Managing evacuations from hurricanes and other natural catastrophes present recurrent challenges to the people responsible for such evacuations. A major challenge is how to best inform and direct the public responses to the imminent emergencies. A chronic challenge for emergency personnel is gaining public acquiescence with directives to evacuate or shelter. States and authorities have been reviewing evacuation plans after the hurricane Katrina. In managing the evacuation plans, for example, New Orleans’ City Assisted Plan directed evacuees who did not have their own means to gather in seventeen pick-up sites. Demonstrating effective emergency response coordination, the Regional Transit Authority motor vehicles would pick and deliver them to the city’s main train station.
There is a wide range of concerns addressed by David Giles in the article “Moving people out of danger (B): Special Needs Evacuations from Gulf Coast Hurricanes”. The author addresses the issue of evacuating people with special needs from the Gulf Coast when hurricanes occur. These special needs category includes people who require special attention throughout the evacuation and sheltering process. Giles sought to exonerate the authorities from blame that was focused on the emergency responses after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The emergency responses were condemned for mismanagement of the evacuation and sheltering processes.
The author states that the authorities have been spending substantial time and effort to overhaul response planning and developing more effective evacuation systems. The efforts by emergency response entail the establishment of methods for identifying, tracking and locating people with special needs. The authorities along the Gulf coast have been building sufficient and appropriate transport assets for evacuations in a timely manner as well as developing effective communication with stakeholders at all levels of public and private sector.
Giles indicates that evacuation plans have been reviewed by all the states along the Gulf Coast to avoid the repeat of the 2005 evacuations. Louisiana and Texas demonstrated the revamped evacuation plans during the destruction threats posed by Gustav and Ike. In developing the evacuation plans, Louisiana put specific emphasis on utilizing public transport to evacuate special needs evacuees.
The management of emergency response emerged during Hurricane Rita. The hurricane did not result in an all-out catastrophic outcome compared to Katrina. However, the pre-storm removal of the population the hurricane prompted was devastating in itself. The population took to the roads to run from the imminent storm which eventually changed course. The evacuees had to endure enormous traffic jams in dangerous heat and moisture. Eventually, more people died as an outcome of the evacuation plan than from the hurricane-connected injuries. The authorities had failed to make appropriate arrangements to ensure that there were minimal traffic jams facilitated by air evacuation.
Problems and issues
The main challenge that faced the emergency response to Hurricane Katrina and Rita was the inadequate protection of evacuees with medical and other special needs. The evacuees were lost from families and primary caregivers for weeks in 2005. The inability of the state of Louisiana to easily track and locate evacuees during Katrina was a huge challenge to emergency response. The Louisiana Department of Social Services (DSS) acquired the software for Enterprise Wireless Alliance Phoenix Crisis Management Tools. The web-based system would allow the DSS and other stakeholders to register and observe the whereabouts of residents evacuating using state assistance. The system assisted authorities during the 2008 hurricanes.
The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) also contributed towards the challenge of evacuating people with special needs. During Katrina, the evacuation of individuals with special needs was in shambles due to lack of concrete evacuation plans. Hundreds of people had been stuck in hospitals overwhelmed by floods and lack of electricity. Providing basic care in hurricane conditions proved impossible. The patients had to be evacuated after the hurricane through the disaster zone. The process took days to arrange and proved extremely difficult to implement. Coordinating the efforts among authorities and stakeholders was a huge challenge. Furthermore, the process was taxing for the patients.
Arkansas had been the home of more than 2300 evacuees from Louisiana during the 2005 hurricane. The evacuees lived in Fort Chaffee’s barracks. During the 2008 hurricane, Arkansas hosted thousands of Louisiana evacuees. However, this was a better controlled evacuation considering the measures that both Louisiana and Arkansas had agreed and put in place prior to the hurricanes. Despite the measures implemented, Arkansas still grappled with challenges. The state had not premeditated that Chaffee would host people with special medical needs. The authorities ultimately organized a triage operation at the Western Arkansas River Valley Medical Reserve Corps. Some patients were hosted at the complex, seriously sick patients were sent to nearby hospitals while the rest were treated at the barracks.
Theories and policies
The occurrence of the 2005 hurricanes led to the Congress authorizing the US Army Corps of Engineers to embark on two fundamental and interrelated comprehensive planning efforts to address the destruction arising from the storms. The efforts included the Mississippi Coastal Improvements Program (MCIP). The designing of the efforts were to develop system-wide solutions to facilitate multifaceted efforts in the Gulf Coast recovery from destruction arising from the hurricanes. The other was the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration (LACPR) that would provide increased flexibility in dealing with future storm occurrences in both Louisiana and Mississippi. The consequent reports prepared developed a complete range of flood control, shoreline restoration and storm protection measures. The more storm-susceptible south Louisiana was considered as one that requires storm surge protection equivalent to category five hurricanes.
