of the entire United Kingdom. The airports in the area were damaged or destroyed. Boats could travel to some degree, but there was a lot of debris in the water that made it dangerous in some spots. Roads were impassable from either water or fallen trees, downed power lines, destroyed bridges, and debris. There were no functioning utilities and no place to get gas or kerosene to power generators. Hospitals and other medical facilities were damaged or outright destroyed. Eighty percent of New Orleans was underwater.

Second, the governments of New Orleans, LA, and the US were slow to respond or in some cases used resources for self-serving reasons rather than search/rescue/disaster response. The US had to wait until states requested federal aid, and the MS governor immediately requested (and received) that aid. The New Orleans Emergency Operations Center was not in a properly prepared building, and it lost phone service, severely affecting communications at the city/county level and made it nearly impossible to communicate immediate needs to the LA EOC. It took the LA governor significantly longer to ask for help, in fact the fed gov't finally used some obscure national emergency plan regulation to finally take over about 48 hours later, although even that response could have been much quicker.

While voluntary evacuations had been ordered, Mayor Nagin did not issue a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans until the 28th of Aug at 10am, even though the Nat'l Hurricane Center had predicted on the 26th that most of the computer models placed the city directly in the path of the storm. The hurricane force winds hit New Orleans 2am on the 29th, only 14 hours after the mandatory order was given, and the hurricane made landfall about 6am, less than 24 hours after the order. Mayor Nagin did not properly implement the city's disaster plan, either. There was not enough gasoline or transports for those who did not have cars, and the plan called for the city's school buses to be used for mandatory evacuations. Dozens of school buses which could have been used for evacuations stood idle and were destroyed in the storm. In spite of that, about 80% of the city did evacuate, or the loss of life would have been much more devastating than it was.

Gov. Blanco of LA moved slowly as well--she did not request aid from the federal gov't for at least 24 hours after the levees were breached, did not request additional Nat'l Guard troops from the Fed. gov't (the Feds can't go in without Gov. approval), and she did not utilize state compacts that allow sharing of Guard troops between states in emergencies.

The Red Cross did a better job of getting resources to a lot of people than the gov't, but whether that was sheer gov't incompetence, fortuitous placement of Red Cross personnel, the extreme travel limitations from the physical destruction, or a combination of the above is unclear. The only way in/out of New Orleans with any reliability for several days was by chopper or small boats. It took time to fly into the city because planes, choppers and other emergency vehicles also had to be evacuated from the area prior to the storm's landfall in order for them not to be destroyed. Keesler Air Force base had to be evacuated of all its planes and choppers prior to the storm making landfall, or they would have been damaged/destroyed--this reduced some air availability. The response time was also limited by the amount of time needed to fly to/from areas where the choppers could land and refuel, which could be a couple hundred miles. In addition, FEMA has been accused of delaying help--waiting for counties or cities to ask for aid rather than just sending it in anticipation of the requests, and even waving off the attempts of civilian aircraft to rescue people the day after the hurricane.

A significant cause of the New Orleans destruction was from the failed levee system. Part of that was the sheer power of the storm, but part of it was that the levee system was aging and funds (local, state, and federal) had not been allocated for modernizing and rebuilding the levee system. There is some question over whether it was built properly in all places, but I suspect it was more a matter of the Army Corps of Engineers using the technology they had available to them at the time it was built and then was not updated. In any case, it was inadequate for something of Katrina's strength.

05-20-2007, 07:04 PM
Jae Onasi is right, there was and is an evacuation plan for every city, county and parish on the US Gulf coast. With the coronation required between local cities, counties and state agency as well a private enterprise, it is a disaster waiting to happen. Imagine winds in excess of 100 mph add to that hail and rain and then a tornado or two for good measure. Now imagine yourself riding this storm out in a car stuck on a freeway not more than thirty miles from your infinitely safer home. That is what would have happen if Hurricane Rita would have struck the Houston area September of 2005. Luckily the storm turned and slowed before striking the upper Texas Coast (it is hard for me to use the words luckily when describing some place getting hit by a storm, but in this case it is accurate). If not we would be no longer speaking of the disaster of Katrina, but talking about the even higher death toll of Rita and the failings of every government agency in the state of Texas.

