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Hurricane Katrina one year later: Have we learned any lessons?

Aug. 22, 2006, 9:53 AM

Hundreds of lives could have been saved from Hurricane Katrina’s rampage in Louisiana if the powers-that-be had followed their own crisis plans, believed the hurricane experts and communicated to residents in graphic terms the devastation that was coming their way.

Those are just some of the conclusions reached by Vanderbilt University professors who studied the various reports on Katrina to learn how decisions contributed to the loss of more than 1,500 lives when the hurricane hit near New Orleans Aug. 29, 2005.

“The lessons we learned from Katrina were the very same lessons we learned from the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco and many other disasters in the past century,” said Ken Pence, assistant professor of the practice of engineering management at Vanderbilt. “Unfortunately, it seems we have to re-learn the same lessons over and over.” There were people who got the job done during Katrina and disregarded whether all the proper forms were filled out, Pence said. But, many of the people in charge failed to act in time, often because of bureaucracy. “The length of the decision chain needs to be dramatically shortened and the prevailing attitude needs to be pragmatic and crisis-oriented, rather than bureaucratic or political,” Pence said.

Other lessons learned from Katrina and earlier disasters, include:

  • Pre-position emergency supplies much closer than 500 – 1000 miles from the disaster site, as was the case with Katrina.
  • Mobilize evacuation forces as soon as a credible threat exists and believe the experts when they say the time has come to evacuate.
  • To get the “evacuation” word out, use multiple channels of communication in addition to the media, including pastors, community leaders, teachers, and others with contacts in the community.
  • Pre-establish relationships with neighboring communities to help each other out during disasters.

Pence, David Dilts, professor of engineering management, and Tony Brown, assistant professor of sociology, presented their findings at the Academy of Management’s annual conference in Atlanta Aug. 11.

Contacts: Emily Pearce (615) 322-2706, emily.pearce@vanderbilt.edu

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