When a Hurricane Hits

Lessons from Katrina

The size of the disaster area caused by Katrina would have made it the 12th largest state in the country. Once data became available it was there in large quantity but frequently with little metadata (or data about the data) to make it immediately useful. "Thousands of maps were created in the wake of Katrina, with the task to put these maps and the attendant information in the hands of first responders as well as decision makers in response centers throughout the country," Nelson notes.

Think ahead
"What Katrina does is make us think of the unthinkable," says John Facella, another presenter for the IACP session, and director of public safety markets for M/A-COM. "What happens if nothing works, the electricity is down, you can't get fuel or the roads are flooded?"

An audit of an agency's communications system is essential, he says. "Determine if there are vulnerabilities or points of failure, then see if you can mitigate those by doing other things."

New Orleans, he says, had a very high degree of reliability and redundancy built into its system. Police departments had a dispatch facility at a different location from the fire and EMS groups. The breech of the levees and extensive flooding, he explains, caused these facilities to be obliterated. "It's good to have an alternative dispatch facility, but it needs to be in a place not immediately vulnerable to the same things the first place is," Facella explains.

The logistics behind the communications is what is most important. Responders need to be able to talk about the big questions regarding resources, both in capital and manpower. 911 answering points have to have food, water and other basic survival capabilities. Then, shift changes need to occur, even in the most isolated areas.

"The New Orleans Police Department realized after a while they needed to relieve the ranking officers because they were working 18 hours a day, and for days and days straight," says Facella. These officers also had family who had been relocated, lost everything and needed assistance. M/A-COM also started rotating its responders to the area. Exhaustion had hit hard, mentally and physically.

"There's so much devastation," he notes. "What you're doing seems to be just a drop in the bucket. You need to give staff a chance to recover and take care of personal business." A suggestion he gives is to rely on retired force members in the area. They can be used as a "health and welfare" group for the families of officers working in the disaster area. Most keep their pistol permits and could provide safety to families being preyed on by criminals. Katrina saw the suicide of an officer who succumbed to the dual strain of public and private family responsibilities. This was just one tragedy among a catastrophe of unforeseen proportions.

The other side is taking care of those responding from other areas to assist. It's essential they are self sufficient, with enough food and water to last the duration. "You can't bring in a whole bunch of guys and gals, and say, 'OK, where's the hotel and food line?' " says Facella.

"You can have all the great first response, but now you've got all the other issues — feeding, clothing, watering, etc.," says Nelson.

He remembers a purchasing officer in Santa Cruz, California, who had put the time and effort in before the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, securing resources in the event of such a situation. When the "earthquake went down," says Nelson, "the city was in a really good position to assist its personnel and citizens."

For the hurricane relief efforts, M/A-COM provided responders operating in New Orleans extra walkie-talkies from the New Orleans' system. This system, he explains, was designed with a lot of excess capacity due to events such as Mardi Gras. "They're kind of used to bringing in outsiders and giving them a radio."

Interoperability can be accomplished in various ways, Facella notes. "Among New Orleans first responder agencies, they shared the same system so it was relatively easy and cost effective," he explains. "In addition, the New Orleans system had more than 10 interoperability links to neighboring parish and state systems on different frequencies and vendor protocols. The city also had a backup mutual aid repeater system."

A military expression he uses is, "The commander in the field commands no one but his desk if he doesn't have radio communication."

"You saw that in the dramatic relief during Katrina where communication systems failed," says Facella.

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