The problem was that after seeing what happen during Katrina every city called a mandatory evacuation (first time mandatory evacuation were legal in Texas history). Instead of doing the evacuation planís order they all started the evacuation at once. Cities 45 to 60 miles inland called voluntary evacuations at the same time and this lead to people traveling 10 miles in 5 hours. The call for evacuation also closed down many gas stations so people were running out of fuel on the road ways. Most evacuation routes from the area I live in called for travel through Houston. Houston a city I usually evacuated to was calling for a voluntary evacuation at the time. My job allows me to stay longer and come back before the general population. However I was even told to get out by police officers knocking on my door. I did not take the mandatory evacuation route. It still took me three hours down back roads to make the usual 1 and a half hour trip. I also had to bribe a local police officer to get through the road blocks. The only thing they had to drink was coffee and I gave him 4 bottles of water. That just show how prepared my county was.

What Iím saying in an extremely wordy way is even the best laid plans is just that a plan and it must be execute by humans. As long as city governments are allowed to call when their citizens are to evacuate then evacuation plans are doomed to failure. The mayor calls it to soon and people get mad and you are not mayor pass the next election. Call it to late and people die. You can say this was just a lesson learned the hard way, but donít. People died due to the incompetence of city, county and state governments and the self-centerness and selfishness of us private citizens. The evacuation blunder and fact that city and state officials wouldnít allow people back to their property in Beaumont/Port Arthur area means less people will evacuate next time.

Until we stop over populating places prone to natural disasters then people are going to die and property will be destroyed. That is just a fact of life. Personally after staying for a Cat 1 hurricane I always get out without being told by any government agency. I take what canít replace and have insurance to cover the rest. Iím not depending on the state or federal government to replace my property or save my life. Well expect for FEMA as I have flood insurance.

Iíve already written who I believe was at fault for Katrina (everyone) in another thread, so I will not go into that.

Char Ell
05-20-2007, 08:56 PM
So... why weren't we ready? In a word, complacency. It's a simple matter of human nature. Before Katrina, New Orleans hadn't been hit by a major hurricane since 1969 I believe. The city with an average elevation below sea level in a major hurricane zone had dodged the proverbial bullet for too long and apparently thought that trend would continue.

A second reason is that I believe people look too much to their government for assistance instead of to themselves. IMHO much of America has lost a large degree of it's self-sufficiency. In the case of Hurricane Katrina many people in New Orleans had not even made basic preparations for a major hurricane, preparation like storing water and a 3-day supply of food that didn't require refrigeration. Instead they were left in a destitute situation and needed immediate assistance that our government was unfortunately unprepared to render. If the people in the New Orleans area had taken the time to prepare for such an emergency then I honestly believe the effects of Hurricane Katrina would not have been so acute.

As far as poor countries go they are likely in worse shape than Norway and the U.S.A. as far as their ability to respond to and recover from major natural disasters. The tsunami of December 2005 is the most recent example that comes to mind. Nations like Indonesia will have to continue to rely on foreign assistance in their recovery efforts. I'm not sure it's a valid comparison but it seems to me that deaths resulting from Hurricane Katrina were far fewer than the deaths from the 2005 tsunami in the Pacific.

Jae Onasi
05-20-2007, 09:20 PM
The deaths from Katrina were far fewer in part due to the ability to do some preparation. A lot of people didn't have the chance to prepare for the tsunami--in some cases they only had a couple minutes to get to safety if any warning. The wall of water was much higher too--I think something like 100 feet high. The sheer amount of water hitting a low-lying region with structures not designed for tsunamis meant a lot of people died from being swept away or drowned.

05-21-2007, 03:38 PM
A second reason is that I believe people look too much to their government for assistance instead of to themselves. IMHO much of America has lost a large degree of it's self-sufficiency. In the case of Hurricane Katrina many people in New Orleans had not even made basic preparations for a major hurricane, preparation like storing water and a 3-day supply of food that didn't require refrigeration. Instead they were left in a destitute situation and needed immediate assistance that our government was unfortunately unprepared to render. If the people in the New Orleans area had taken the time to prepare for such an emergency then I honestly believe the effects of Hurricane Katrina would not have been so acute.

