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saving someone from a carchaos at the convention centerline of cars and trucks leaving new orleans
What are the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina?  Are we prepared for other disasters in waiting?

Dear FRONTLINE,

I worked with FEMA and its arm, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), for 18 years. The NFIP requires local communities to enforce design and construction standards for elevating and floodproofing buildings, in exchange for federally backed flood insurance coverage eligibility.

From the footage I saw of Katrina in the media, and in my career of reviewing local government permit records, it is apparent that numerous buildings nationwide, but especially in the path of Katrina, were relatively new, and not elevated/protected, showing a gross lack of enforcement at all levels.

The NFIP standards have been in place for over 30 years. FEMA took over the NFIP in 1980. After Hurricanes Hugo (1989)and Andrew (1992), I noted a marked change in FEMA from flood studies and planning, and monitoring the enforcement of the NFIP regulations, to a "give away" program for local governments and emergency management agencies.

In recent years, but especially after 9-11, instead of funding the floodproofing of buildings following disasters, federal grant money went to fire stations, equipment, radios, etc., which as your program pointed out, were ineffective in the disaster. At the same time, I have seen extensive lobbying by local governments, developers, legislators, and engineering consultants to weaken the NFIP's flood prediction data and flood protection standards.

The greatest failure after Katrina would be to allow the redevelopment of the coast without sound flood protection. You cannot rely on levees to ensure safety in disasters; this lesson was also readily apparent after the Great Mississippi flood of 1993. FEMA should hold itself to its Code of Federal Regulations, and its mandate for enforcement of the NFIP, in any rebuilding effort.

Michael Gease
Williamsport, Ohio

Dear FRONTLINE,

Thank you for a wonderful history of FEMA and interviews with people that know how to do the job of disaster preparedness and intervention. We all know that predicting this disaster has been done for as long as the city has been there. No surprise it happened just when it would happen was in question. There was no excuse for that city not to be prepared. What will come in the future as the hurricanes are becoming stronger and more frequent. Our town has learned that preparing for the aftermath is as important as the evacuation. Plans are being made for the clean-up and organized re-entry but yet we still allow mobile homes in hurricane prone areas. Residents know that it is not if we will be hit but when. Today there is no excuse for loss of one life in a hurricane. We have the means to get everyone out of an area if people will leave in a timely manner and be ready to go. That will enable others to help those without transportation. In an hour you were able to touch on all aspects of government gaps but one --- the companion and farm animals. Perhaps had we been smarter about including pets in the evacuation, there would have been more private resources to help the people. Simply, we can do better. May we not forget and always have the experts in the positions of leadership at FEMA. Thank you!

Gwen Gerber
Beaufort, SC

Dear FRONTLINE,

one flaw i see in the current system (and i see plenty) is placing the first response responsibility on the local goverment. Which makes no sense since the local goverment is physically located and operates from the area that suffers the disaster, which common sense would dictate that there would be hindrances in recieving aid if those who are designated to give aid are underwater right along with the victims.

the communication issue is another point i found shocking - in this day and age not to have a communication network in place for diasters such as this after all we learned through previous events i.e. 911, andrew, etc.

its time this country concentrates on domestic infrastructure needs, instead of placing priority on foriegn countries issues.

what katrina has shown is this country cannot respond to a local disaster, and it is becomming appearent we cannot rebuild after a disaster - we are showing a weakness that can be used against us.

philiip laborde
alexandria, la

Dear FRONTLINE,

This should be required viewing for students of political science and public policy & administration. Can I get a copy of the show on DVD?

Tim Shates
Ojai, CA

FRONTLINE's editors respond:

The "Tapes and Transcripts" section of this web site for "The Storm" offers a link for purchasing tapes and DVDs. The full program is also available to watch here on the site, video streamed in Real Player or Windows Media.

Dear FRONTLINE,

There may be investigations and commissions on what went wrong during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans but ... what you reported on will probably be repeated. The commitment to do things different the next time is there, the follow through and funding are going to be the glitches.

