Orchestrating safety in disasters

Days before Hurricane Gustav was expected to pummel the continental United States, emergency managers in its potential path were already busy preparing for the worst.

Initial projections had Gustav landing anywhere from Florida to Texas, but as the storm grew to hurricane strength, it became clear that it was headed on a similar path to the one Hurricane Katrina took three years ago.

Even when the storm was still hundreds of miles away, it was hard not to draw parallels between Gustav and Katrina, which exposed serious deficiencies in government emergency management plans.

The inadequate response to Katrina underscored the importance of effective evacuation planning, management capabilities, coordination and communication with the public before, during and after disasters.

Since Katrina, political and public outcry has spurred the government to develop new policies and initiatives that use information technology to support disaster planning and response activities.  
Efforts under way include:

  • The National Response Framework — a revised national blueprint for dealing with natural and man-made disasters.

  • The National Emergency Communications Plan — an attempt to facilitate communications among first responders regardless of location or level of government.

  • The National Shelter System — a database and set of maps that include information on the status of 45,000 shelters nationwide.

However, in spite of those programs, there are still questions about whether federal efforts in those critical areas have been sufficient to prepare the country for the next major disaster.

As Gustav churned toward New Orleans during Labor Day weekend, it promised not only to test the city’s beleaguered levies but also to provide at least a snapshot of how much progress authorities had made toward fixing flaws in the government’s response to emergencies.

Preparing for a storm
The week before Gustav was expected to hit land, Louisiana state emergency managers were carefully tracking the storm’s trajectory and having daily conference calls with local officials.

States have primary responsibility for managing evacuations. However, the Homeland Security Department’s Federal Emergency Management Agency has issued guidance for how states should conduct mass evacuations as part of the National Response Framework, released in March. The guidance also describes the federal government’s role if an event overwhelms states’ capacities, as Katrina did.

Well ahead of Gustav, Louisiana officials were working to ensure that if a mass evacuation was ordered, it would happen quickly.

“From the state level, we get everybody together and say, ‘What are you doing?’ ” said Veronica Mosgrove, a spokeswoman at the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, the week before Gustav made landfall.

Officials can order evacuations as much as 50 hours before a tropical storm or hurricane is projected to hit land, with residents in the most susceptible areas ordered to move first, she said. With Gustav bearing down, Louisiana officials ordered an evacuation and sent close to 2 million residents away from coastal areas.

Mosgrove said the evacuation went smoothly because officials were able to get information out early. They used press conferences, TV and radio announcements, text messages, and any other means possible to spread the message, she said.

“In our highly mobile society [in which] everybody has all these different devices, you’ve got to take advantage of everything because not everybody is going to be sitting in front of the TV or listening to a radio,” said Ken Murphy, president of the National Emergency Management Association, which represents state emergency management directors.

“The intent is to try and use any means possible” to reach people, he added.

Getting in touch
Although it was not available to help during Gustav, FEMA has been working on an integrated, interoperable nationwide emergency alert system mandated under a 2006 presidential order. FEMA has conducted tests of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), which will make use of mobile tools such as cell phones, pagers, computers and other personal communications devices to alert citizens.

However, the agency has yet to begin a survey of the warning systems in about 2,000 jurisdictions nationwide as part of IPAWS’ design and development. A FEMA spokeswoman said the delay was the result of a long process in getting permission from the Office of Management and Budget under the Paperwork Reduction Act to perform the nationwide survey.

Without the survey, it is impossible to coordinate efforts, said Kendall Post, an electrical engineer and president of Alert Systems, a company that has designed an alternative nationwide emergency alert system. Post added that the survey should have been among the first things authorities did.

“Who in their right mind would commission a new house, have it constructed, and then decide on the size of the floor plan and the features after it is done?” he asked. “We are doing that in disaster management, in public warning, in all of the systems and communication tools that enable mass evacuations or disaster responses.”

Murphy said that overall, he would give all levels of government and the public high marks for their response to Hurricane Gustav. However, he said, the future challenge is to be able to do it on even shorter notice. He also stressed the importance of instituting planned enhancements such as IPAWS as quickly as possible.

Finding shelter
Officials at the American Red Cross said the organization provided shelter, food and emotional support to almost 60,000 people in 300 shelters in 10 states in response to Gustav.
They used the new National Shelter System developed by the Red Cross and FEMA, which includes information on the status of 45,000 shelters.

“The biggest thing is we now have common information that is consistent on how many shelters are open, where they are located, how many people are in them and what their capacities are,” said Gregg O’Ryon, the Red Cross’ vice president of readiness, capacity building and disaster services. “Prior to this, there was never a national database of the shelters in America. This was all a very local activity, and it was all very paper-based.”

Experts say the key is not only to have as much information as possible but to use it to establish a common operating picture and evacuation plans based on the most up-to-date and accurate data.
“That way you can adjust your needs and your requirements based on that common operating picture,” Murphy said.

Greg Tune, geospatial technology manager at the Red Cross, said that compared to three years ago during Katrina, Red Cross officials are now able to produce mapping products more quickly. The ability to access the government’s data has greatly improved, which facilitates faster information sharing, he added.

Common data structures and models form the foundation on which integrated systems operate, said Lew Nelson, law enforcement solutions manager at ESRI, a geographic information system developer.
“Instead of trying to figure it out by phone calls, you are able to see [where assets are] in a common operating picture,” said Anthony McKinney, director of public security industry solution marketing at SAP, which offers a product that works with ESRI software.

However, Nelson said that although federal authorities are providing guidance, they cannot dictate how states and local communities ultimately manage their emergency plans and resources.
John Perry, remote sensing coordinator and geospatial specialist at FEMA, said GIS technology presents complex information in easy-to-read formats so managers can make better decisions.

“For emergency managers, a GIS can facilitate critical decision-making before a disaster impacts an area,” Perry said. “In the early, crucial stages of a disaster or emergency and throughout the disaster process, managers use GIS products because they provide important information…quickly and in easy-to-understand formats.”

Blair Heusdens, a spokeswoman at the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said GIS technology facilitates advance planning and provides a way to track damage and response resources as an event affects different areas. State and local officials use an application that allows them to share GIS maps.

And with the Atlantic hurricane season lasting through November, such systems will likely be tested again.

Speaking before Gustav made landfall, O’Ryon said that although the response to Gustav might have had some flaws, progress has been made. He added that it’s easy to underestimate the complexity of coordinating activities across so many jurisdictions.

“I do believe that the FEMA leadership has made great strides since 2005,” he said. “I think all of us in emergency management, pecially with the advent of hurricane season, always wish things would move faster. I think that’s very natural.” 


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