From Katrina to Irma and everything in between…

by Chelsea Zfaz

The response to Hurricane Harvey in Texas presents a unique opportunity to evaluate the quality and scope of government and non-government organizations’ emergency preparedness and response capacity.

The United States in general (and Texas in particular) are accustomed to large-scale natural disasters. There is a widespread understanding across the US that emergency preparedness is critical to both the continuity and the efficacy of government agencies, law enforcement agencies, municipalities, medical systems and aid groups alike.

Lessons learned from the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 undoubtedly bolstered emergency preparedness efforts for relevant actors vis-à-vis Hurricane Harvey, yet the extent of those lessons and their ability to be translated into a more effectual response have yet to elucidate. 

War-games and tabletop exercises have become the normative mechanisms for increasing emergency preparedness, coordination and response capacities. When discussing their preparation work for post-Katrina disasters, many healthcare workers and emergency responders cited coordination training exercises as primary mechanisms for increasing preparedness within their organizations.

In an interview with the New York Times on preparing for Hurricane Harvey, Darrell Pile, chief executive of the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council (which established a catastrophic medical operations center in Houston’s emergency command center), explained that a large association of medical providers had trained and planned regularly for catastrophes, “but honestly, not at this epic level”, he disclosed.

The Texas Medical Center, drawing on tough lessons learned after Hurricane Allison flooded its facilities and forced emergency patient evacuations in 2001, locked its newly-installed submarine doors when Hurricane Harvey made landfall, effectively preventing flooding and protecting every one of its patients.

The Texas Medical Center’s preparedness paid-off for its patients, yet it’s eight helicopters could not land at the center due to high winds. William McKeon, the center’s president and chief executive, explained “I’ve never heard so few sirens as I have in the last few days, which is upsetting. We can be dry and open but if you can’t deliver patients to the medical center, that’s our biggest concern.”

An organization can enjoy the highest level of disaster preparedness possible, yet if it’s partner organizations, delivery services or surrounding environments are lacking readiness to respond, they too shall experience the throes of being unprepared.

Emergency drills and coordination trainings are critical steps in preparing for disasters, yet it is sorely insufficient to claim ‘preparedness’ for a disaster after a single training exercise. The pervasive challenge remains translating lessons learned from trainings and past experiences into enhanced operational procedures and coordination.

Ben Taub Hospital
August 27, 2017: Flood waters inundate Houston’s Ben Taub Hospital, a major trauma center in the Texas Medical Center campus, which had spent billions of dollars on flood protections after Hurricane Allison in 2001.

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