Don’t Forget: Lessons From the Gulf Coast

A victim of Katrina implored, “Don’t let people forget.”

During Albuquerque’s record-breaking winter storm over New Year’s weekend, when almost 20 inches of snow kept most of us housebound for a few days, I thought about this woman’s plea and our reluctance to prepare for emergencies.

When I lived in Seattle, we constantly were warned about the eminent ‘big one.’ The office where I worked had emergency supplies and a plan to respond to the people with disabilities we served. I had emergency provisions in my car, and food and water stock-piled at home. When I moved to Albuquerque, my guard went down. This was not an area that was prone to disasters.

Mother Nature rattled our cages this past summer with hundred-year rains that forced some residents to evacuate, and a record snowfall this winter that prevented many of us from leaving our homes and stranded hundreds of travelers.

How many of us are prepared for the unexpected?

According to a study conducted at shelters in Houston following Hurricane Katrina, the major reason people did not evacuate early was because they did not think the storm was going to be as powerful as it was.

Researchers from the Universities of Kansas and New Mexico surveyed people with disabilities in the Gulf States who were impacted by Katrina. In their final report, they quoted one of the respondents as saying, “We stayed because it never had been that bad before. We never thought the water would rise like that. It caught us off guard. We were pretty much going by the seat of our pants.”

Amanda Ripley, writing in Time Magazine, August 20, 2006, discussed why people don’t prepare. She states, “Historically, humans get serious about avoiding disasters only after one has just smacked them across the face.”

A week after New Mexico’s major snow storm, an article in the Albuquerque Journal advised people “to make like boy Scouts and be prepared.”

Yet I wonder how many people heeded the advice.

Ripley continued in her article, “In the 12 months since Katrina, the rest of the U.S. has not proved to be a quicker study than the Gulf Coast.”

According to the director of emergency management in King County, Washington, quoted in Ripley’s article, “There are four stages of denial. One, it won’t happen. Two, if it does happen, it won’t happen to me. Three, it won’t be that bad if it does happen to me. And four, if it happens to me and it’s bad, there’s nothing I can do to stop it anyway.”

The mechanics of emergency preparedness are pretty straight forward: stocking up on water and nonperishable food, and having a first aid kit, a flashlight and batteries. However, our planning needs to extend beyond ourselves. Are there people or pets in our household who need special consideration? Are there neighbors who might need assistance? What are the plans if family members are separated when a disaster happens?

As I ventured from my home a couple of days after the snow storm, I noticed the icy foot prints of an elderly neighbor where she had gone to retrieve her mail. It would have been easy for her to slip, and I knew I needed to shovel a safe path for her. Another neighbor and I, who occasionally chatted as we walked our dogs, decided it was important to exchange phone numbers.

Unfortunately, the open house I had planned to enable our street’s older, single women to connect with each other had to be cancelled because of the snow storm. However, I realize now that it is more important than ever.

One of the haunting memories of Katrina was the news about a woman who died in her wheelchair outside of the Convention Center. Another woman who talked with the disability researchers said, “I heard gurgling water…I made it to the wheelchair…Then I went down under the water three times. I called 911 on the cell phone and the operator told me to get up as high as I could get. But I told her, ‘Miss, I can’t get me any higher’…”

Did these individuals have support systems? Where were their friends and neighbors?

Jeff Opdyke, writing in the Wall Street Journal Sunday, shared the story of a family friend who had to evacuate during last summer’s East Coast floods. “What was so invaluable,” she said, “were all these relationships I had established long before the crisis hit.”

Opdyke continued, “Sometimes I now see, the numbers in your checkbook aren’t nearly as important as the numbers in your address book.”

It is not ‘if’ we will be confronted with a situation that upsets our world, but ‘when.’ Will I have taken personal emergency planning seriously, and more importantly, will I have expanded and nurtured the relationships in my neighborhood that will assure that we all make it through together.

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3 thoughts on “Don’t Forget: Lessons From the Gulf Coast

  1. I live in the East Mountains where we either have danger from fires if it dry or snow through out the winter. Our neighborhood has a phone tree and an evacuation plan.

    Plus, I am a New Englander and grew up where it snowed alot, yet this year’s big snow caught me without a scraper or gloves in my car. I had let my guard down over the several dry winters.

    Being prepared requires vigilance. Vigilance requires time. Our lives are so busy and packed it is hard even when we know better to always be prepared.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  2. How history repeats itself!

    My experience in providing medical relief to the victims of Hurricane Camille in 1969, when I was a resident at Tulane, is described in my Blog, at

    As bad as Camille was, we were all thankful that it was not the “big one” that everyone talked about, the hurricane that would slosh water up into Lake Pontchartrain and force it over the levees into the East Bank of New Orleans. Of course, Hurricane Katrina was to do something very similar. The storm is estimated to have been responsible for $125 billion in damage, the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

    Remarkably, these words were written in 1999: “For many, Camille is a distant memory, an historical footnote from a time long gone. But Camille is also a harbinger of disasters to come. Another storm of Camille’s intensity will strike the United States, the only question is when. When this future storm strikes, it will make landfall over conditions drastically different from those in 1969. The hurricane-prone regions of the United States have developed dramatically as people have moved to the coast and the nation’s wealth has grown. Estimates of potential losses from a single hurricane approach $100 billion.” [Thirty Years After Hurricane Camille: Lessons Learned, Lessons Lost, by Roger A. Pielke, Jr., Chantal Simonpietri, and Jennifer Oxelson ,12 July 1999]

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