7 Years after Katrina: Making Progress in Continuity

Those of you who know me may well recall how I devoted this column seven years ago to Hurricane Katrina and my personal experience of being on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (site of the tidal surge that destroyed most coastal towns) approximately 24 hours after the storm made landfall in that area. In the time since then, we’ve dedicated a massive amount of coverage to that topic, not only because 1,800 people died, but because of how the storm tested (and broke) the resiliency and business continuity plans of FEMA and almost every local and regional emergency management agency in the affected area.

So, it was with similarly high interest that I followed Tropical Storm Isaac (which briefly became a hurricane) this week when it began to align its landfall target in the same places that Katrina had. While the storm was no Katrina, it still is attributed to at least three deaths (two of which were found in a flooded home in Plaquemines Parish, a marshy parish where the Mississippi River exits Louisiana). And while Hurricane Isaac was not the Hurricane Katrina of 7 years prior (despite the hype from the commercial weather services), it did force businesses and agencies to consider the response plans that were based on the hard lessons learned from Katrina.

One of the lessons learned from Katrina was that public-private partnerships doesn’t just mean businesses paying taxes to support government programs. Rather, it was learned, they can provide space, equipment, materials, local knowledge, supply chains and more, to aid disaster recovery efforts.

What’s been wonderful to see since that awful day in late Summer 2005 when Hurricane Katrina flooded and washed away whole neighborhoods and towns, is the progress made. For all of the deaths and property loss and cost to the people of that area, at least we have seen positive improvements. Levees have been raised with extensions in many areas. Pumping systems have been upgraded. FEMA has an action plan. Businesses have even better recovery plans. Security directors have considered where they will find temporary security staffing needed to protect their locations. But most promising has been a recognition that you don’t have to go it alone.

In a USA Today article, Home Depot’s spokesman Stephen Holmes, had this to say about the value of the construction materials industry and his firm specifically: "We realized what an important role we play in both the preparation and the recovery.” He’s spot on; from the plywood sheathing the company sells to help people board up their homes before the storm to the water containers and generators (and even chainsaws) they sell after a major storm; the retail industry is vital to recovery.

It’s not just business ego enhancement either. FEMA Director Craig Fugate said the same thing: "Businesses are full, and essential, partners on the emergency-management team.”

One of the surprising things that has happened in our ability to learn from past mistakes is that industry has developed relationships with emergency managers to allow their essential employees and essential supply chains access to affected areas. As USA Today’s report continued, “Home Depot's operational team made arrangements with officials in Mississippi and Louisiana so their trucks and employees can enter storm-struck cities even if local governments institute curfews and close roads.” (There have been similar proposals from the electronic security and monitoring industry to help get essential security personnel for monitoring stations and even service technicians back into impacted areas.)

As long as we continue to make this kind of progress, we should be in much better shape for when the next storm comes, and it really is a comparable to a Katrina type of event. Let’s not pat ourselves on the back too much; it should be a reminder that we’re not done yet, that there is still more work to do.