Those officials who did not want to respond to your requests to get their side of the story actually comment with their "no comments"

Ivan Cohen
Savannah, Georgia

Dear FRONTLINE,

I am involved in the recovery efforts here and see the dedication of federal, state and local officials every day. These people, who may now realize that the system failed on many levels, are now committed to moving forward. I see these folks working long, late hours. They come from all over the country, leaving family and homes to live in their cars, dorms in the JFO (joint field office) or hotels. They all come with a single mission - to help the victims.While we all acknowledge that there were mistakes made and some people in authority did drop the ball, the people of this area are amazing. I will say that it is not the governmental structure that is bringing New Orleans back to life, it is the people with the most amazing spirit I have ever seen.Yes, FEMA facilitates that progress greatly, and the state and local governments do as well, but the people are the ones who get out there. It is the people who pitch in to help each other. There are groups forming here that help families who were displaced, websites forming that give invaluable information to victims and so many people down there who are so very willing to extend a helping hand.Lastly, please give credit to the voluntary organizaitons who have pitched in to help. The Red Cross, PRC Compassion, Salvation Army, Church of Scientology, United Way, 211, Billy Graham Ministries, and so many others have worked tirelessly to aid victims. Welcome Home Kitchen was set up in Washington Park near the French Quarter, serving meals and providing comfort of all who needed it, until the residents of the area ran them out. PRC Compassion has people coming in from all over the country on two week rotations to feed people, give them supplies and gut houses.There is a huge compound on Judge Perez in the Wal-Mart parking lot in St. Bernard just past the checkpoint that offers supplies to victims. It is staffed by PRC Compassion volunteers and gives food, supplies, cleaning supplies, diapers, etc. There is also a large DRC there with the SBA and other resources as well as a triple wide medical trailer.My point is that though you may see on TV all the bad stuff, what is actually happening down here is inspiring. There are messages on several decimated buildings that read "We will rebuild!"There is no doubt that WE will.

Stephanie Partridge
Baton Rouge, Louisiana

FRONTLINE's editors respond:

While FRONTLINE's report focused on government failures at the federal, state and local level, we acknowledge the extraordinary effort by private citizens, churches, and charities to help in the relief effort. There were many instances where they were the first to show up to help and made a real difference in people's lives.

Dear FRONTLINE,

I don't think most people know just how pervasive political patronage has become at ALL levels of government in this country. This was a major factor in the failure of FEMA and the response to Katrina. There was a movement started in the mid 1990's that said that a professional apolitical government workforce was an outdated concept. That the media would provide the oversite to ensure that government was not subject to the abuses of favoritism and cronyism.

In many government agencies and departments at the Federal, State, and Local level today there are political appointies that have little experience or expertise in how to do the actual work that needs to be done. Until the American people realise what has happened and demand reforms to take back their government this will only get worse.

Tom Roderick
Atlanta, Georgia

Dear FRONTLINE,

At the risk of violating a copyright your show on "The Storm" was the most "fair and balanced" treatment I have seen-- typical of Martin Smith and "Frontline." The complexity of the blame involved and your securing an interview with Michael Brown and Tom Ridge allowing them to present their own points of view was extremely valuable. Seeing the disaster that is FEMA is the most troubling and I hope this will be a continued catalyst for change. Thank you!

Dave Pasinski
Syrcuse, NY

Dear FRONTLINE,

Three points regarding the program:

1. While the political analysis of root problems was essentially correct, the media have not stepped up to accept some of the blame for not bringing attention to the underlying issues beFORE disasters happen. (It was ever thus.)

2. The focus on the interoperable communications at the end of the program was a misdirection. Interoperable communications is not the same as redundant communications. Even with perfect interoperability you still need power to run the system.

3. Project Impact did not disappear, even if the name did. The concept was institutionalized with the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 and the Pre-disaster Mitigation program (PDM). Unbelievably, this relatively small, underfunded program was cut to $50 million nationally in the recently passed Homeland Security Appropriation and there is now a cap on applications of 5 per state. FEMA has not been able to keep up with the administration of the nationally competitive program, (for example, NO grants were awarded during the FY 2004 cycle even though funding was available). The Congressional reauthorization of this program is currently pending, and it should be revamped to risk-based allocations to the states, with state administration.

Amy Sebring
Corpus Christi, Texas

Dear FRONTLINE,

I liked the program, but it did not go far enough. Your interviews were mainly public officials, who explained and defended (for the most part) what they did. It would have benefited from some researchers and educators who could have added some additional insights into what the public officials did not know and did not do.

What struck me was the hapless and inexperienced Mayor of New Orleans and Gov. of LA, who inherited a badly planned and badly managed complex urban area. Not matter what they did, they would not have been able to mend the damage of bad decisions for many decades....

