May 22, 2009 By Corey McKenna
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has come a long way since Hurricane Katrina in its response to disasters but the country has a long way to go to improve preparedness, Lt. Gen. Russel Honore told a gathering of homeland security stakeholders in Washington, D.C., last week at the 2009 Homeland Security S&T Stakeholders Conference. Honore was the commander of the Joint Task Force Katrina responsible for coordinating military relief efforts for areas across the Gulf Coast impacted by Hurricane Katrina, which killed more than 1,800 people. In contrast, Hurricane Ike killed fewer than 30 people, Honore said. That's largely because people were warned and evacuated ahead of time.
"I believe for every dollar you spend on preparedness you save $9 in response," Honore said. "The biggest example I can get you is: You go down to your grandma's house that has that big old tree next to it that's 200 years old that can fall on grandma's house and kill her. On a given day you can go cut that tree for $1,000. You wait until after the tornado hit or after the hurricane hit, and it's going to cost you about $10,000 to remove it. That is if grandma is still alive."
The best mitigation strategy might be to not build in a disaster zone in the first place. And that's a lesson that is well documented and used to be part of the popular mindset, Honore said.
"We're doing some pretty stupid things in where we're building buildings, how we build them, where people live, how they live. We have to get people to be more aware of doing a risk assessment of where they live and how they live," he said. "It is predicted that an overtopping of Long Island would also mean about one story of water on Wall Street, but yet, take a look at how our infrastructure has been built."
All the marketing and availability of useful products aren't going to do any good if residents don't use them to prepare for disasters.
"I went to Baton Rouge after Gustav last year and saw a cousin of mine. He said, 'Well you know, cuz you all was a little late getting here with the tarps and the FEMA water. I said 'Well, what impact did it have?' 'I guess some roof damage, but we had to wait three days for our tarp.' I said 'Let's go out here and look at your property.' As we walked around his big old mobile home, about a 30 footer, that he used to go to the [Louisiana State University football games] in and they tail gate in. Right behind it was parked a trailer with all type of stuff. You could have a field kitchen. You could feed about 1,000 troops with what they do tailgating parties with. Then we went to a shed with a little roof damage and inside that was his four vehicles he and his boys go deer hunting in. Right next to that was his $25,000 bass boat. I said 'You know cuz, if you spent a little bit of time getting prepared for hurricane season like you do for football and deer season, you'd be OK. Get rid of some of this stuff, buy yourself a generator and go to Wal-Mart man and buy you some tarps and, by the way, buy a few cases of water to put in your house.
"Here are people who are totally able to do it but it is not in their mindset to be prepared." Honore said.
That puts strain on first responders who also must deal with the elderly, disabled and lower-income residents, who make up one-third of the population and have less freedom to evacuate and stay in a hotel or with relatives.