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Updated 2:30 PM September 19, 2005




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Panelists: Katrina response failures must trigger change

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There were no problems with most disaster response plans in place before Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast and New Orleans late last month.

But there certainly are concerns about the execution of those plans, said panelists assembled for "First Response to the Hurricane Katrina Disaster" Sept. 9 at the Michigan Union.

"This should serve as a trigger for change," said Louise Comfort, a professor of public and urban affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. She joined U-M faculty panelists Nik Katopodes, chair of civil and environmental engineering at the College of Engineering, and Matthew Boulton, professor of epidemiology and associate dean for practice in the School of Public Health.

"There's an excellent national response plan on the books," Comfort told more than 200 people on hand for the discussion. But she charged that managers experienced in federal disaster response—recruited and active during the (President) Clinton years—had been replaced by lesser-qualified political appointees during the Bush presidency, as preparedness changed focus from natural disasters to terrorism.

Panelists said flooding in New Orleans and a generally slow disaster response were preventable. "This was not an act of God," Comfort said. "There seems to have been a failure at all four levels of government (federal-state-city-parish). We need to hold our government officials accountable at every level."

She criticized pre-Katrina New Orleans evacuation plans, noting 20 to 25 percent of New Orleans residents were without cars. "That plan has to be considered in terms of its effectiveness," she said, adding that authorities had four days from the formation of the hurricane to prepare.

"We cannot help but be awestruck by the magnitude of the disaster," said Rebecca Blank, dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, which sponsored the event.

"Our national pride has been embarrassed by what happened," Katopodes said. "There was enough time ahead of time to plan for it. We weren't prepared, and then what happened? Three levies broke. What we need is to make the integrity of the civil infrastructure a matter of national pride."

He called for a national policy to use the latest technology to head off or mitigate flood damage following natural disasters. Katopodes said measures to avoid flooding in areas protected by levies include equipping them and water-storage basins with sensors to monitor rising water. "You can do something to control it," he said, adding authorities can take measures such as creating a depression wave. "It arrives exactly at the same time (as a flood wave) and takes it away."

Comfort said during the Clinton years, young people trained in public policy schools worked in federal emergency management and won the respect of local authorities. But she said the status quo has changed. "I have e-mails from around the world, people say 'How come FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) wasn't there?' It's embarrassing," Comfort said. "In schools of public policy we need to take stock."

Boulton said, "The Bush Administration has chosen to define preparedness much more narrowly. We must have adequate investment in basic public health."

He said potential health risks following the New Orleans flood include disease outbreaks from mosquitoes due to ample standing water, and from respiratory and intestinal diseases passed by people in crowded shelters. He said dead bodies are not a significant source of disease transmission, and added that cholera and typhoid are not likely, as they have not been reported and typically are not found in the United States.

Boulton said the mental health of survivors will need to be addressed as post-traumatic stress symptoms, including panic attacks, depression, flashbacks and nightmares.

Panelists said people wanting to help hurricane and flood victims in New Orleans should not travel to the region, but instead should contact authorities to determine what help is required.

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