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Messages lost, and recovered, from Hurricane Katrina.

"The destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina increased dramatically due to communications failures," wrote then-Lt. Col. Heather K. Meeds, U.S. Army National Guard, in the abstract to her March 2006 Army War College strategy research project. Communication Challenges during Incidents of National Significance: A Lesson from Hurricane Katrina. "The communications failures caused undue death and destruction in the affected areas."

Aug. 28 marks the fifth anniversary when the storm grew to a category 5 hurricane--the highest classification, with winds exceeding 155 mph--and ravaged the coastlines of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. It killed more than 1,300 people, displaced 770,000 others, and caused $96 billion in damage (in third quarter 2005 dollars), according to The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned (published in February 2006), an account headed by Frances Fragos Townsend, then Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism.

Although some information networks and emergency procedures were in place in what was the most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history, many of these tools were decimated or overwhelmed by the magnitude of the event, concludes the September 2005 Congressional Research Service Report for Congress about the Department of Defense's disaster response to Hurricane Katrina.

Key Problems

"The storm crippled thirty-eight 911 call centers, disrupting local emergency services, and knocked out more than 3 million customer phone lines in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Broadcast communications were likewise severely affected, as 50 percent of area radio stations and 44 percent of area television stations went off the air," documents the Townsend study. Reports from the field, therefore, were difficult to file or receive.

By September 3, basic communications were restored in Louisiana, according to the Meeds findings, but problems remained with dispersing information. For example, communication between the multiple levels of government and the many agencies trying to stabilize New Orleans--whose famous levees didn't hold for a city six feet below sea level, thus mandating evacuation--needed to be interoperable but wasn't.


The National Guard, for one, had its own systems of communications that others were not able to use. What's more, some vehicular detachments of stand-alone communication systems, called Mobile Emergency Response Supports, sat idle for a time because officials on the ground and in Washington, D.C., didn't know about them, the Townsend study points out.

And the few systems that were interoperable, such as landlines and satellite phones, became overwhelmed with the high volume of users, Rosanne Prats, Director of Emergency Preparedness for Louisiana, told me in a recent interview. "The system was there, it was just so overwhelmed that it couldn't handle the sheer amount of calls we were getting," she said.

Compounding obstacles, numerous countries such as Switzerland and Germany offered supplies and financial assistance but no method existed to deliver international aid. "Inadequate planning delayed the overall process of accepting and receiving disaster aid from abroad," the Townsend study determined.

Another technological and informational breakdown involved medical records. Communication between patients and healthcare providers such as doctors, hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and insurance companies faltered, sometimes fatally, because records had been destroyed in the storm, patients had relocated afterwards and were not able to retrieve them, parties had trouble contacting each other, etc.

In fact, of those displaced after the storm, most couldn't access their medical records for weeks, according to Crystal Franco et al. in "Systemic Collapse: Medical Care in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina," in Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science (2006).

Key Solutions

After Katrina, federal government oversight committees, such as the Townsend contingent and the U.S. Government Accountability Office, spearheaded upgrades for response systems. Efforts include:

* The Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of October 2006. It refocused the Department of Homeland Security and its Federal Emergency Management Agency.

* The creation in April 2007 of the Office of Emergency Communications. It "supports the Secretary of Homeland Security in developing, implementing, and coordinating interoperable and operable communications for the emergency response community at all levels of government," according to its Web site.

* Further impetus for a nationwide electronic medical database. President George W. Bush had signed an executive order in 2004 to upgrade the U.S. healthcare system to electronic records by. it was determined, 2014. Hurricane Katrina underscored the importance of this. Consequently,, which compiles medication records about evacuees for healthcare professionals and providers, was launched in September 2005. And one component of The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of February 2009 gives incentives to the medical community to switch to electronic records.

These communication steps, among numerous other overhauls to and innovations in science and technology, further the recovery from Hurricane Katrina and should help protect us from future calamities.


Catherine C. Shoults (Missouri State University) is pursuing a master's degree in public health, with a concentration in the epidemiology of infectious disease, from Yale University's School of Public Health. She graduated magna cum laude in biology from Missouri State University's Honors College and was one of six students to earn the school's highest award, the Citizen Scholar, given by its board of governors. Shoults also won a 2009 Award of Excellence from Phi Kappa Phi to help finance her graduate studies. Volunteer work about planning for medical-related disasters has inspired Shoults to pursue a career in disaster management. Email her at
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Title Annotation:Science and Technology
Author:Shoults, Catherine C.
Publication:Phi Kappa Phi Forum
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2010
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