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Recent research from lessons learned information sharing: the importance of partnerships in the rural water response to Hurricane Katrina.

When the Category 3 Hurricane Katrina made its second landfall along the U.S. Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, the storm devastated local water systems in Louisiana, Mississippi, and parts of Alabama. Extensive power outages shut off water service for entire communities, while downed trees and damaged structures ripped up main water lines and destroyed water wells. Large accumulations of debris subsequently complicated efforts to deliver emergency generators and to locate and repair leaks. As a result of the damage to water and wastewater systems, the hurricane had severe environmental health implications, affecting over 4,000 drinking-water systems that together served more than 15 million residents in the Gulf Coast region (Department of Homeland Security, n.d. [updated 2006]).

In response to the water system damage and in accordance with mission assignments issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under the National Response Plan, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) quickly deployed personnel to the region. U.S. EPA responders assessed damage to water and wastewater systems, provided emergency technical support to utilities, tested water quality, and communicated with the public on water-related hazards. Confronted with damage that spanned sizable expanses of rural territory, however, federal responders lacked the regional familiarity necessary to craft a fully comprehensive rural response effort. Instead, the success of post-Katrina water restoration efforts relied in large part on the endeavors of state and local water officials and their networks of informal partnerships.

Successes of the Rural Water Response

Even before the hurricane winds had fully subsided, state rural water associations and local public works departments had dispatched water technicians to size up damages, pinpoint individual breaks and leaks, and secure and deliver key equipment such as generators and water tanks. In response efforts across all three affected states, water personnel relied frequently on pre-existing relationships with local utilities and peer organizations to assess system and community needs and to dispatch adequate response tools.

Drawing on these networks, as well as on their regional knowledge, many local water personnel were able to improvise quick solutions to communications and delivery obstacles. For instance, a public works official from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, borrowed a radio from a local law enforcement officer to call in an urgent supply request when other communications systems were inoperable (Moore, 2006). Similarly, a circuit rider in Livingston Parish, Louisiana, procured a flatbed tow truck and 20 water storage tanks from a colleague to dispense potable water in an area which otherwise might have had to wait days for water restoration (Hurricane Katrina: Assessing the Present Environmental Status, 2005). Water technicians were also so quick to reach parts of Louisiana that they were sometimes the first responders to arrive at the scene; in many of these cases, they brought the first emergency relief supplies into the area, including bottled water and prepackaged meals (National Rural Water Association [NRWA] & Quality On Tap!, 2006).

In Livingston Parish, a county located midway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the Louisiana Rural Water Association (LRWA) established a water recovery command center at a local fairground. Initially a small operation housed in one trailer, the center quickly evolved into a hub of activity. It played host to personnel from the state department of health, staff from U.S. EPA and FEMA, and volunteer teams of rural water experts from other states (Moore, 2006). Although under the overall direction of U.S. EPA, LRWA dispatched its own teams of circuit riders--water technicians who provide support to rural water operations--to provide technical support for water systems with suspected damage. LRWA also lent one of its veteran circuit riders, Robert Dugas, to the Livingston Parish Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Drawing on his extensive knowledge of the region and wide-ranging local contacts, Dugas subsequently advised EOC personnel on water-related environmental health issues (Emergency Operations Centers, 2006).

State rural water technicians were equally crucial to water restoration activities in Mississippi. The Mississippi Rural Water Association (MsRWA) established an operational headquarters site at a school in Perry County, which served as a base for approximately 50 people from MsRWA and from out of state (P. Boone, personal communication, April 25, 2006). As in Louisiana, water technicians deployed from the command center to hurricane-affected communities across the southern part of Mississippi, maintaining vigilant contact with their headquarters to relay information on damaged water systems and outstanding needs.

Throughout the effort, MsRWA personnel made continual use of informal networks, utilizing friends and colleagues to request generators, fuel supplies, technical assistance, and other forms of support (P. Boone, personal communication, April 25, 2006; Thomas, 2005). Many of these colleagues came from regional networks, including volunteer utility crews who deployed from Florida after a brief conversation with their colleagues in Mississippi and who eventually proved to be one of MsRWA's greatest resources. Water operators and technicians from Florida's Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network (FlaWARN) deployed to Mississippi along with additional generators and a much-needed gas and diesel truck (P Boone, personal communication, April 25, 2006). FlaWARN's contribution to the Mississippi response subsequently mushroomed from 46 to 120 responders (American Water Works Association, n.d.; Florida Department of Environmental Protection, 2005) representing over a dozen utilities and providing more than 100 pieces of equipment (American Water Works Association, n.d.; FlaWARN, 2006).