While I agree with the majority of what you have written here and by no means am I using my reply as an excuse for people not striving to become self-sufficient. Hurricane preparedness is not cheap. Let us not forget the poverty rate for New Orleans is 23.2% almost twice the national average of 12.7%. Combine that with what youíve written about Ďcomplacencyí and that makes a national disaster into a human disaster.

The deaths from Katrina were far fewer in part due to the ability to do some preparation.

Even when the State, Federal, and city governments werenít doing their job to protect its citizens, people were getting rescued. The game wardens, the coast guards, police, doctors, nurses and private citizens all made this disaster less than it could have been. We heard about the worst of the worst, but let us not forget the many others who went above and beyond to protect human life, even at the risk of their own.

05-30-2007, 08:50 PM
In a word, complacency. I was going to say "hubris". I think either work.

Nancy Allen``
05-30-2007, 10:41 PM
There are several factors involved: money, being able to predict these events and the effort put into preventing such eventualities. Details? Okay, you're the governer of Louisiana, you have a budget meaning there's x amount of dollars you can spend. There's funds needed for hospitals, for schools, your opponents are busy trying to hound you out of office, police and emergancy services need to be maintained, special interest groups keep lobbying you for money, roadworks need to be performed. All these problems and more need far more money than you can afford to spend. So corners get cut. Compromises are made. Factor all this in and something such as insurance against a possibility (in this case preventative measures against a flood) isn't feasible. Now there could be some state of the art defence against floods or universal health care package but very much at the expense of sacrificing on everything else and taxes going through the roof by nessecity. Which leads to the second point. Sorry to bring up a sensitive topic but take September 11 for example. I can think of several places where the idea of an attack on the United States was raised in fiction: Red Alert, Tom Clancy and The Lone Gunmen, the latter ever daring to suggest a government plot to orchastrate an attack to give credibility to war. Leaving that aside, we look to Tom Clancy for the answer. He said that a novel he was writing where planes were hijacked and flown into buildings was rejected by his editor on the basis that it was too farfetched. And on the evening the attacks took place he talked about what happened and remembered how he was speaking to a friend of his, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or something along those lines, and the question was asked whether any thought had been given to the possibility of such an attack. The question was considered and the answer was that it wasn't, but the next week when there was a staff meeting the question would be posed and discussed. Finally, there's the effort placed in safeguarding against these possibilities. Let's look at September 11 again. Security at the airports was considerably lax, the evidence speaks for itself, and part of the reason is because were things locked up as tight as they could be there would be delays, hassles and complaints, and that ties in with the issue of money as well. So they let things slide. One of the more extreme ideas suggested was patriot missiles on buildings to shoot down planes. Now that idea is a little silly, but it would certainly stop it from happening again. The same for what to do about floods, there are ideas both sensible and not, but it's too much trouble, or too inconveniant.

05-30-2007, 10:57 PM
The Tom Clancy novel actually did get published btw...the title is called Debt of Honor and toward the end of the book a Japanese airplane pilot flies a 747 into the US Capitol Building during a joint session of Congress with the President in attendance.

In reference to the topic I think that Jae pretty much hit it on the nose. The plans weren't the problem, the actions or lack there of of key officials and as well as some mismanagement certainly was the main driving force behind the lacking initial recovery effort.

05-30-2007, 11:19 PM
Uhhh the reason why is very simple. It's because the government is in charge of all of it. They can't do ****. Bureaucrats and politicians would rather spend the tax dollars on themselves and their friends as opposed to doing things like building stronger flood walls and having better evacuation, rescue, and recovery operations in place. When these responsibilities are put in the hands of independent groups like the Red Cross, things usually go more smoothly. Because they know what the **** they're doing.

Nancy Allen``
05-30-2007, 11:23 PM
Part of that may be true, but it has to be shown where the money goes otherwise questions would be raised, and on top of it all the money that had been allocated has to be spent otherwise they get less next time around.