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Lessons from Hurricane Katrina: Ten Years Later | Commentary

By David Vanderpool As a surgeon, I am trained to analyze a set of observations, implement a plan based on those observations and review the outcomes of the plan.  

Here are the facts: 10 years ago, Hurricane Katrina brewed ominously in the Gulf of Mexico. We had no idea the devastation it would unleash once it hit land. When the Category 3 hurricane made landfall and tore through the Gulf Coast, doctors around the country scrambled to offer help. At the time, there was no organized medical group that participated in disaster relief. We were woefully unprepared. Looking back, I believe that we could have done a much better job.  

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has called Katrina the single most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history: More than 1,800 people across the Gulf Coast region lost their lives and more than $100 billion of damage accrued.  

I witnessed the aftermath of Katrina first-hand, and as a result, I started a non-profit organization centered on disaster relief, devoting my life to caring for the poor. The U.S. is better prepared now that Katrina has happened, but not to the extent that it needs to be, even 10 years later. The lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina still need to be made into common policy, and I urge Congress to implement laws to untie the hands of those involved in disaster response.  

First, advanced preparedness is essential to minimize loss of life and damage. More than 1  million people in the Gulf region were displaced by Hurricane Katrina. When disaster is imminent, there should be rapid deployment of medical personnel, high-voltage technicians and heavy equipment operators. Throughout the country, there should be organized management of basic necessities: food, water, clothes and shelter. Without creating new government entities, groups already working in these areas could be appointed in advance to have emergency authority when disaster hits to better manage and organize resources among all groups responding. An online secure network could be created so that all groups around the country could be in communication and coordination before disaster hits.  

Second, we have a great need for organized, deployable U.S. medical teams. This should include mobile medical and surgical units, generators, and pharmaceutical supply. In the case of Katrina, any out-of-state doctor who wanted to help was cut short by political and economic restraints. Doctors are only allowed to practice in the states in which they are licensed, and many pharmaceutical companies don’t want medicine to be distributed without charge within the borders of the U.S. These laws need to be changed so that any licensed physician can operate legally in any state where there is a disaster and emergency medicines are available to those in greatest need.  

The medical team I recruited from Nashville was able to go to work immediately in the southern part of Mississippi since that state had declared a state of emergency, relaxing medical license requirements. (Louisiana did not take this step as quickly.)  

Finally, along with medical teams, there is a need for central command and control for aid groups. In my experience with disaster relief, the first place to look for people providing support is at churches. During Katrina, most relief was faith-based; when we were there, we saw few governmental organizations. A large Baptist church offered us a place to set up a base of operations. As other health care providers arrived, we organized small teams to venture out to the poorer areas of town to deliver much needed medical care.  

We were dependent upon local residents to direct us to their neighbors who they knew were in need. Communicating by satellite phone and handheld radios, we were able to systematically deliver organized medical care to those who were unable to leave in advance of the storm. Systems should be put in place in advance to keep local medical teams in communication and organized to respond to greatest needs in a prioritized way.  

In general, there are still many things we can do as a country to be better prepared when disaster strikes. The federal government spent $120.5 billion on the Gulf Region post-Katrina, with $75 billion of that going to emergency relief operations. If we take preventative measures and put into practice what we learned from Katrina ten years ago, no other disaster need be as devastating or as costly. With a bit of ingenuity, we can benefit from her legacy.  

Dr. David Vanderpool, a trauma surgeon living in Thomazeau, Haiti, is the founder of LiveBeyond, a faith-based, humanitarian organization dedicated to improving the lives of the poor in Haiti. 


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