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Sunday, September 04, 2005

South Carolina"s Katrina hurricane lessons

Okay, rather than pointing fingers, some valuable "lesson learned" from South Carolina - lessons applicable to all the hurricane possible states are available here:
All plans are plans in motion. But here are 12 things that South Carolina can learn, so far, from the tragedy of Katrina:

NO. 1. PRE-POSITION SUPPLIES

In New Orleans and other affected areas along the Gulf Coast, few provisions had been pre-positioned for quick distribution.

In one instance, it took four days for the first shipments of water to get to a downtown parish.

But Randall Webster, Horry County’s emergency preparedness director, said there are problems with pre-positioning.

“You don’t want to position them so that they become part of the problem,” he said.

For instance, any pre-positioned supplies on the coast could be struck by the hurricane as well. Even warehouses in Columbia or Florence could be destroyed by spin-off tornadoes.

“I just know the warehouse with my stuff would be the first one hit,” Webster said.

The states of Florida and Georgia have an agreement to pre-position water and other supplies in neighboring states. That would be a good example for South Carolina.

2. IMMEDIATELY PREPARE FOR LOOTING — WITH FEDERAL TROOPS

Police and National Guardsmen were on the ground immediately after Hurricane Hugo. Looting was held to a minimum.

But Katrina shows the United States must have a standing military unit to respond to hurricanes if the situation gets beyond the abilities of local law enforcement, said Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, who led the Hugo recovery.

During hurricane season, the nation needs a military entity “that has all the resources we have in America, that is ready for a major hurricane-related disaster,” he said. “There needs to be one individual in charge who has the capacity and responsibility to deploy big-time resources.”

3. HAVE AMPLE BUSES FOR PEOPLE WITH NO TRANSPORTATION

New Orleans had no plan in place to evacuate its most vulnerable residents — people with no cars, the elderly and the sick.

South Carolina must have a ready fleet of buses to evacuate everyone when a mandatory evacuation is called. And there must be enough buses to reach people in rural areas.

Charleston’s Haynes said that city’s municipal bus system, the school district and private charter services might have enough buses to evacuate Charleston. But there’s no way to be sure.

The advantage in South Carolina is “we don’t have the numbers of people you see in New Orleans,” she said. “And we do have a plan in place.”

For instance, Charleston has prearranged pickup points around the city. But finding and evacuating shut-ins, for instance, is challenging. Getting the word out to self-contained Spanish-speaking communities is a concern as well.

“There are tremendous concerns about the evacuation of medical facilities and nursing homes just because of the amount of traffic on the roads,” Webster said.

4. RE-EVALUATE SHELTERS

In 1999, in an after-action study of Hurricane Georges by the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper, the New Orleans Superdome was deemed a “bad” shelter.

That evaluation proved eerily true last week. The Superdome and nearby convention center became “supershelters” of misery — more of a problem than a solution.

People are being bused as far as Houston and San Antonio to escape the inadequate buildings.

In Charleston County, according to Haynes, there is not enough shelter space to accommodate everyone.

The North Charleston Coliseum, the largest building in the area, doesn’t pass Red Cross muster because of its roof, she said. Instead, it is used as a shelter for pets, which aren’t allowed at most shelters.

“We only allow one family member to stay with the pet,” she said. “We don’t want a family of five in an unapproved shelter with Fluffy.”

Schools outside the flood zone are used for shelters. In Charleston’s case, schools as far inland as Columbia can be opened as needed, according to the state’s emergency plan. But people have to be able to get there.

Whether an inland “supershelter” is needed is a matter for consideration.

Webster said a supershelter only would be appropriate in the Midlands or the Upstate.

If it is too close to the coast, as in New Orleans, “You’re just asking for trouble,” he said.

Another matter for consideration: allowing pets in some shelters.

Many people will not abandon their animals, no matter how irresponsible that seems. Designating more shelters for families with pets could increase the number of people who would evacuate.

5. CONSIDER STRENGTHENING MANDATORY EVACUATIONS

It’s a morbid but effective story: If someone refuses to evacuate in Charleston County, officials ask them to fill out a form listing next of kin.

Why?

“So we know where to ship your body,” is the response.

“It works pretty well,” Haynes said.

But she notes that while it might be academically possible to force everyone out of coastal towns, marshes and barrier islands, it probably isn’t realistic.

New Orleans had a plan to reverse its traffic flow to evacuate the city but no system to enforce the mandatory evacuation. About 300,000 people chose to ride out the storm or didn’t have the means to evacuate. Thousands may have died because of that.

Mississippi state officials issued evacuation orders but didn’t have the manpower to enforce them. Up to 80 died in Harrison County alone.

“The governor can compel law enforcement to take people out of harm’s way, but I’ve never known that to happen,” Haynes said. “There are always going to be some people who flat won’t leave.”

Webster said you can’t make everyone go. “There just are not enough resources to go door to door and physically make people leave.”

Along the Gulf Coast, some residents who tried to evacuate ran into traffic and turned around, getting stuck in the storm.

In Horry County, home to Myrtle Beach, the problem would be jammed evacuation routes — as anyone who has tried to get to the beach on Memorial Day weekend can attest.

“The more we have growth along our beaches and barrier islands, shelter is always going to be an issue,” Haynes said.

6. DON’T EXPECT THE FEDS TO BAIL YOU OUT

Local and state governments need to accept the fact that they’re on their own for the first 72 hours. And they need to be prepared for it.

