Cities heed lessons from 2005 storms
The small city of Gretna, La., was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina last fall, but lacking New Orleans’ high profile, the city had to respond almost single-handedly to its residents’ immediate needs. Today, Gretna is one of many communities that are taking lessons from last year’s hurricanes and joining with other levels of government to better prepare for natural disasters.
In West Virginia, for example, city and state officials are working closely with the Washington-based Federal Emergency Management Agency to establish mobile home parks in the southern part of the state to house residents displaced by floods. Massive floods in Mingo, Greenbrier, Fayette and Summers counties in 2003 and 2004 had forced nearly 100 families to live in the temporary shelters. Last fall, the state began purchasing land with federal affordable-housing funds to create permanent homes for disaster victims, leaving some homes vacant for emergencies — the first such plan in the nation.
In late November, the Washington-based National League of Cities convened several municipal leaders — including Gretna’s Mayor Ronnie Harris, Mayor David Riggins of Vinton, La., and Beaumont, Texas, Mayor Guy Goodson — to discuss disaster preparedness and offer lessons learned from their own communities’ experiences. Mayor Harris told the attendees that “the best lesson that I could offer everyone is be prepared to strike out on your own with no assistance from anyone for a minimum of five days, because that’s how long it took for people to respond. You run out of power, you have no food and water for residents, no means of transportation for residents. All cities must come up with a plan, but sometimes you have to think on the run even with the best plans. Even in your own community, the worst is something that you can’t imagine.”
Riggins emphasized that all levels of government — from first responders to the mayor or county manager — must fully understand the emergency response plan after it is drafted. “It’s very important that every mayor understand the emergency plan because it’s the responsibility of that person to make sure that the evacuation goes smoothly,” Riggins says. “After that, you must ensure that the recovery effort is safe and efficient for those working to recover your city.”
Goodson reported that although Beaumont officials had developed an emergency management plan to respond to a bioterrorism attack or a hazardous materials release, they soon realized it was applicable to a natural disaster. In fact, city responders had executed a full-scale rehearsal of the plan six months before Hurricane Katrina. “We had a plan in place, which gave us the benefit of a well-coordinated effort to handle large numbers of people,” he says. “What we never expected was the enormity of people coming to us and the absence of knowledge about the special needs that those people would have.”
Goodson offers municipalities several lessons to incorporate in their natural disaster plans: 1) be self-reliant, and develop a response plan based on your own assets and those you can count on from your corporate and municipal partners; 2) execute a full-scale rehearsal of the plan; 3) be willing to make difficult or unpopular decisions if they are in the best interests of residents, such as evacuating an area or preventing evacuees from returning if conditions are unsafe.
Self-reliance is also the overarching theme in San Francisco’s community-based disaster planning pilot program. There, community leaders are working with city agencies to develop emergency response plans tailored to their unique needs. For instance, each community has a specific set of resources — from recreation centers that can serve as shelters or religious organizations able to offer food and assistance — that are being identified in advance of a natural disaster.
Finally, many local leaders agree that disaster preparedness boils down to developing good relationships and keeping communication lines open. “The building of relationships between municipalities is not only beneficial, but essential,” Goodson says.
Kim O’Connell is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.