Lessons from Katrina

Lessons from Katrina

by / November 4, 2005
The assignment is to write a "lessons learned" column on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina -- the chaotic, mismanaged response and the collapse of nearly all forms of communication.

The people paid to know about these things have been consulted, and the conversations drift back and forth between issues, which include:

  • operability and interoperability;
  • state and local first responders' need to adopt a military game plan for communicating, and need for an ad-hoc wireless network;
  • FEMA's ineptitude;
  • lack of spectrum, a governance structure, a national standard for communications, and funding for state and local first responders; and
  • lack of foresight to recognize and prepare for the worst-case scenario.

    Was Katrina such a catastrophic event that its effects couldn't be mitigated by better preparation or communication? No one was prepared to go that far.

    Questions about interoperability were quickly rebuffed -- how can there be interoperability when first responders in the same agency couldn't even talk to one another?

    Suddenly few wanted to talk about interoperability. Is it just a buzzword that has become part of the national landscape after 9/11, perhaps in need of some clarification? What are we really looking for? And is it attainable?

    Lt. Col. Joey Booth, deputy superintendent of the Louisiana State Police, said the state had been "working very hard" on the operability/interoperability issue, but the lack of both funds and standards slowed the efforts.

    The Shreveport Fire Department sent rotating groups of 25 firefighters to New Orleans to help with rescue efforts, but the Shreveport radio system wasn't registered to the Louisiana State Police system, so there was no way for the two agencies to communicate.

    Willis Carter, chief of communications for the Shreveport Fire Department, said that in his 34 years with the department, he'd never seen an instance -- before Katrina -- where it was critical to have the two systems connected. Plus, he said, the cost of doing so was prohibitive.

    "I guess we probably did fail to prepare for the absolute worst-case scenario," Carter said. "But in some cases, you just can't anticipate, as hard as you try and as much as we want to. You have to weigh the potential for use versus cost. I guess that's kind of the predicament we were in -- we didn't anticipate we would need that."

    As it turned out, Shreveport's simplex radio system didn't work well under the conditions -- multistory buildings, hospitals and other structures -- so some firefighters used walkie-talkies they purchased for hunting and fishing trips, which helped somewhat. And the Louisiana State Police system collapsed under the weight of users who swarmed the area to help.

    So after poring over the information from New Orleans and hashing it out with a few experts, what are the lessons learned? State and local communities must prepare for the worst-case scenario instead of assuming a worst-case event will never happen.

    That brings us to a final thought from Lt. Col. Booth. "This is a foreseeable problem that will reoccur, in another jurisdiction perhaps, and it could be the result of a large-scale terrorist event or a natural catastrophe."
    Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor