Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Day After Gustav

Now that Gustav has gone on and the post mortem has begun, I think it is time to write the obituary. Here goes

1. The evacuation was a success largely due to Katrina. This was a lesson well learnt more by the people for having experienced Katrina and its aftermath and of course coming so close as it did on the hills on Katrina and having just celebrated the 3rd anniversary. Talk of a dress rehearsal. With most of the people gone, one wonder whether the extensive deployment of the national guard was essential.

2. Hospitals had back-up electricity and landing pads for emergency evacuation should it become necessary

3. The levees we are told held up but Gustav was no Katrina. So the question is, held up to what? I saw leaks and water inundations in several places that appeared to be have been played down or explained away. Had this storm come in with the same venom with which it left Cuba, the results for the levees would have been the same as in Katrina

4. Disaster response is about local organizing and leadership; Thanks to Katrina, local leaders having experienced the worst, were able to keep their nerves this time and call the shorts rather than wait for a distant bureaucracy to do so.

5. Helicopters were waiting in the wings should emergency evacuation become necessary. This was organized before the storm; a lesson learned well.

6. My thesis still held: despite the size of the storm, three critical things will fail and in Gustav they did; telecommunications, transport routes and electrical power - three essential services. This strengthens my positions that local communities, neighborhoods are the basis for organizing for disaster preparation and response. The role of other levels of government is to support and provide the resources to facilitate the organizing.

7. What we have not seen and is still unrecorded is the trauma associated with having to go through this experience again and again. It raises the need to rethink our processes, structures and organizations in the face of this chronic exposure to hurricanes. A different set of arrangement may be required as opposed to those used for acute disasters. This one will keep coming and the response must be the same because big or large, once it's named a hurricane, essential services will collapse and the presence of population in these areas simply turns the disaster into a catastrophe. Katrina was bad because of the water, it was worst because of the people who did not evacuate. This time we got them out, reducing the trauma but vestiges of it remains because each time a new storm comes, it resurrects traumas inflicted by previous storms.

In the absence of these critical services, the responsibility rests on neighborhoods and local communities to respond to the needs of each other; establishing and maintaining the relationships at these levels to accomplish that is paramount.

In the end, it seems, it was the combination of a weaker Gustav and the experience of a stronger Katrina, three years before that may have spared the city but as expected the critical services still collapsed. However we perceive it, moving the people out was the best strategy that could have been employed and it worked, Major Nagin. It worked in part because you had the support and the resources. Now is the time to focus on the resilience and that includes restoring the wetlands because it will happen again.

For me, schools were disrupted again. Children are dispersed in at least five states;their homes may have been destroyed or even their schools. It may be days before they return. They have to make that re-adjustment, settle again and start over. They saw it all three years ago. I wonder how they feel and what coping mechanisms do they use. How prepared in the school system for sometime like this and to think we are in the peak of the hurricane season? It will happen again, this year, next year, the next three years or every year for the next five years. This is chronic. It does not go away. Hurricanes will not go away. We need to be resilient, children need to be made resilient.

No comments: