In light of Hurricane Katrina and the damage caused to New Orleans, the reputation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) seemed permanently tarnished, and it seemed impossible for the federal government to handle an emergency on a state-wide scale. And yet…
Seven years later, we on the East Coast (especially those of us in New York and New Jersey) have had the misfortune of being introduced to Hurricane Sandy. Though Katrina was a much stronger Category 4 storm, the reach of Category 1 Sandy was over one thousand miles wide, affecting seventeen states. The New York Stock Exchange was closed for two days in a row for the first time since 1888, though as all affected agencies had several days’ advance notice, no economic disaster unfolded. Subways flooded; the Jersey Shore and its islands were ravaged; power lines fell, trees were shattered, and fires were sparked from North Carolina to Toronto; thousands are still without power; dozens lost their lives.
In seven years, though, it appears that the art of disaster management has taken strong lessons from Hurricane Katrina – on a local level, on a state level, and on a national level.
On a local level, New Jersey communities had established hurricane preparation plans based on last year’s extreme storms, which they quickly put into practice, alerting residents up to a week in advance and preparing shelter, supplies, and bracing where needed. New York City Michael Bloomberg sent uniformed city workers to help evacuate NYU Tisch Hospital after its backup generator failed. Newark Mayor Cory Booker responded to citizen requests for help via Twitter.
On a state level, our governor Chris Christie was already arranging evacuations of the Jersey Shore days before the storm hit, declaring a state of emergency in advance and coordinating the response to the hurricane in the hours before and after it made landfall. While politically, Gov. Christie is often contentious, few can argue that he did exactly what a governor should do in a time of crisis.
On a federal level, when President Obama picked his replacement for head of FEMA, he chose an experienced disaster management expert by the name of Chris Fugate, previously a director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, to reorganize and improve the agency. In addition, FEMA had received high levels of funding in the wake of Katrina, in understanding that preparation for emergencies was not an ‘optional’ expense. When the hurricane was detected, instead of continuing political campaigning, the president decided to focus on actually handling the emergency and coordinating management efforts, focusing FEMA assistance and making contact with Governor Christie (as we’ve heard) on several occasions throughout the storm. Emergency workers are still conducting search and rescue operations as well as providing supplies and assistance to those in need.
As we recover from the biting chill of the hurricane winds, snows, and rain and pick up the pieces, we are glad that our government has learned the lessons harshly taught by previous storms.