On August 28, 2005, “The Bulletin” was issued by the National Weather Service in New Orleans, with wording reminiscent to the overly-dramatic scripts of disaster movies. “Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks…perhaps longer,” it read. “Power outages will last for weeks…as most power poles will be down and transformers destroyed. Water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards.”
Meteorologist Robert Ricks, recalled revising the bulletin point-by-point, hoping to remove points that might lead to more panic than preparedness. After his experiences surviving both Betsy and Camille in the Lower Ninth Ward, he knew he couldn’t take anything out, because it was all relevant. Hoping he would be wrong and the storm would pan out to be over-hyped, he issued the bulletin.
At 9:45 the next morning, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast as a Category 3 storm, with sustained winds estimated 120 m.p.h; gusts of over 135 m.p.h. were measured in Southern Mississippi before anemometers failed. Despite the aggressive warnings describing Katrina’s power, residents weren’t prepared for the city’s levees to breach, sending 80 percent of the city underwater, and completely submerging St. Bernard Parish.
Recovery efforts were hindered in the days that followed by the unprecedented devastation caused by the hurricane and only further amplified by levee breach. Families lived on top of roofs for days waiting to be rescued; patients were clinging to life in medical facilities with no power. While speaking in the Lower Ninth Ward yesterday, President Barack Obama said Katrina was a natural disaster that “became a manmade one – a failure of government to look out for its own citizens” as FEMA responded to an overwhelming disaster in an underwhelming manner.
In the 10 years since Katrina, the hurricane and subsequent response has been meticulously reviewed and criticized. From engineering to social policy to basic logistics, there were predictions and revelations of inevitable malfunction and failure before, during, and after Katrina. Even in a post-Katrina era, gulf communities remain threatened by floods and hurricanes because funding never materialized to allow residents to elevate their homes so floodwaters can flow under the structures.
Despite the close critiques of the response to Katrina, the U.S. is still fleeting in preparedness, even a decade later. A group of UC-Berkeley students recently conducted the largest-ever study of power outages in the U.S. Their findings? Blackouts are getting chronically longer because of severe weather. Without power, breakdowns occur on every level — from looting and violence to communication and transportation disruptions.
Beyond the logistics that are integral to beginning recovery after a disaster like power, the lack of response and complacency to warnings issued ahead of storms is disheartening. Of the over 45,000 tornado warnings issued between 1999 and 2014, only 0.2% of those warnings were upgraded to tornado emergencies, a type of warning that confirms that a dangerous and damaging tornado is on the ground. This large disparage between false-alarms and real emergencies can make people skeptical when warnings are issued. In order to combat the false-alarm mentality, meteorologists like Robert Ricks are having to use stronger wording and even make personal pleas.
While it does seem that disaster readiness has taken a backseat, one of the most effective safety tools since Katrina wasn’t intended to be a tool at all: social media. At the height of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, 3.2 million tweets tagged with #Sandy were sent in 24 hours, with over 11 million sent throughout the duration of the storm. Despite known restrictions of the technology following a disaster, experts believe social media would have aided the Katrina response, citing that it would be “inconceivable that the same information vacuum [during Katrina] could exist in a major city in a highly developed country today.”
In the aftermath, the U.S. and beyond have been forced to assess how they approach disasters of this magnitude. While the decade since has exposed threats beyond what was seen during the storm; the survival, response and recovery of those affected by disasters can improve because of this knowledge. As an intense El Nino is forecasted to bring unpredictable and destructive weather worldwide this fall, the lessons learned from Katrina will help to mitigate the impact.