By Dr. Kandis Wyatt
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics
The weather events of the past week have definitely felt surreal. Sixteen years ago, I was the on-site meteorologist during Hurricane Katrina’s landfall. I provided around-the-clock forecasts for 11 days before, during, and after Katrina’s landfall to the governor of Louisiana, federal officials, emergency managers, and the Emergency Operations Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
When Katrina made landfall in New Orleans as a Category 3 storm, the city’s levee protection system had over 50 breaches. Those levee breaches triggered floods in 80% of New Orleans and resulted in more than $100 billion in damage.
On August 29 – exactly 16 years later to the day of Katrina’s landfall – Hurricane Ida made landfall south of New Orleans as a Category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 150 miles per hour. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Hurricane Ida is the fifth strongest storm to ever make landfall in the United States.
Even though each hurricane is unique, the similarities between Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ida cannot be ignored. In terms of the emergency response, what went right and what went wrong? How do we prepare for the next environmental disaster?
What Went Right with Ida’s Emergency Response
According to the National Hurricane Center, Ida created heavy rain, a dangerous storm surge, damaging winds and flash flooding. However, the fatalities of Hurricane Ida in Louisiana pale in comparison to the more than 1,800 lives lost during Katrina. In fact, there have been more fatalities (46) from Ida reported in the Northeast, as opposed to southeast Louisiana where Ida originally made landfall.
Communication to local residents was clear regarding Hurricane Ida. Up to five days in advance, the National Weather Service, emergency management, and local officials warned people of a major storm with localized heavy rain, strong winds, and storm surges that could cause catastrophic damage to Southeast Louisiana. They also provided information about local shelters and evacuation efforts.
Social media was a huge help in relaying information to areas without power or cell phone coverage. Residents were able to communicate their location and the fact that they were safe, which helped first responders who went door to door to assess if aid was needed in devastated communities.
In addition, post storm-preparedness procedures, such as shelters and an overnight curfew to prevent looting, were implemented swiftly after Hurricane Ida’s landfall to maintain order.
More than one million customers in Louisiana and Mississippi currently remain without power as Ida traveled through the eastern third of the United States before weakening to a tropical storm.
When it made landfall earlier this week, Hurricane Ida was clearly stronger than Hurricane Katrina. But New Orleans was ready: levees, flood walls, levees and floodgates ensured the city did not again endure the massive flooding that occurred after Hurricane Katrina.
The response and relief efforts for Hurricane Ida were also faster than for Hurricane Katrina. Even though several cities were inundated by floodwater and main thoroughfares were cut off by flooding, response crews from around the country were deployed to provide assistance, repair infrastructure, and restore power within hours of the landfall.
In addition, multi-state volunteer and first responder groups helped in many areas. Volunteers in many areas provided shelters, food, and other disaster services to communities, retirement homes, and hospitals.
What Went Wrong with Ida’s Emergency Response
Some problems are inevitable when it comes to natural disasters. During Ida, some people were trapped in their homes, emergency communication lines went out in some areas and there were power outages. Boil water advisories were also issued for some communities.
While many government officials focused on preventing flooding in New Orleans, other communities experienced extreme weather. Mississippi, Tennessee, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York reported tornadoes, wind damage, and flooding, which caused billions of dollars in damage according to The Hill.
In fact, New York City issued its first Flash Flood Emergency Warning for the first time in its history. Heavy rains exceeding three inches per hour brought the city to a halt, turned thoroughfares into rivers, and brought the NYC subway system – the largest in the country – to a standstill.
President Biden declared both New York and New Jersey federal disaster areas as a result of Hurricane Ida. That’s in addition to the federal disaster declaration for six southern states.
Similarly, many communities did not focus on the infrastructure hazards associated with a hurricane. While New Orleans’ infrastructure and pumping system implemented as a result of Hurricane Katrina remained intact, strong winds and tornadoes devastated the area’s power grid. As a result, some rural areas may go three to four weeks without power.
How Do We Prepare for the Next Disaster?
According to the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, extreme weather events are going to not only continue, but increase in frequency. It’s not a question of if major hurricanes like Ida and Katrina will occur, but when they will happen.
While there are naysayers who have the viewpoint that people should not live in hurricane-prone areas, the reality is that these hurricane-prone areas are home to millions of people and are also vacation destinations to many more. Instead of promoting abandonment, preparedness for major hurricanes and other disasters through enhanced training, communication, and education is key to preventing damage and death.
Extreme weather awareness needs to be a staple of every education system – from elementary to post-secondary. Regardless of where you live in the United States, you’ll be able to react swiftly to any weather hazard – such as wildfires, hurricanes, blizzards, heatwaves, floods, drought, and tornadoes – with the right preparation.
Every community needs to have a disaster preparedness plan, and Ready.gov has resources in honor of September’s National Preparedness Month to help both individuals and communities stay resilient and handle major events. If you are ever in the path of any extreme weather event, listen to officials, take precautions and take action.
And when it comes to flooding, remember: Turn Around, Don’t Drown. The life you save may be your own.