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September 22, 2005

Hurricane Katrina—Preliminary Assessment of Gulf Coast Shelters

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W. Courtland Robinson, PhD, assistant professor with the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response and the Department of International Health, and Kellogg Schwab, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences and co-director of the Center for Water and Health, traveled to Mississippi’s Gulf Coast days after the region was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. They were part of team sent by the American Red Cross to assess conditions at its emergency shelters.

Robinson and Schwab presented their preliminary findings at the Bloomberg School of Public Health on September 12 and answered questions from the faculty and students.

“This was a catastrophe that flooded the city of New Orleans and took out vast portions of coastline,” said Robinson. Of the response efforts, he noted, “This was a system trying to catch-up in the face of a catastrophic disaster that effectively had taken out so many systems and infrastructures around the response that it rendered the response even more problematic that it would have already been. Power, water, communications, transportation infrastructure, roads bridges, fuel, destroyed and damaged homes—virtually nothing was functioning.”

Robinson and Schwab observed that a lack of communication continually complicated relief efforts. “People couldn’t talk to each other. They didn’t know who was in charge,” Robinson said. He noted that perhaps the Red Cross and other relief agencies could learn some relief strategies from retail giant Wal-Mart, which was able to rapidly move donated bottled water and supplies, as well as volunteers deep into affected areas.

In the first initial phase, said Robinson, “Response is not fundamentally a democratic, it’s autocratic. That was one of the many problems in responding. There needs to be a clear chain of command.”

Schwab recounted an instance where a disaster management team from Florida arrived at a Red Cross shelter to announce they had taken charge of the relief efforts in the region. Within 20 minutes, a disaster management team from Alabama arrived and claimed it was in charge.

In addition to communication problems, Robinson and Schwab noted that the Red Cross, which largely relies on volunteers, needed more staff to handle the emergency. With the hundreds of shelters and the sheer numbers of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina, many of the shelters Robinson and Schwab surveyed were both understaffed and overwhelmed.

“The Red Cross, at the individual level; were working hard and doing good things under tough conditions,” said Schwab.—Tim Parsons