Vantage Point: Katrina's Face

A 426Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

The storms that ravage our coastlines not only have human names, they have human faces. When Hurricane Katrina crashed her way into the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico at the end of August, I had just arrived in the Czech Republic for a long-anticipated hiking vacation. The first night I was able to turn on CNN, views of New Orleans under a combination of storm waters and flooding from the breach in the levees at Lake Pontchartrain ripped away my breath. The faces on the television I saw were frightened, horrified, traumatized. But the faces I saw in my mind’s eye were those of my cousin Maria, her husband, and their two young daughters, all of whom have lived their entire lives in New Orleans.

With two day’s notice, they packed their dog, two birds, and as many possessions they could fit into one car and traveled the usual three hours north to another relative’s house in eleven hours. It was the week before school was to start for the girls, and the four of them moved into a trailer in the back yard with no idea of when or if they would have a home to return to after the melee and waters subsided. Their house was spared flooding, but the subsequent lawlessness in the city has them worried for the safety of the home they cannot return to, as potable water and other infrastructure is completely lacking.

Maria is a hospice care provider: for her the face of Katrina is mirrored in the faces of the 15 people she helped through daily life before this storm hit. Out of these 15, she says only that she has been able to locate "most" of them. Her husband Don is a paramedic. The two of them have traveled back and forth between safety and their city while providing medical assistance on-call with no respite.

Their daughters are starting school in a strange place with their distant cousins. One is excited by the new adventure, the other more shy and reluctant. They may move again soon, as the aunt whose back yard they presently inhabit has difficulty caring for them between chemotherapy treatments while their parents work. As of press date, the family is in its third location in seven weeks, meaning a third school for the girls.

Two thousand miles away, I can only wait for waters to recede to help them reclaim and re-establish their home, while sending all the financial assistance I can both to them and to relief organizations. But the situation has brought to the foreground crucial questions about how we as a nation handle natural disasters. Halfway around the globe when Katrina made landfall, the Europeans we were with expressed disbelief that people were not forced to leave their homes when flooding was imminent. As we hiked along the rivers that had surged 10 feet above normal in 2002, flood damage on the buildings was still visible. But fewer lives had been threatened because of the acceptance that everyone had to leave, not only to save their own lives but to avoid risking the lives of those who would otherwise have to rescue them.

So what went wrong? The cause is widespread. Communities in the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) are required not only to have and enforce floodplain management ordinances, but also to plan for emergency response, both in notifying and evacuating huge masses of people. The local government and the mayor have to accept a large part of the responsibility for not having determined ahead of time what routes and what means of transportation would be utilized when the inevitable finally happened in a city that lies below sea level and in the path of a levee known to be at risk of breach. A large population of poorer people in New Orleans did not have the luxury of loading belongings into a car–they rely on public transportation most of the time, and thus were stranded. By now the papers have hashed over many options that could have helped them, but the responsibility for advance planning lies squarely on the shoulders of New Orleans’ political leaders.

Beyond the local failure to plan and recognizing the problem in mobilizing once the disaster struck, the State of Louisiana also has a responsibility to coordinate disaster response and relief, including calling for additional National Guardsmen both to restore order and to assist in distributing food and drinking water. The death toll from this hurricane will include not only those who were battered during the storm, but those who were unable to find potable water for more than five days. The human body, more than 75 percent of which is comprised of fluid, is not designed to withstand water deprivation, and even the healthiest cannot survive without this essential component. The sick, the elderly, and the young need even more assistance in obtaining both water and rescue.

Finally there is the responsibility of the federal government. Days after Katrina left town, President Bush declared he would begin a probe to find out why federal assistance failed to arrive as quickly as it should have. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld stated in a press conference that the first response in a disaster is to remove all military helicopters and ships out of harm’s way, and then to bring them back, essentially when it is safe days later. None carried citizens out of harm’s way during the evacuation. On their return, they will carry bodies of those who died.

The present administration has hamstrung the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) by placing it under the Department of Homeland Security and slashing its already slim budget and staff. When disaster strikes, FEMA personnel abandon their desk jobs and rush to the site to provide disaster relief, technical assistance, insurance reviews. Some help with the physical labor of sandbagging as well. Neither the first nor second FEMA administrators appointed by President Bush, Joseph Allbaugh and Michael Brown, had any experience (or interest) in emergency management, and the agency has suffered from a "bottom line" business approach that emphasizes technology rather than the true mission of the NFIP: safeguarding lives and property. Lives are not a commodity that should be risked for the sake of budget trims. Promoting new software and superficial mapping undermine the prime objective. Beyond poor tools, understaffing and a complete lack of leadership, FEMA has suffered terribly from being lumped together with terrorist defense activities, taking second place to this administration’s focus on external threats nearly to the exclusion of the day-to-day known natural dangers on our own soil.

Katrina’s face is streaked with tears, with fear, with anger. To cure her ills, it will take a unified approach, not one of finger pointing and evasion but of willingness to accept fault and willingness to make the necessary changes both in approach and attitude. With the failures at every level of government in Katrina’s wake, we must act individually: we must invest dollars and sweat equity beyond our immediate families and friends to help thousands of strangers in need during the many dark months to come.

Wendy Lathrop is licensed as a Professional Land Surveyor in NJ, PA, DE, and MD, and has been involved since 1974 in surveying projects ranging from construction to boundary to environmental land use disputes. She is a Professional Planner in NJ, and a Certified Floodplain Manager through ASFPM.

A 426Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE