by Jeff Wilkinson
The State Newspaper
September 4, 2005
In 2001, the Federal Emergency Management
ranked the most likely and deadly disasters that could befall the United
The top three were:
a terrorist attack on New York
an earthquake in San Francisco
a hurricane in New Orleans
The list was announced at a conference on Sept.
next day was 9/11.
Two of those three uber-disasters now have occurred, and emergency
response to the catastrophes is being criticized as inadequate and, in some
”such as housing refugees in New Orleans'
Louisiana Superdome” irresponsible.
Bush called the federal response to Hurricane Katrina
In South Carolina, learning from those mistakes could lead to a better
response should a killer storm like Hurricane Katrina or 1989's Hugo again
devastate the coast.
"We can learn from their heartache just as
they learned from ours in Hugo," said Cathy Haynes, deputy director of
Charleston County Emergency Preparedness Division.
Susan Cutter, a USC geography researcher
who conducted a study on evacuations after 1999's
Hurricane Floyd, called
the reaction to the crisis in New Orleans,
"an abysmal failure. It's the role of
government to provide for those who can't provide for themselves, and we
S.C. (South Carolina) emergency
preparedness officials are watching closely, now that the scope of the
hurricane and the inept response has been realized. Plan for the worst is
the catchphrase among emergency planners. South Carolina's plan for
hurricanes alone stretches for hundreds of pages.
All plans are plans in motion.
But here are 12 things that South Carolina can
learn, so far, from the tragedy of Katrina.
1 - PRE-POSITION
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
Hugo. Looting was held to a minimum.
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
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,
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
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"
That evaluation proved eerily true last week.
The Superdome and nearby
convention center became "super-shelters 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
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 "super-shelter" is needed is a matter for consideration.
Webster said a super-shelter only would be appropriate in the Midlands or
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
"So we know where to ship your body," is the
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"Every situation presents itself
differently," Beasley said. "Handling a disaster is never an easy
8 - WORK ON
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
But communicating with residents will be a
"You might have to resort to bull horns to
communicate," Haynes said. "It's always going to be a problem."
9 - IMPROVE BUILDING
Parts of Mississippi were flattened and swept out to sea. But some
structures ”likely the best built” still stood in places that weren't
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
"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
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
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
"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
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.
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
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
"an event of this magnitude."