As a result of the comprehensive response effort, water managers were able to restore water access for many communities within days, even though utility companies could not restore electrical power to some of the same areas for another week or more. The Hurricane Katrina response thus highlighted the importance of strong networks linking water operators with rural water association staff and connecting those same state and local water technicians with their regional counterparts.

Formalizing a Rural Water Emergency Support Network

Water personnel from the affected states noted and internalized the lesson on the need for mutual-aid networks for public and private water and wastewater utilities. As the 2006 hurricane season looms, state officials from Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi have begun to consider various mechanisms for formalizing a larger emergency support network that would solidify resource and communications pathways for assisting troubled water systems. Officials in these states have zeroed in on the Water/Wastewater Agency Response Networks (WARNs) in California, Florida, and Texas for use as a model of what they hope to accomplish.

The idea of a mutual-aid network for water and wastewater utilities emerged in the San Francisco Bay Area after the region suffered two devastating disasters, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the 1991 Oakland Hills wildfire. In the aftermath of the wildfire, representatives of Bay Area utilities worked together to establish a mutual-aid agreement and resource database, which, in 1996, expanded into a statewide utility network known as the California WARN or CalWARN (California's Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network, 2004). In 2001, Florida used the CalWARN model to guide the development of a similar WARN system--which eventually deployed to Mississippi during Hurricane Katrina--and Texas followed suit with its own WARN in December 2005 (American Water Works Association, n.d.). The California, Florida, and Texas WARNs each maintain a Web-based database of state utilities and their resources. The databases allow utility personnel to rapidly match available equipment and personnel with the needs of a damaged utility. WARN systems also encourage the development of official mutual-aid agreements between their member utilities.

Building on the precedents set by these three existing systems, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi are all at various stages of initiating their own WARNs. Louisiana hopes to establish a basic system before June 1, 2006, and reports interest from over 100 state utilities (American Water Works Association, n.d.). Mississippi and Alabama are also in the planning process, with Mississippi aiming for initial standup within the calendar year (P. Boone, personal communication, April 25, 2006). Throughout this process, Florida officials have counseled their Gulf state colleagues on the steps to WARN development, even making WARNs the subject of a November 2005 meeting sponsored by the Florida section of the American Water Works Association that attracted 13 interested states (American Water Works Association, n.d.).


Inspired by the lessons learned during Hurricane Katrina, the National Rural Water Association recently released a set of guidelines for developing similar networks and mutualaid agreements among water and wastewater utilities (NRWA & Quality On Tap!, 2006). In addition to suggesting steps to aid in the development of WARN systems, the NRWA manual recommends that state rural water associations make efforts to integrate with state emergency management agencies. With this growing base of support from NRWA and AWWA, as well as guidance from personnel at successful WARN systems, the Katrina-affected states are not without direction as they head into the 2006 hurricane season. Building off the success stories and lessons learned from rural water response efforts to the August 2005 storm, these states are well on their way to formalizing strong emergency support networks for rural water systems.

Corresponding Author: Katherine J. Worboys, Content Director, Lessons Learned Information Sharing, 1717 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Suite 200, Washington, DC 20006. E-mail:


American Water Works Association. (n.d., updated 2006). WARN to the rescue. Retrieved April 24, 2006, from CI=6.

Department of Homeland Security. (n.d., updated 2006). Emergencies & disasters: Hurricane Katrina: What government is doing. Retrieved April 24, 2006, from

Florida Department of Environmental Protection. (2005, September 8). DEP deploys mutual aid network to support Mississippi water facilities [press release]. Retrieved April 25, 2006, from

Florida's Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network. (2006, March 15). FlaWARN update. Retrieved April 24, 2006, from

Hurricane Katrina: Assessing the Present Environmental Status. 109th Cong., 1st Sess., 6 (2005) (testimony of William Rutledge).

California's water/wastewater agency response network (WARN). (2004). Lessons Learned Information Sharing [Secure Web site, access limited to verified emergency response providers and homeland security offcials at the local, state, and federal levels]. Retrieved April 24, 2006, from

Emergency operations centers: Incorporating a circuit rider [Unpublished manuscript]. (To be posted on Lessons Learned Information Sharing [Secure Web site, access limited to verified emergency response providers and homeland security officials at the local, state, and federal levels].

Moore, M. (2006, Winter). Massive recovery: Small towns still rebuilding after 2005 hurricanes. On Tap, 18-29.

National Rural Water Association & Quality On Tap!. (n.d., updated 2006). Rural water mutual aid agreement and a state wide water and wastewater utility emergency support network. Retrieved April 24, 2006, from

Thomas, E. (2005). The power of rural water in the face of disaster. Rural Water, 26(4), 22-31.

Katherine J. Worboys, M.A., Ph.D.

Claire Applegarth
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Article Details
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Author:Worboys, Katherine J.
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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