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In the two and half century history of American history, the nation has seen a fair share of disasters and emergency situations. Some of these events were man-made, like the great Wall Street crash of 1929. Others were natural events, like the high-magnitude earthquake that hit Los Angeles or more recently Hurricane Katrina. For much of the country’s history there was no exclusive government agency that was mandated to prevent or manage emergencies. Often the military or the paramedics would step in and, with the aid of volunteers, deal with the situation on an ad-hoc basis. But the disorganized and unsystematic nature of these efforts would lead to less than satisfactory response to the event. It is only in recent decades that organized and exclusive government agencies were set up to prevent and manage unexpected emergencies.

It is with the formation of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) in 1979 that the nation had a separate government body for tackling emergencies. Prior to that, even in the three decades following the Second World War, the approach to emergency events was piecemeal and loosely coordinated. But, despite empowering FEMA with necessary discretionary powers during crisis situations, as well as providing it with sufficient funds for garnering resources, the agency has not lived up to expectations. In more than three decades of FEMA’s existence, the nation has seen a fair share of natural disasters. But often FEMA has been found wanting in its competence and execution of prediction, prevention and relief operations. Two events in particular stand out as great lessons for the agency – Hurricane Andrew of 1992 and Hurricane Katrina of 2005. These two events exposed the state of emergency management in the United States. They played a significant role in shaping the field of Emergency Management subsequent to the event. Remedial measures were taken to restructure related agencies and personnel teams based on the failures experienced during the two events.

Hurricane Andrew hit the South Eastern coast of the United States (in particular the states of Florida and Louisiana) in August of 1992. Powerful gale storms above the speed of 170 miles per hour caused havoc in the region. It uprooted hundreds of trees, threw astray public facilities, disrupted telecommunication, made public transportation unviable and most importantly, displaced tens of thousands of people from their homes. In the aftermath of the hurricane, a quarter of a million citizens were left homeless. Their houses were either destroyed by the hurricane or left inundated by flooding. FEMA was criticized from all angles for failing to anticipate the intensity of the hurricane as well as being able to evacuate vulnerable communities to safer places in advance. It eventually took the arrival of battalions of soldiers from the National Guard to partially bring the situation under control. The National Academy of Public Administration prepared a detailed report on the event titled ‘Coping with Catastrophe’. This report outlined various shortcomings of FEMA and the manner in which it went about its designated work. One of the outcomes of this inquiry is the creation of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate. Yet, these adjustments would prove to be inadequate, as the disasters surrounding Hurricane Katrina of 2005 would show.

Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast region of the United States in August 2005. FEMA’s anticipation of the onset of the hurricane was fairly accurate, and it positioned response personnel in the vulnerable regions ahead of time. But where FEMA erred is in not empowering the personnel with resources and direct access to the affected population. The inadequacy of the response personnel was proven by the fact that within three days of the onset of the Hurricane, the National Guard troops were once again pressed into service.

New Orleans was the worst affected area and some of the scenes witnessed therein questioned America’s status as an advanced industrial society. The number of homeless people in New Orleans was unprecedented and the flooding of the city was widespread. FEMA once again came under fire from media and social commentators for its incompetent handling of the event. This overall failure also exposed the recent structural arrangements in emergency management bureaucracy (most notably the inclusion of FEMA under the Department of Homeland Security ambit). As the post-disaster inquiry by the US House of Representatives committee revealed, the absence of a designated Principal Federal Official on the eve of the event was a major setback. The poorly trained service personnel were also criticized. It was recognized that, even if the FEMA was able to operate with full efficiency and training, the high magnitude of the disaster would have undermined its operations. For example, to provide temporary housing for more than 200,000 displaced citizens is simply outside of FEMA’s powers and resources. The logistics mechanism employed by FEMA was found to lack necessary targeting and co-ordination in delivering basic commodities to affected populations.

As Katrina unfolded, vital issues such as food safety and protection of public water supplies were overlooked, as attention was diverted to more important activities. This resulted in pollution of drinking water sources to go with worse health and sanitation issues at shelters for evacuees. Also, the shelters were over-crowded due to a high volunteer turnover rate and un-anticipated inflow of victims. Many key lessons were learnt from the Hurricane Katrina episode. One of it is that distribution of volunteers to different shelters has to be better streamlined.

It was also acknowledged by the House of Representatives Committee that State governments (especially in Hurricane prone regions such as Florida, Louisiana and Iowa) have to have a robust Emergency Response Plan, which was found wanting in the case of Katrina. In order to make coordinated environmental public health measures, the response team should have a comprehensive emergency response manual that it can refer to. It is imperative that environmental public health practitioners do get involved by offering their services during crisis situations. Though numerous recommendations of this sort were made in the aftermath of the event, it seems that very little improvement has actually taken place. The usual underperformance in the management of the Buffalo Snowstorm of 2006 and the California Wildfires of 2007 underscore this point.

References:

Murry, Justin (updated July 10, 2006). “Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Legislation for Disaster Assistance: Summary Data FY1989 to FY2006”, CRS Report for Congress, Congressional Research Service: The Library of Congress.

Krane, Dale. “The Unavoidable Politics of Disaster Recovery: Hurricane Katrina Offers Lessons on the Interaction of Technical Matters with Decisions That Distribute Benefits and Burdens.” The Public Manager 36.3 (2007): 31+.

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