COMMENTARY | Destructive tornadoes in Alabama have drawn the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to the state. 131 people are dead and the death toll is sure to rise after a series of violent twisters ripped through the state and left wreckage in 16 counties. The city of Tuscaloosa alone suffered millions of dollars in damage. Nearly 1 million people remain without power as state officials and national guard troops began cleaning up the wreckage.
Given how FEMA handled disaster relief efforts in New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the agency is not a welcome presence to most people in this region. FEMA earned a reputation for being inept and inefficient during crisis management, and the agency will need to work overtime this time around to repair its image.
There are three lessons FEMA can take from how it handled Hurricane Katrina as it commences efforts to aid Alabama residents:
Allow private organizations to deliver supplies
One of the biggest failures for FEMA during its disaster response in New Orleans was the agency’s unwillingness to allow aid to flow in from businesses and charities. A state-of-the-art mobile hospital sent from the University of North Carolina was turned away. FEMA did not allow the American Red Cross to deliver food. Wal-Mart supply trucks were also turned back by the agency.
Simply relying on its own staff and resources left FEMA greatly overextended and unable to adequately help people in need. There was unnecessary suffering, and death in some cases, because the agency stubbornly refused assistance from any outside sources.
Make better use of existing resources
One of the most infamous episodes in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was symbolized by the 145,000 trailers FEMA brought into Louisiana to house the hundreds of thousands of victims who had been displaced by the hurricane. The problem was that an estimated 42 percent of those trailers emitted toxic levels of formaldehyde. Thousands of people were forced to live in those trailers anyway. Thousands more remained homeless after the hurricane.
Housing was not the only issue. FEMA did not utilize the skills of firefighters and doctors who volunteered to help victims of the disaster. Firefighters were restricted to handing out flyers and doctors were limited in who they were allowed to treat.
FEMA officials waited too long to respond to the storm in New Orleans, which helped fuel the devastating conditions there. Basic necessities like food, water and blankets were not immediately available to victims of Hurricane Katrina. Sick and injured people were not immediately rescued either, as the agency needlessly waited to assess the situation before sending in rescue vehicles and staff to take action. The prolonged response helped add dozens of lives to the storm’s final death toll.
Response time has been quicker since Hurricane Katrina. But one thing FEMA can’t afford to do in Alabama is not get on the ground quickly and efficiently. Doing so will not just be a good public relations move, but it could be a matter of life and death for some people affected by the tornadoes.
“FEMA officials head to Alabama,” Joe Barrett, Wall Street Journal, April 28, 2011.
“FEMA says it’s wiser now,” Faye Fiore, Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2008.
“After Failures, Government Officials Play Blame Game,” Scott Shane, New York Times, September 5, 2005.
“The Awful Odyssey of FEMA’s Hurricane Katrina Trailers,” Bruce Watson, Daily Finance, August 28, 2010