On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina swept through the city of New Orleans (Lachlan & Spence, 2007). The hurricane caused extensive losses in the Gulf Coast region. In the aftermath of the damage, thousands of residents were left homeless. As the victims escaped from the region to safer grounds, millions of Americans watched agonizing images of fellow citizens languishing in conditions, which were analogous to our expectations of catastrophes witnessed in the developing nations. A recent study indicated that 90% of Americans were following the tragedy’s news broadcasts through and after the hurricane. As the rescue process was being undertaken, millions of people questioned how the tragedy came to be and what they could do to aid the victims. The public health society inquired about how they could help in protecting the victims’ health and how they could enhance their recuperation (Brunkard & Namulanda, 2008). Similarly, the disaster management fraternity inquired about the lessons the public could gain from the tragedy to improve the preparations for the future. This article seeks to highlight improvised communication plans that were adopted by the victims in the shelter at the Houston Astrodome. It will also focus on the means of how they communicated, the advantages and disadvantages of these means, and lessons learned.
Whenever a hurricane is witnessed, colossal breakdowns of communication facilities and technology are realized, which have resulted in delayed preparedness and rescue missions. Concerning this, several scholars have confirmed that communication plays a major responsibility in effective disaster management. In the aftermath of the hurricane that happened in the year 2005, the victims in the shelter at the Houston Astrodome realized that the communication infrastructures had been severely damaged (Taylor & Viswanath, 2010). With hardly any dependable communication structures in place, the community had to rely on improvised communication plans. Most of the victims who had no phones relied on bulletin board postings. Others communicated through word of mouth for news about their relief programs, missing loved ones, and health care. People with mobile phones could not communicate through voice calls but rather through messages. There were incidences of some people never using the message services in the past. However, after the tragedy, they had no other option but to adopt the services to communicate with their loved ones. The victims who had sought shelter at Houston Astrodome had to acquire authorization from the government to establish a low-power radio station. The radio station was established to inform the victims in the Astrodome about how they could put their lives back together. As the radio station had been established, portable radios were acquired for the victims.
The improvised communication systems illustrated above were very useful for the victims and the rescuers. Through them, the victims could learn about the evacuation processes, interventions put in place by the federal government to enhance their health care, news about their missing loved ones, and crucial information about how they could return to their normal livelihoods. As such, the improvised communication systems emphasized how archaic systems can be useful in times of disasters.
Despite their usefulness, these communication systems had their shortcomings. Unlike other conventional communication systems, the old ones were not dependable. More often, the outgoing calls could be initiated while the incoming calls could not. Equally, the improvised communication systems had to be shared with several individuals. Those who had satellite phones had to share them with several other people. This implies that communication processes were not only cumbersome but also unreliable. Another disadvantage associated with the improvised communication plan was that it did not provide all the information needed by the victims. After the tragedy, the victims wanted to know about several proceedings in their neighborhood. For instance, others wanted to know about the extent of the damage, while others wanted to know if the neighborhood was safe enough for them to return. The improvised communication systems could not provide all this information at once to the thousands of victims at the Astrodome.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, the victims, the citizens, the government, and the disaster management team learned numerous lessons. In a study conducted in the year 2007, it was found that half of the victims had incorporated modern communication systems into their daily lives (Gallagher & Fontenot, 2007). Before the 2006 hurricane, most of the residents in the region depended on landline phones because the mobile phone networks had repeatedly failed them. The disadvantage with landline phones is that they are prone to damage when natural disasters occur and they do not provide massage services. On the other hand, handsets cannot be damaged because they are portable and enable their users to access message services. Other than the victims, the government and the disaster management team learned vital lessons from the crisis. They learned that the relevant authorities should assess the existing laws and strategies related to communications. Thereafter, they should come up with a national emergency communication approach, which will enhance communication levels during disasters.