Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Response in the Wake of Katrina: Hurricane Matthew

October 7th, 2016

by Christie Chung, CHHS Research Assistant

“This is serious. . .This storm will kill you. Time is running out. We don’t have that much time left.” On Thursday morning October 6th, there was no mistaking the gravity of the situation as Florida Governor Rick Scott once again urged residents to heed evacuation orders ahead of Hurricane Matthew’s landfall.

Officially a Category 4 storm, and soon expected to reach Category 5 status, Hurricane Matthew has already left a trail of devastation as it moved away from the Caribbean and towards the southeastern U.S. coast.  In Haiti, where entire towns have been leveled by Matthew’s strong winds and pounding rains, the death toll has reached at least 300. Understandably, public officials in the U.S. have approached hurricane preparation and response activities with grave seriousness for it is not only knowledge of Matthew’s severity that haunts, but the mistakes of past tragedies.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina exposed major deficiencies in both Louisiana and the Federal government’s emergency preparedness. Then-mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, received blistering criticism for his delay in ordering evacuations and for the manner in which the evacuation orders were issued. In addition to not mandating evacuation of all of New Orlean’s parishes until approximately 15 hours before Katrina made landfall, the announcement undermined the importance of evacuating as it implied that the city had alternative plans. The number of residents taking refuge in the city’s Superdome rose quickly to 30,000 before the stadium started flooding and had to be completely evacuated.

Ahead of Matthew making direct impact, public officials in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina were determined not to make the same mistake. Several counties on Florida’s east coast—including Brevard, Martin, and Palm Beach—started mandatory evacuation 48 hours prior to Matthew’s projected landfall. In South Carolina, Governor Nikki Haley also began early evacuation as approximately 250,000 residents left the State’s coastal regions on October 5th, and an estimated 200,000 more were projected to leave on October 6th. In all, more than 2.5 million people have been pressed to quickly evacuate their residences.

Moreover, in addition to these mandatory evacuation orders, public officials have made it abundantly clear that those who elect to stay behind do so at their own risk. Addressing residents who chose to stay, West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio stated, “It’s very concerning. When the winds really pick up, we will not be sending [emergency responders] out.” Similarly, Governor Scott remarked, “We should not put peoples lives at risk because you made the foolish decision not to evacuate.”

The Federal response to Matthew has also been marked by the tragedies of Katrina. In 2005, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) largely waited until after the hurricane hit to begin deploying resources. As a result, thousands of survivors at the Superdome and Ernest N. Morial Convention Center were left with insufficient stocks of water and food.

As of Thursday October 6th, President Obama has declared a state of emergency in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, and has “ordered federal aid to supplement state, tribal, and local response efforts.” With the center of Hurricane Matthew only a couple of miles off from Daytona Beach as of Friday morning October 7th, FEMA liaisons stand ready at emergency operation centers throughout Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina to provide assistance. Moreover, four Incident Support Bases have been established in Georgia, North Carolina, New Jersey, and Massachusetts to facilitate the expeditious, interstate movement of resources as needed.

As Hurricane Matthew continues to hammer the U.S’ Atlantic Coast, it is still yet uncertain what the scope of its impact will be on local communities. In future assessment of the storm and its aftermath, however, it will be important to note Katrina’s continuing importance in informing the development of federal and local emergency preparedness and disaster response.


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