That is evident in New Orleans, where one downtown parish didn’t receive its first shipment of water until Thursday — days after the storm hit.

USC’s Cutter said the 80 percent evacuation rate in New Orleans was outstanding, especially considering the mandatory evacuation order didn’t go out until slightly more than 24 hours before the storm hit.

“But the 20 percent who were left ... were impoverished,” she said. “There was no safety net for them, no provisions.”

That’s nothing new.

In 1992, in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, a powerful but much smaller storm, an exasperated Miami-Dade County emergency manager pleaded with federal emergency response agencies, “Where the hell is the cavalry on this one?”

Charleston’s Haynes said federal emergency response always will be perceived as too slow because of the time needed to assess the situation, request aid and deploy appropriate resources — be it food, water or troops.

“But there’s room for improvement,” she said.

“Because of the way the (federal assistance) laws are set up, it takes an assessment and then a presidential declaration,” Horry’s Webster said. “And that takes time.”

7. FOCUS ON PUBLIC HEALTH

Haynes said the 72-hour rule also applies to individuals — especially those with heath concerns.

“The same hurricane that hit them also hit the fire station down the street, the police station down the street,” she said. “People have to be prepared to take care of themselves.”

She suggested stocking up on medicines, food and water prior to evacuation. But emergency responders must be prepared to reach and treat those who can’t help themselves.

Horry’s Webster goes even further. He advises everyone: “Prepare to be on your own for a week to 10 days at a minimum.”

As far as hospitals are concerned, two methods of evacuation are in place: complete evacuation inland or “vertical” evacuation, moving patients to higher floors to escape the storm surge and flooding.

In New Orleans, hospitals became islands of despair, surrounded in some cases by eight feet of water, and targets for looting. Generators keeping the sickest of the sick alive ran low or out of fuel.

Evacuating nursing homes may be the most challenging aspect of public health.

According to Jim Beasley of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, each facility is required to have an evacuation plan that covers transportation, food and shelter.

But whether all of the scores of individual plans will be adhered to is questionable.

“Every situation presents itself differently,” Beasley said. “Handling a disaster is never an easy thing.”

8. WORK ON COMMUNICATIONS

Katrina knocked out cell phones, land lines, text messaging devices and anything powered by electricity.

“Communication is always going to be an issue no matter what the disaster is,” Charleston’s Haynes said. “We’re all creatures of technology.

“And when something this large happens and knocks out normal communications, it’s just a problem.”

Police and emergency agencies in South Carolina have upgraded their communication systems and should be able to talk with one another. But communicating with residents will be a problem.

“You might have to resort to bull horns to communicate,” Haynes said. “It’s always going to be a problem.”

9. IMPROVE BUILDING CODES

Parts of Mississippi were flattened and swept out to sea. But some structures — likely the best built — still stood in places that weren’t directly hit.

For years, S.C. engineering experts have pushed for stronger building codes along the coast. Those efforts have been fought and, eventually, watered down by home-building companies.

Clemson engineering professor David Prevatt wonders if Katrina will prompt changes.

“When you have a fight to increase building codes, builders complain that it will add 2 percent in costs,” he said. “But it may reduce the likelihood of complete damage of the structure by 50 percent.”

Strong connections between the roof and wall, and between the wall and foundation can reduce wind damage. Building with more durable materials such as reinforced concrete also can prevent loss from wind and flooding.

10. REMOVE CORPSES IN TIMELY FASHION

South Carolina has a mass casualty plan, Haynes said. “But we don’t have enough facilities here to house the bodies” if hundreds lost their lives in a storm.

State emergency preparedness officials have body bags stored at central warehouses across the state. And if necessary, refrigerated trucks would be hauled in as temporary morgues.

But, as morbid as it might seem, clearing away the dead is not the first priority.

“It seems callous, but that’s the way it is,” Webster said. Saving lives “is the top priority.”

11. CENTRALLY COORDINATE RESCUE EFFORTS

Katrina’s rescue crews, especially in the first day or two, searched randomly for people stranded on rooftops, attics and on high ground. That meant people and in some cases, whole communities, have been overlooked.

Designating a central staging area or areas — a “mission control” — in advance of the storm would let rescuers and relief workers know where to gather without being told. The rescue operations could then be run from that central position, creating a better chance for a methodical, rather than random, check for survivors.

12. PLAN FOR THE WORST

Be prepared for nothing short of a worst-possible scenario.

For decades, New Orleans was warned that its levees weren’t ready to withstand even a Category 2 or 3 hurricane. Katrina was a Category 4.

In a special report in 2002, the Times-Picayune newspaper revealed that New Orleans’ levees needed immediate attention and that “flooding from even a moderate storm could kill thousands.”

But few were ready.

Walter Baumy, the New Orleans operations chief for the Army Corps of Engineers, said last week that none of the city’s disaster relief plans included “an event of this magnitude.”
My vote for the most important and neglected problem - communications- we need more, very robust systems for the first responders and the follow-on forces. Satellite systems, high speed video connections and trucks full of stuff like the television networks use.
I would suggest moving the Mobile Inshore Undersea Warfare Units to the top of the list of reserve units to activate and airlift in because they are essentially self-contained with excellent comm suites, but then again, I have a MIUWU bias having served in that community for five years.

UPDATE: And for putting something in the hands of the community so they can learn what is happening Radios for Peace...

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