When the LACPR was established, Louisiana parliament restructured the Louisiana Coastal Wetlands Conservation and Restoration Authority. The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) was formed. This is the single state authority with power to concentrate growth and application efforts for all-inclusive coastal protection and re-establishment. It interrelates with the Corps’ efforts. The policies developed by LACPR are shaped by the management and evacuation lessons erudite from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Four major themes control the LACPR initiatives. The all-inclusive systems model is adopted by LACPR as well as the utilization of risk-informed decision making. The initiative also adopts the timely and informed communication model to the public in view of risk perceptions. The initiative advocates the use of specialized and practical skill in shaping policies.
Implications of emergency management
The perception of the public regarding the risk posed by impending severe weather is a determinant in their response to call by authorities to evacuate in a timely manner. Official directives and advisories are based on the risk from storm surge. The ways in which such communications are made to the public determine the response by the residents. Imperatively, the management of such situations starting from the communication to the actual evacuation determines the effectiveness of the evacuation management. The communication made by forecasters, the media and leaders assist in mitigating the massive loss of lives. Gustav (2008) resulted in 45 fatalities.
This demonstrated the effectiveness of emergency response management considering that Katrina (2005) resulted in 1000 fatalities of Louisiana residents. The management of emergency response with proper coordination among key players is fundamental in ensuring that fatalities are minimized. Effective systems ensure that evacuees are easily tracked by authorities and relatives. The proper management of emergency responses will further ensure that there are no fatalities.
In assisting the emergency response evacuation plans, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal issued a Declaration of Emergency for the entire state. He told the public to be ready for this would be a serious storm. The governor coordinated with Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans to ensure that the public was ready for evacuation. The visible plans underway in evacuating the residents including the arrival of buses and the readiness of the Union Passenger Terminal with Amtrak train were effective management responses to the dire situation. When the public see such moves, they perceive the risks as high making it easier for authorities to evacuate them. The elimination of the Superdome and the Convention Center in the evacuation plan ensured that the public responded on time to calls to evacuate to avoid the confusion and misery experienced during Katrina. The plan worked effectively demonstrating management effectiveness of the Louisiana authorities.
Arkansas faced another challenge of hosting 225 hospitalized patients expatriated by National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) from Southern Louisiana. When medical evacuees were delivered to Little Rock, the state health department had prepared to synchronize the matching of evacuees with NDMS-allied hospitals. However, the NDMS personnel wanted to deliver patients into Little Rock without the actual coordination of the state health department. This created management crisis as Arkansas state health department would not allow ‘outsiders’ to just come in and take possession of a huge number of beds without proper coordination.
Despite resolving the issue, maintaining tags on medical evacuees remained a challenge. The systems put in place by Louisiana and the federal government did not help in resolving the maintenance of tabs on patients. The hospitals continued to receive unclear and misrepresentative information. The challenge of maintaining relatives connected to expatriated patients remained. Hospital staff was overwhelmed by the number of visits and phone calls by relatives frantically looking for evacuated members from Louisiana hospitals. The manifests received from Louisiana hospitals contained wrong information.
Two interrelated issues generated frustrations to health officials and administrators in Arkansas. There was lack of specific system for moving patients back to Louisiana after Gustav hurricane. The St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center in Little Rock had admitted 63 evacuees. The management struggled in arranging transport for some of the people it had discharged. Additional, the length of time the evacuees stayed in-state was an issue for the facilities that hosted them. The issues generated management crisis.
Evidently, systems for registering, locating and tracking evacuees are paramount for effective evacuation missions. It is imperative for the federal government to create and develop a multi-state tracking system. The occurrence of another disastrous hurricane along the coast may require mass evacuation of individuals to different states. In this regard, the implementation of different systems that are not compatible with one another will generate coordination and evacuation hiccups. In developing such a system, it is imperative to consider developing a universal system with variable levels of technical complexity. Past experiences with evacuation systems indicate that the systems may fail.
In this view, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) should consider developing an entirely paper-based system to facilitate the development of manifest for all transportation provided by the federal government in case the electronic system fails.
The National Mass Evacuation Tracking Systems (NMETS) should consider availing the synchronized national system to the HHS which has effectively coordinated evacuation using the NDMS process in the past. The system should integrate diverse tools in use and development. This is in recognition that evacuee patients do not permanently remain patients throughout the evacuation period. When the host health facility discharges them before they are sent back to their state, it becomes the responsibility of FEMA. Considering that they are no longer patients, HHS is relieved of the responsibility. An effective system will ensure that there is automated tracking system that will allow the exchange of data among different agencies without breaching the Privacy Act.
The management of emergency evacuation responses is challenging for the parties involved particularly the government agencies and the evacuees themselves. Densely populated areas can be catastrophic and hamper evacuation. Prospective studies should include more overt cost estimates for a variety of alternatives for managing emergencies and evacuations. Major assumptions including the probable evacuation destinations for victims should be considered to avoid unsystematic movement of evacuees. In developing protection policies, it is imperative to determine the viability of maintaining the Gulf in better conditions including the reassessment of proposed structural and nonstructural design options. The move will simplify the management of evacuation process.
The assessment of the hazards involved when disaster strikes is part of a bigger equation. Human decisions and existing policies should be considered when addressing emergence response management. The embankment failure during Hurricane Katrina demonstrates that no system is 100 percent efficient for risk elimination. However, it is important to have the competence necessary for managing emergence responses to minimize fatalities.