Lessons from Katrina

As most of you know, hurricane Katrina dealt a devastating blow to the Gulf Coast of the
United States. The hardest hit areas were East of New Orleans, LA. The actual city of New
Orleans fared well in the storm but the wind force caused significant window damage to
some of the taller buildings. As these buildings were built many years ago surely the
architects knew the geography of the region, with regards to the potential for a hurricanes
coming out of the Gulf of Mexico, you might think that the buildings could have been
engineered to with stand Category 5 hurricane force winds. More to the point, there is a
thing called Storm Surge- which is where during the hurricane, due to the force of the
wind, water is ‘surged’ or forced into inland areas. New Orleans has an elaborate system
of levees, flood walls and pumping stations to handle high water conditions or so they
thought. Add to the gumbo that the topography of the city is actually in the shape of a
bowl. Some of the earthen levels failed and one floodwall – the now infamous 17th street
canal- lost a section approximately one-quarter of a mile long. This flood wall was roughly
10 inches thick, 14 feet high and made of concrete and steel.
So this brings us to Lesson 1: There is an assumption of adequate engineering design and
construction. I heard this topic described very well on the radio the other day. A civil
engineer said that of all the engineering disciplines, mechanical, structural, electrical, civil,
etc. we –civil engineers – do not get the luxury to actually test our finished product. It is
often tested over time and through use and nature. There was a presumption that the Corp
of Engineers had designed and oversaw the building of a flood protection system which
used an adequate Safety Factor as we do in safety design. Most engineering is sound and
delivers structural integrity. The levees and flood walls were designed and built many
years ago and I wonder if current scientific modeling and computers would have changed
the design and build criteria.
Another series of negative events occurred during and after the storm force, namely loss of
electrical power, loss of running water, loss of natural gas, loss of phone service, including
cellular service. Cars, busses and trolley cars were flooded and could not be used for
evacuation. Certainly the employers and medical professionals operating in New Orleans,
here again knowing the geography of the region, would have devised adequate plans
complete with redundant systems to respond and recover from the predictable
consequences of a hurricane. Well some did and those employers/businesses that were
prepared reduced the economic impact and human suffering that occurred. The large
charity hospital system in downtown New Orleans did not evacuate the ill patients. I am
sure they had their reasons for these decisions. Perhaps they relied on the back-up
generator. However the generator was located in the basement of the hospital and quickly
failed as the city filled up with water from the burst flood wall. Another unsettling event
was at one of the nursing homes that cared for the elderly suffered storm related fatalities
totaling 19 persons. I have to admit that pre- Katrina-, which is now a post Katrina

officially coined term-, that I lacked respect for Emergency Action Plans. Perhaps as a
safety professional, I and maybe you are focused on prevention of events and therefore
discount the need for adequate response and recovery programs. I can tell you that I have a
new found respect for how the benefits of pre-event planning can benefit organizations.
So that brings us to Lesson #2: Just because an organization never had a business
interrupting event does not mean that they never will which necessitates the need for an
Emergency Action Plan. If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure then a pound
of cure is worth a ton of prepared response. As a general statement I would think the more
precious the product, care for humans or high dollar goods, the more elaborate the EAP
should be.
Much dialogue is being exchanged about which government entity did what and who
should have done what. Finger pointing abounds between federal officials (FEMA) the
Governor of Louisiana and the Mayor of New Orleans. I cannot sit in judgment of actions
in the heat of the battle. One thing is certain; response to critical human events was slow
and late due to poor communications networks.
Lesson 3: There can be no substitute for communications. You could have a world of
resources to deliver but not knowing where to send them first, then second and third is of
no use or a least minimum value.
Lesson 4: Build a response system that is self reliant. Do not rely on the government
whether local, state of federal. If help comes then great, as it can support and augment
your efforts. If not, then you are better off providing some level of response. Many of the
Petro- chemical plants have in house fire brigades as not solely depend on outside help as
an example.
My mother has always said out of every bad comes some good. Often, as I grew up, I
doubted that statement but over the years have learned that she was right. It is too soon to
see what good may come from the Katrina events but I am certain there will be some good.
If nothing else I will see the accounts I service in a different framework with regards to
emergency response.