'Getting to the left' of a disaster
Katrina hero Gen. Honore pushes preparedness at IAEM conference
As an active-duty lieutenant general, Russel L. Honoré wore three stars, but his high-profile service as commander of Joint Task Force Katrina in 2005 led some to call him the "Category 5 general."
Either way, for the lunch presentation on the opening day of the International Association of Emergency Managers 2008 annual conference, the Louisiana-born
Honoré took the stage by storm with a multi-faceted address for the assembled EMs.
L-R: Richard Webre, Director, Ascension Parish (La.) Office of Homeland Security; conference speaker Lt. General Russel L. Honore, U.S. Army (Ret.); and Marian Johnson-Miles, Chief Planning Officer, Ascension Parish (La.) Office of Homeland Security. (Photo/Karen Thompson/IAEM)
"As good as you are,” he told the attendees, “you’ll never be good enough." At its height, Hurricane Katrina covered as much land area as England, Honoré said, and it “attacked New Orleans like a foreign army would.”
Planning and poverty
With the ever-present possibility of more Katrina-sized, or worse, disasters, Honoré said that America needs a National Preparedness Plan to complement our National Response Plan. Pointing to a timeline showing the typical phases of disaster planning, mitigation, response and recovery, he said that the emergency management profession needs to do more to “get to the left side of a disaster.”
Even limiting consideration to flooding and storm surges, the risk is huge. Forty-two percent of the U.S. population lives within 20 miles of an ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, one of the Great Lakes or the Mississippi River.
One of the more unusual preparedness lessons learned from Katrina’s aftermath came from the hundreds of coffins that were washed away from the region’s cemetaries. Though many were later recovered, there was no identifying information on them, forcing the federal government to spend thousands of dollars each in forensic efforts to identify who was in each coffin. The simple answer for the future, Honoré said, is to spend a few extra dollars on every coffin to add a small metal plate with ID information.
Preparedness is a collaboration of government, education and business, he said. For example, there should be generators at gas stations, grocery stores and drug stores, so their gas pumps and lights work, and hopefully their credit card terminals, too.
The devastation caused by Katrina drove home for Honoré, born the youngest of 12 children, the lesson, as he put it, that "Disasters have a multiplying effect on the poor."
"There is a Ninth Ward in every one of your cities," he said, recalling the part of New Orleans that was inundated by both the storm surge and multiple levee failures. And given that every jurisdiction has that "other side of the tracks," and the ongoing risk of fatally wayward water, Honoré emphasized, it’s important to teach poor kids how to swim!
Making it personal
Preparedness has to be a personal responsibility, Honoré said, both for the general public and for emergency managers and responders and their families. Long familiar with his home state's mania for football, he commented that people should be as prepared for a disaster as they are for the LSU game.
"Preparedness starts at home. We need a cultural shift," he said, and we’ll know it has happened when people give Grandma or Grandpa an evacuation pack for Christmas.
Honoré also suggested putting the professionals who market overpriced bottled water to work on getting people to buy weather radios.
More suggestions included IDs for babies, who are sometimes separated from their families, and portable medical records for the elderly, who, when asked what medications they take, sometimes answer "I take a red pill at night." Put all your important documents on a CD or a thumb drive and keep it in your evacuation pack. "Learn how to text!"
Honoré also thinks that all college students should be required to be certified in basic first aid, and in fact he’s working with an initiative to start college-based Red Cross clubs in the Atlanta area, where he still lives since retiring from the Army in January 2008 after 36 years of military service.
Preparedness so often comes down to simple common sense, Honoré said. One key example, no matter whether you live in a flood zone or wildland fire country, is "If the insurance company won’t sell you insurance, get the hell out of there.”