Hurricane Gustav thankfully spared the Gulf Coast its full fury. Still, the storm was a crucial test of emergency preparedness in the region devastated by Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent inadequate government response. Government, at all levels, largely passed the test, although crucial weaknesses remain to be fixed before the next hurricane inevitably roars ashore.
As Gustav moved northward, an unprecedented 2 million people were evacuated, including nearly all the residents of New Orleans, scene of some of the worst damage from Katrina in 2005. This was the first crucial test as residents took the evacuation orders seriously and authorities kept traffic flowing smoothly, if slowly. When things did go wrong, such as a shortage of buses to move residents out of New Orleans, backup plans were quickly implemented and problems solved (using school buses for the evacuation, for example).
A strong police and National Guard presence and an enforced curfew also reassured residents that their homes and businesses wouldn’t be looted in their absence, thus allowing more people to comfortably leave the city.
With the memory of fetid conditions in the Superdome still fresh in the national psyche, shelters were set up outside the storm’s expected path. They were set up with supplies in advance of Gustav.
There were still missteps, such as overcrowded shelters turning away busloads of evacuees, but nothing on the scale of lack of preparation, confusion and miscommunication that plagued the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The success of the preparation for and response to Hurricane Gustav can be at least partially traced to the hours of hearings held by the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. The committee’s review, overseen by Sen. Susan Collins, led to a stronger and professionalized Federal Emergency Management Agency and required cooperation among federal, state and other agencies. That coordination showed in shelters ready with cots, food and water, search-and-rescue teams on standby and military airlifts of hospital patients before the storm.
The region’s levees and other flood control devices still remain a concern, especially since Gustav came ashore as a Category 2 hurricane, far less powerful than Katrina. Water still poured over the top of the floodwalls and splashed through cracks along the Industrial Canal in New Orleans. This time, however, the levees stayed upright. During Katrina, portions of the levees collapsed as water splashing over the top wore away at the soil at the base. The floodwaters inundated large parts of the city, especially the Ninth Ward.
A stronger storm would still be problematic and the Army Corps of Engineers’ 2011 deadline for completing water control work on the inland waterway from the Gulf to New Orleans seems dangerously far away, especially as Hurricane Hanna moves toward the United States and tropical storm Ike forms in the Atlantic.
As America and the Gulf Coast breathe a sigh of relief after Gustav, there is no room for complacency. Better flood control and streamlined preparedness can’t come too soon.