Hurricane Katrina: The Catalyst for Change

From Chaos Comes Clarity

Ten years ago this week, Hurricane Katrina terrorized the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico from August 23-31, making landfall in Louisiana on August 29. More than 1,800 people lost their lives and many more were displaced temporarily or permanently. Hurricane Katrina was the costliest disaster in American history, reaching a bill of more than $105 billion in federal expenditures for repair and reconstruction. Over 1.7 million claims resulted in over $41.1 billion in insurance disbursements. With the incredibly high human and economic toll, it comes as no surprise that there are many valuable lessons this terrible experience revealed.

After a decade of rebuilding, revitalization and reevaluation, the effects of the massive storm as well as the strengths and shortcomings of the response, have been fully revealed. Zurich North America and Wharton Risk Center released “Beyond Katrina: Lessons in Creating Resilient Communities” and Louisiana State University published a Walmart Foundation-funded study of “The First Decade of Post Katrina Revitalization”. These reports pay special attention to areas of improvement, with sensitivity to those affected by the storm.

“Each day leaders in emergency management spend honing their craft has a direct effect on an individual who will suffer when a disaster hits their home or community. Each day is a commitment to making our families, friends and neighbors safer when an incident occurs. Each day is a reminder of the great responsibility our leaders and our communities have to ensure that the loss we felt so deeply following Hurricane Katrina does not ever happen again.”1

The LSU report spent a great deal of effort to develop actionable solutions to prevent another natural disaster from having such a severe effect as Hurricane Katrina. The report cites the need for engagement and intercommunication among emergency managers on an international scale, mentorship opportunities for those unexpectedly or unwillingly into a situation of emergency management, shared resources from private enterprises during times of need, and incentives for preparedness. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) “and other emergency management organizations shifted their focus to proactive preparedness from disasters, as opposed to simply reacting to different kinds of hazards that may befall a community.” It was our Founding Father Benjamin Franklin who coined the phrase, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This phrase holds especially true when response is delayed, underfunded, or understaffed. The cost of sub-par prevention in the case of Hurricane Katrina was 1,800 lives and $105bn in federal expenditures.

The white paper published by the Wharton School and Zurich Services, “Beyond Katrina,” supports the general lessons of the LSU paper: “[There’s] one overarching lesson for all: recovery is much more difficult, lengthy and expensive when there is not a robust pre-disaster plan in place.” Every dollar spent on disaster risk reduction saves an estimated five dollars in future losses. This paper focuses on the topic of building resiliency, encompassing governmental bodies, business owners, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and individuals. The five larger goals outlined in this paper are to: Overcome the extreme weather resilience gap; Prioritize flooding as the highest risk; Devote more resources to pre-event risk reduction rather than post-event disaster relief; Measure resilience to guide an investment strategy; and Design more effective disaster financing solutions and address the affordability gap. 

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