Katrina's triple failure: technical, ethical, political

About the author
Michel Thieren is a Belgian physician specializing in humanitarian affairs and human rights and was head of office in northern Bosnia for the World Health Organization.
The experience of disaster management around the world has three lessons for the United States, says Michel Thieren.

Political storms follow the management of natural disasters with the inevitability of flash floods after a hurricane. The “who to blame” question makes the most noise in a disaster’s aftermath, but immediate, finger-pointing reactions often identify the wrong culprits. To make accurate judgments about what went wrong is a matter of basic accountability to the victims, and this makes it even more important to pose two other questions: “what to blame, and what for”.

Disasters generate preconceived ideas and instant myths. But very diverse experiences also contain shared elements and general rules that can help to counter these. Here, I draw on my work as a medical specialist in the aftermath of public-health emergencies in five continents to suggest some lessons that those seeking to manage, redress and learn from Hurricane Katrina might consider.

Michel Thieren is a doctor specialising in public health emergencies, especially natural disasters and conflicts. He has worked for many years in various international organisations. He writes in a personal capacity.

Also by Michel Thieren in openDemocracy:

“There was genocide in Srebrenica…”
(July 2005)

Katrina followed the dynamic of any large-scale natural disaster: chaos, delays in assistance, coordination breaches, desperate behaviour. At the same time, something clearly went wrong in the United States’s post-disaster management - even if this is more a matter of correct plans not being properly implemented - and this needs to be understood if the “right” blame is to be attributed.

Bangladeshi and Dutch lessons

Three major lessons of disaster management are relevant to the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.

First, hurricanes accompanied by flash floods – unlike most other natural disasters – create large population displacements. An inundation of water makes people’s environment unlivable; food reserves, water-pipes, basic sanitation amenities are suddenly gone; and survivors who are physically capable are forced to flee. Disaster managers understand what it means: emergency planning in flood-prone areas must make evacuation procedures a top priority.

The reaction to the Bay of Bengal cyclone of 1991, in which 138,000 people died, is an illustration of the type of flood-protection options that are available. Bangladesh is far poorer than the United States – its per capita gross domestic product (GDP) is around 5% of the US’s, at $1,770 (in 2003, as expressed in "purchasing power parity”). Thus, building levees in the mouth of the river Ganges is not an option.

Instead, Bangladeshis responded by taking the simple but drastic measure of building elevated shelters at a reasonable distance from communities most at risk of being flooded, in order to ensure "vertical" evacuation. When waters next threatened, people knew what to do: pack the essentials, walk not too far, climb the steps, and wait. This has proved effective; later Bangladeshi cyclones have had far lower death tolls, quite often in four digits.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands responded, after the great storm surge of 1953 which killed 1,835 people, by building levees and sophisticated protective hydraulic systems along its coast – the Delta Project. This epic feat of engineering (in a country facing a permanent existential threat) was undertaken in a country with a GDP (readjusted to current values) of $6,697 dollars, 20% of the US’s.

Could the US learn from these precedents? If the US finds it difficult – for budgetary or ideological reasons – to allocate sufficient funds to reinforce levees along the Gulf coast, economic constraints could not prevent state or federal government from protecting its people in the way Bangladesh has. The evident absence of effective evacuation measures in Louisiana is the “right” blame.

The first days

The second lesson of disaster management is that when a disaster strikes, a community has to count on itself for about three days – because external aid cannot realistically arrive within this period. This applies everywhere in the world. Broken or flooded bridges, roads, tracks, and paths are an obstacle both for those trying to flee and those trying to move in with supplies.

At the same time, a journalist armed with a portable phone and cam set can often reach a disaster area by air within hours. The result is inevitable: media-fuelled frustration, unrealistic expectations about what is practically possible, and a political furore.

Meanwhile, planning grinds into action. A good rule is: chaos three days after a major disaster is technically "acceptable" – but seven days is not, either politically or ethically. Yet even here, the responsibility of disaster managers for any delay must be balanced against the absence of pre-positioned assistance in flood-prone areas.

The third lesson is that because the community affected by a disaster has initially to cope on its own, with resources that are already unequally distributed, the well-off always leave first. To mitigate the social divide whereby the disadvantaged suffer most, emergency plans must focus on evacuating the poorest families, the disabled, the elderly and ill people.

In Louisiana, the population divide was only too obvious: the poorest struggling their way to safety through water up to their necks, among others who didn't make it. But there was more: the questions (raised often in the work of Jeffrey Sachs) of who are the poor and where they live suddenly received an astonishing answer. The majority of the poor in the flooded streets and the superdome and convention centre ghettos were clearly African-American. Katrina unmasked what has always hidden behind the American Beauty illusion: a racial divide. The “right” blame here is not social segregation as such, but systemic racism.

Louisiana learnings

I spent more than a decade dealing with emergency preparedness and response around the world. Like everyone, I watched and read the news coming from Louisiana. I saw enraged people pointing at uncollected dead bodies and reporting crimes, lootings and rapes. I heard Ray Nagin, New Orleans mayor, blasting his state and federal hierarchy.

Then I remembered Bukavu, Managua, Dushanbe, Port-au-Prince, Brazzaville, Khao-I-Dong. The sentiment of Belgium’s Le Soir – "America has its third world" – pithily conveyed a near-universal register. It is hard to assess whether American voters, led by an administration more concerned to present an image of national invincibility than to administer to the needs of its people, will be shocked into the same recognition.

In Europe and elsewhere, we too should not misplace blame by naively celebrating the fall of American invincibility. Rather, we should worry greatly that the first world power in practice demonstrates a belief that liberal democracy and racism are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The failure to plan in ways that could protect African-Americans, as well as other poor people, in flood- and hurricane-prone areas is just one example.