Finally, I think you could do an entire new segment on the recovery process. It is not as exciting as the chaos and public outcry of the response phase, but the rehousing, reconstruction, and recovery are also going badly. Once again, the academic, research, and consulting communities could contribute some understanding. TV has never examined the long-term recovery period.

Claire Rubin
Arlington, VA

Dear FRONTLINE,

What an excellent segment on Frontline. Isn't saving citizens in a time of huge calamity a national security issue --why did our leaders, who pride themselves on being strong on national security, fail our country during crisis?

Thank you for showing the FEMA charter that proves they are responsible for aiding in city evacuation during emergency.

Thank you for letting the American public know that FEMA's budget has been cut since Katrina, and showing us what an efficient, workable organization it was during the 1990's.

No adequate defense exists for our government's failings because their actions are indefensible. We needed a group capable of thinking and acting immediately with creativity and true concern. What we got was yet another PR campaign and a FEMA manager more concerned with his own dinner than our citizens' survival.

Anne Price
Cleveland, Ohio

Dear FRONTLINE,

I woke up early this morning...I have not been getting much rest since the storm...and I saw your program. After watching it I sat in my chair for 10 minutes running the images of the Hurricane through my mind.

I am the Chief Photographer at WWL-TV in New Orleans. My former history professor was Stephen Ambrose. Three weeks before he died he told me "you do the same thing I do but you do it on a daily basis." I covered Hurricane and its impact on the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region

.Your program was concise and a document for history. But some would say history does not linger long. T

hank You, for the program.I hope the rest of the country will not forget us. Brian G. Lukas

Brian Lukas
New Orleans, Louisiana

Dear FRONTLINE,

Ultimately, our governments can't keep playing the blame-game. Each government, city, state, and federal, played their part in the aftermath of Katrina, and each made their mistakes. In the future, they must learn to get off their high-horses, and learn to work together. The cities and states need to have plans for these disasters, and the federal government needs send more aid and supplies.

In the end, the aftermath of this disaster, like many have said, could have been prevented. We have the technology, and even if you sit in my Geography class, you'll understand that there will be repercussions if plans aren't made for such disasters. So please, start bringing this up in your cities, everywhere!

When I get out of high school and college, I want to know that the generation before me cared enough to take care of such simple but important tasks as creating a plan in case of natural disasters.

Margaret Formoe
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Dear FRONTLINE,

How much of what happened could have been eliminated if the State had utilized the Emergency Management Acreditation Program (EMAP), as a measure of their level of emergency preparedness.

Florida is one of the few States who has EMAP standards in place, yet IVAN was not able to have near the impact as this storm.

So, what are the priorities now for the State, the Nation as a whole, and International disaster planning efforts. Would it be time to consider adequate funding, provided with a science based rational to bring up the level of State preparedness, and adoption of standards for disaster peparedness.

It is not common for folks to really appreciate how necessary adequate standards are for protection of life and property. We have so many safety standards in the world, yet almost no disaster planning standards.

The time is now, for re-establishing a more professional criteria for what good planning means.

The show was excellent, although the real disaster was made worse by knowledge deficits, regarding 'disasters', of the different levels of leadership.

Gordon R Redmond
Vancouver, British Columbia

Dear FRONTLINE,

Bush actually brought up a good point in his speech after the disaster - maybe the use of Armed Foreces specifically trained for disaster relief is the most effective long-term solution. I think there are a couple points to consider in its favor:

1. The military has the greatest logistical capacity.

Planes, trucks, ships, helicopters - whatever transportation you can think of, they have it. And they have people trained to do their jobs full-time, 24/7, 365 days a year.

2. Foreign disasters typically involve military action.

Tsunami relief efforts showed how many other countries rely on their military organizations to handle large scale disaster response.

3. Almost certain to be well-funded.

We spend a LOT of money on our armed forces - far more than other countries, and far more than we spend on any other government "organization". I don't thini we have to worry about the military ever being underfunded to the point where they are downsized smaller than even the largest existing state emergency response agency.

2. Military leaders are NOT political appointees.

While FEMA can be effective so long as a qualified leader is at its helm, you simply cannot guarantee that the President will appoint such a leader.

The US military has no shortage of generals (most people don't realize how many we have in active service) who have experience commanding a large staff and supporting organization.

And so it's on that last point that I have the greatest hope. He may not have realized it, but Bush is basically proposing the most "Bush-proof" solution. Huzzah to that!

Frontline - Thanks for another wonderful example of quality journalism.

Christopher Barron
Pasadena, CA

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posted nov. 22, 2005

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