The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has come a long way since Hurricane Katrina in its response to disasters but the country has a long way to go to improve preparedness, Lt. Gen. Russel Honore told a gathering of homeland security stakeholders in Washington, D.C., last week at the 2009 Homeland Security S&T Stakeholders Conference. Honore was the commander of the Joint Task Force Katrina responsible for coordinating military relief efforts for areas across the Gulf Coast impacted by Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,800 people. In contrast, Hurricane Ike killed fewer than 30 people, Honore said. That's largely because people were warned and evacuated ahead of time.
"I believe for every dollar you spend on preparedness you save $9 in response," Honore said. "The biggest example I can get you is: You go down to your grandma's house that has that big old tree next to it that's 200 years old that can fall on grandma's house and kill her. On a given day you can go cut that tree for $1,000. You wait until after the tornado hit or after the hurricane hit, and it's going to cost you about $10,000 to remove it. That is if grandma is still alive."
The best mitigation strategy might be to not build in a disaster zone in the first place. And that's a lesson that is well documented and used to be part of the popular mindset, Honore said.
"We're doing some pretty stupid things in where we're building buildings, how we build them, where people live, how they live. We have to get people to be more aware of doing a risk assessment of where they live and how they live," he said. "It is predicted that an overtopping of Long Island would also mean about one story of water on Wall Street, but yet, take a look at how our infrastructure has been built."
All the marketing and availability of useful products aren't going to do any good if residents don't use them to prepare for disasters.
"I went to Baton Rouge after Gustav last year and saw a cousin of mine. He said, 'Well you know, cuz you all was a little late getting here with the tarps and the FEMA water. I said 'Well, what impact did it have?' 'I guess some roof damage, but we had to wait three days for our tarp.' I said 'Let's go out here and look at your property.' As we walked around his big old mobile home, about a 30 footer, that he used to go to the [Louisiana State University football games] in and they tail gate in. Right behind it was parked a trailer with all type of stuff. You could have a field kitchen. You could feed about 1,000 troops with what they do tailgating parties with. Then we went to a shed with a little roof damage and inside that was his four vehicles he and his boys go deer hunting in. Right next to that was his $25,000 bass boat. I said 'You know cuz, if you spent a little bit of time getting prepared for hurricane season like you do for football and deer season, you'd be OK. Get rid of some of this stuff, buy yourself a generator and go to Wal-Mart man and buy you some tarps and, by the way, buy a few cases of water to put in your house.
"Here are people who are totally able to do it but it is not in their mindset to be prepared." Honore said.
That puts strain on first responders who also must deal with the elderly, disabled and lower-income residents, who make up one-third of the population and have less freedom to evacuate and stay in a hotel or with relatives.
Creating a Culture of Preparedness
"You get used to the 24-hour news cycle and your iPods and your BlackBerrys when things are working, but imagine [Washington, D.C.,] without power," Honore said. "If you lose power, it will set back the way you live 80 years because there is no running water."
He pointed out that 42 percent of people live next to water. And some people in places like areas of Southern California build houses secluded on edges of cliffs and then their house burns down because it's not accessible to firefighters. Thus a part of preparedness is being smart about where development occurs.
The charity hospital and Veterans Affairs hospital in New Orleans were closed after their generators on the ground floor were flooded. "Had the first floor of those two hospitals been parking garages, those hospitals would have still been open, and I doubt we would have ever had to close them during Katrina because it wasn't structural damage. It was the fact that they had water in the bottom of them and they cut the electricity off and the generators couldn't operate."
Many water utilities don't have generators to provide water to residents following a disaster. Yet, Honore said, many people could shelter at home if they had running water. With generators, drug stores could stay open so the elderly and ill could get medications during a disaster.
"Being prepared starts at work," he said. "Because you cannot run your business without your employees." Honore believes American businesses ought to wage an active campaign because a culture of preparedness cannot be created without the private sector's help. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and FEMA recommend having a three-day supply of food and water, an emergency evacuation plan, emergency evacuation pack and a weather radio. The evacuation pack should have some cash in it because ATMs are among the first things to go out during a disaster, Honore said. Every college graduate should have first aid and CPR training, and the national preparedness plan ought to be focused on family and community preparedness and standards for educating children about what to do in a disaster.
And while the DHS and rest of the country have gotten better at response, we still have a long way to go on preparedness. One story of the success of teaching preparedness leading up to Katrina that Honore discussed involved a young boy who learned life-saving skills from the Boy Scouts and Red Cross. He used those skills to save his baby sister and parents from Hurricane Katrina.
"You need to take this [seriously]," Honore said, "because we've got about 304 million [people] we know about." The number of hospitals and emergency medical services teams are not growing with the population, he said. "Just like you know how to drive, [it] ought to be mandated in our future population because the world keeps getting bigger and the world is not getting safer," he said.
Honore told the audience that they will know they're creating a culture of preparedness when, for Father's Day, sons give their fathers evacuation packs instead of silk ties that will go unworn.