On third anniversary of Katrina, concerns about preparedness for Hurricane Gustav


As Hurricane Gustav picks up energy from warm Caribbean waters heading toward New Orleans for a possible Labor Day landing, U.S. Gulf Coast residents are again in harm’s way, after being told by NOAA to brace themselves for an “above-normal” Atlantic hurricane season.  Recent reports and investigations, after a history of bureaucratic blunders and attempted cover-ups, raise concerns about preparedness.       

Two Department of Homeland Security reports – FEMA’s Preparedness for the Next Catastrophic Disaster, and The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina:  Lessons Learned and an Associated Press investigation reveal a troubling lack of preparedness for a future marked by more extreme weather.  After bureaucratic blunders and attempted cover-ups following Katrina and Rita —an initial slow response, formaldehyde soaked trailers and faulty water pumps just to name a few— it is clear that improvements in US preparedness for extreme weather must be a priority for the next administration.

Last week President Bush visited New Orleans and delivered a feel-good, upbeat, “mission-accomplished” speech in which he said:

Who would have thought that three years after the storm, the President can come and say, New Orleans, Louisiana is on its way back as a stronger and better city….

I think the message here today is: Hope is being restored. Hope is coming back.

There is nothing wrong with hope, but it isn’t sufficient to address the serious problems surrounding either the recovery after Katrina and Rita, or the readiness for future extreme weather expected to only worsen with climate change.  The problems are serious, these are just a few that have been documented:

FEMA has been criticized harshly for its inept response to Hurricane Katrina, and is still under Congressional and public scrutiny for a series of bad decisions.  Purchasing and deploying tens of thousands of “travel trailers” for the displaced, ignoring reports of formaldehyde exposure and attempting a cover-up, then ordering residents to evacuate the trailers in the absence of an adequate program for alternate housinig is just one example. (See CSW post, and Congressional testimony.)

In a March 2008 report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, FEMA’s Preparedness for the Next Catastrophic Disaster,  the IG found that of nine key areas (e.g., communications, logistics, evacuations, housing, etc.) FEMA had made only “moderate” progress in five, “modest” progress in three, and “limited” progress in one.

FEMA has made changes with a new organizational structure and new leadership, it has conducted extensive training, and has made numerous improvements in its operations.  Hurricane Gustav will be real test; other state and federal entities with a disaster response role will also be tested.

The Associated Press recently conducted a year-long review (“New Orleans Repeating Deadly Levee Blunders”) of levee work in New Orleans, during which it “tracked a pattern of public misperception, political jockeying and legal fighting, along with economic and engineering miscalculations since Katrina, that threaten to make New Orleans the scene of another devastating flood.”  The AP reports:

Dozens of interviews with engineers, historians, policymakers and flood zone residents confirmed many have not learned from public policy mistakes made after Hurricane Betsy in 1965, which set the stage for Katrina; many mistakes are being repeated.

At every step in the scramble to correct the engineering breakdowns of Katrina, independent experts have questioned the ability of the corps, an agency that has accumulated ever more power over the fate of New Orleans, to do the right job.

On the road to recovery, the agency has installed faulty drainage pumps, used outdated measurements, issued incorrect data, unearthed critical flaws, made conflicting statements about flood risk and flunked reviews by the National Research Council.

At the same time, the corps has run into funding problems, lawsuits, a tangle of local interests and engineering difficulties – all of which has led to delays in getting the promised work done.

When and if the Army Corps of Engineers finishes $14.8 billion in post-Katrina work, the city will have limited protection – what are defined as 100-year levees. This does not mean they’d stand up to storms for a century. Under the 100-year standard, in fact, experts say that every house being rebuilt in New Orleans has a 26 percent chance of being flooded again over a 30-year mortgage; and every child born in New Orleans would have nearly a 60 percent chance of seeing a major flood in his or her life.

The faulty pumps issue has a disturbing story behind it.  The Army Corps of Engineers has been installing pumps for removing flood waters in the event of breaches at three outfall locations, at the 17th Street, Orleans Avenue and London Avenue canals.  These pumps are many people’s only line of defense against floodwaters.  The pumps were procured from Moving Water Industries Corp., a company owned by a former business partner of Florida Governor Jeb Bush.  When Maria Garzino, Corps engineer and team leader in charge of the pump installation program, discovered that the pumps have a flawed hydraulic system she was forced to blow the whistle when her warnings went unheeded.  Garzino documented that Corps and MWI employees installed defective pumps in the canals and ignored contract requirements at the expense of public safety.  When she raised it with former Defense Department Inspector General Claude Kicklighter, he rejected most of her claims and cleared MWI of any wrongdoing. The US Office of Special Counsel eventually investigated and then corroborated her long list of complaints and assertions.  As a result, the Department of Defense is having to hire an independent engineering company to look into her allegations,  and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) has asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate.

Improved disaster preparedness and response in a world increasingly challenged by global climatic disruption must be a top priority of the next Administration and Congress.  It looks as though we have a chance to see again precisely what types of improvements are still needed after Gustav puts us all to the test.

—Post by Anne Polansky

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