Even though Hurricane Katrina was still several miles offshore, the American Red Cross was already on the scene, preparing for the onslaught of high winds and heavy rains. Two dozen shelters were open, with another 16 on standby. Approximately 3,000 clean-up kits and comfort kits, containing items ranging from sponges and mops to toothpaste and soap, had been distributed to local Red Cross chapters. Other supplies and equipment, including mobile kitchens and emergency response vehicles, were on their way to the area.
By the time sheets of rain started falling on Fort Lauderdale and Miami on August 25, the Red Cross was ready.
Fort Lauderdale? Miami?
Competition for Resources
In the public mind, the word “Katrina” has become synonymous with “New Orleans.” But four days before devastating that city, Katrina was taking aim at the southeast coast of Florida, and the Red Cross was positioning people and supplies in the area.
Red Cross volunteers, with the help of local police, unload truckloads of relief supplies in Key West, Fla.
(Photo credit: Gene Dailey/American Red Cross)
After passing over Florida and regaining its strength (and then some) in the Gulf of Mexico, Katrina turned northward toward Louisiana. Though still engaged in recovery efforts in Florida—damage assessment teams were checking houses in Key West and nearby Broward County, and shelters were housing more than 100 area residents who were unable to return home—the Red Cross rushed additional disaster workers and supplies to Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi in preparation for a second, more destructive landfall.
Unfortunately, these resources proved no match for Katrina’s strong winds (estimated at 125 miles per hour at landfall) and exceptional size (tropical storm-force winds extended more than 200 miles from the center of the storm). The hurricane breached levees separating Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, sending water into the streets and flooding nearly 80 percent of the city. Across southern Louisiana and Mississippi, Katrina destroyed homes, flooded roads, and toppled power lines, disrupting communication and transportation systems. Hospitals, retirement homes, and schools throughout the affected area had to be evacuated, some by emergency airlift. Thousands of residents fled, some never to return; many others sought refuge in shelters, though flooding and damage were so widespread that available shelter sites often were far from hard-hit areas.
As the scale of the devastation became clear, survivors of the storm began to turn to the Red Cross and other relief organizations for assistance. The supplies that the Red Cross had pre-positioned were quickly consumed, creating significant competition for community and commercial resources within the entire emergency management community. This competition slowed overall relief efforts and heightened the frustration of hurricane victims along the Gulf coast.
New Levels of Preparedness
The challenges posed by Katrina’s “double landfall” and destructive energy, coupled with forecasts of active hurricane seasons for the remainder of the decade, prompted Red Cross leaders to establish new standards for response capabilities and make several improvements to ensure the organization can move people and supplies into disaster-stricken areas more quickly. Among the improvements are the following:
- Tripling warehouse space so that relief items can be stored closer to disaster-prone locations;
- Acquiring permanent space for disaster relief operations headquarters;
- Increasing the stockpiling of food, cots, blankets, comfort kits, and other relief items to ensure that enough shelter supplies are on hand to accommodate 500,000 people;
- Increasing the number of mobile kitchens and mobile feeding vehicles; and
- Positioning permanent satellite communication systems in more than 25 Red Cross chapters to enable communication in the event of damage to the local infrastructure.
While some of these improvements targeted hurricane-prone areas, others have been made in areas that face elevated risks of disasters such as earthquakes. This strategy has already proved successful—although the 2006 hurricane season was quieter than expected and the 2007 season has not yet produced a major domestic storm, the additional supplies have been used for floods, wildfires, and tornadoes.
“Strategically placing supplies around the nation pays dividends for disasters of all kinds,” says Joe Becker, senior vice president, Preparedness and Response. “The lessons we have learned from past disasters helps the Red Cross expand its reach in future events.”
All American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. You can help the victims of thousands of disasters across the country each year by making a financial gift to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, which enables the Red Cross to provide shelter, food, counseling and other assistance to victims of disaster. The American Red Cross honors donor intent. If you wish to designate your donation to a specific disaster, please do so at the time of your donation. Call 1-800-REDCROSS or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Contributions to the Disaster Relief Fund may be sent to your local American Red Cross chapter or to the American Red Cross, P. O. Box 37243, Washington, DC 20013. Internet users can make a secure online contribution by visiting www.redcross.org.