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Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy: Comparisons and Lessons Learned

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In the late summer and early fall of 2005, you could not turn on a TV, radio, or computer without being bombarded by the sound, fury, and imagery that was Hurricane Katrina. Large swaths of the Gulf Coast looked like a soggy, post-atom bomb Hiroshima while the pitched battles between the elected leadership in New Orleans and Baton Rouge resembled the set of Jerry Springer’s TV show minus the chair throwing and pregnancy tests. Everyone knew about what had happened with the epic storm, the levee breaks and flooding, the overcrowded shelters, the post-storm rioting, rooftop rescues and poor response. Americans of every political stripe were united in their angst and frustration at what they had seen unfold.

USCG rescuing Katrina victims

A Coast Guard rescue swimmer with the pilots from Air Station Atlantic City, N.J., prepares an elderly man and woman in New Orleans for transport to safety in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Sept. 7, 2005. Official Coast Guard photo

Fast forward seven years later: Another epic storm would target America’s coastline – this time the mid-Atlantic –and cause meteorologists, public safety personnel, and elected officials of every political party to issue warnings to everyone to get out of the way for fear of the wrath a storm called Sandy would unleash. People for the most part listened, and as a result, population centers in Sandy’s direct path did not sustain the casualties they might have otherwise. Left in Sandy’s wake was a smashed coastline including some of America’s favorite vacation spots; flooded tunnels and fractured transportation systems; a shattered power grid; and hundreds of thousands, if not millions who had their lives severely disrupted.

There are lots of things of things to compare between Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. Their size and scope, along with their strikes against major economic coasts are obvious examples, but let’s talk about two areas: leadership and media coverage.

 

Leadership

President Barack Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talk with local residents at the Brigantine Beach Community Center in Brigantine, N.J., Oct. 31, 2012. Federal, state, and local officials worked together and put politics aside in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Official White House photograph by Pete Souza

Despite the major misstep by NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg thinking it might be a good idea to keep the NYC Marathon going only a week after the storm and a New York State Emergency Management Official sending a state crew to remove a fallen tree from his driveway (he was fired by Gov. Mario Cuomo), the post-Sandy response and recovery operations have been remarkably stable and solid. We’ve had none of the dysfunction junction and finger pointing between then-Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and then-New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin that was on full public display during Katrina. Both individuals had a barely functional relationship with the other prior to the storm and it never functionally improved after it, when the citizens in their care needed it most.

That’s not been the case with Cuomo, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Bloomberg, or any other leader in the area. While each is of a different political party and sees things differently, they’ve been civil, professional, and respectful to one another. When people see dysfunction and chaos at the top, it oftentimes gets replicated down the chain of command. Again, that has not been as visible during Sandy as it was during Katrina. Yes there have been problems, as many Staten Island leaders have been more than public in declaring, but in comparison to what was witnessed in Louisiana seven years earlier, it’s been amazingly calm given Sandy’s blow to the area.

Hurricane Sandy Flooding Avenue C

Flooded Avenue C at East 6th Street in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood of Loisaida, moments before the Con Edison power substation on 14th Street and Avenue C blew up. Oct. 30, 2012 Photo by David Shankbone

History, unlike the news coverage of the time, has finally come around to recognizing the catastrophic failures of state and local leadership that made the tragic and dangerous situation with Katrina even worse. That fact does not absolve or wash clean the hands of FEMA and the federal response. That was certainly subpar and lacking during Katrina, but when you take away the soap opera dynamic of leaders who don’t want to work together or give an inch to gain a yard in negotiating basic needs or public safety, failure for everyone involved is absolutely assured. That lesson seems to have finally come out and been realized by many across the country.

In terms of Sandy, while there were certainly times when federal, state, local and private sector officials disagreed on various things, none of it boiled over to create the fundamental mistrust and angst that made the Katrina situation more difficult.

Debris, Staten Island

Rafael Martinez looks down from his front porch at the trash and debris caused by Hurricane Sandy on Staten Island, N.Y., Nov. 6. Sandy ravaged portions of the Northeastern United States in October 2012. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Bryan Nygaard

Again there is the completely justified anger and frustration of Staten Island and Long Island leaders and citizens at response and recovery operations in terms of clean water, fuel and electricity that has recently been reported. They have every right to be frustrated when everyone around them is starting to go about their normal lives again, yet they can’t get the basics of life to begin anew. This is part of the challenge of any post-disaster environment, be it a small flood in the Midwest, a tornado in the South, a fire in the West or a biblically proportioned storm that slams into one of the greatest population centers in the country. No response or recovery is ever perfect, but in terms of forward leaning, hands-on leadership and attention to detail by governors, mayors and other elected and unelected officials, Sandy’s leaders show how much they’ve learned from Katrina’s.

 

Media Coverage

Katrina victims, New Orleans

People who did not evacuate walk through the New Orleans flood waters to get to higher ground in New Orleans, Aug. 30, 2005. New Orleans was under a mandatory evacuation order as a result of flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina. FEMA photo by Marty Bahamonde

It’s hard to believe but there was an era before Facebook and Twitter. For as much as social media has captured the vivid and heartbreaking imagery that was Katrina, it was not recorded by the social media tools we use throughout our every day life. That does not mean what it did not record was any less important. No one alive at that time is going to forget the broadcast images of the overflowing Superdome or New Orleans Convention Center, rooftop helicopter rescues of stranded people, stores being looted, flooded neighborhoods, or wastelands of debris that were once homes to Gulf Coast residents.

Sandy’s imagery is also memorable, with shots of ruined beachside boardwalks, waterlogged roller coasters and amusement rides, flooded tunnels and garages, long gas lines, and shattered homes. Media coverage of the storm as it approached landfall was certainly significant – so much so it drove the presidential election coverage to the lower half of most newspapers and nightly newscasts. Even after Sandy came ashore and her full fury unleashed, there was still significant coverage after the storm.

The Facebook posts, Tweets, and other avenues of communication that were not available seven years earlier only amplified that coverage. For as uncivilized and uncouth as social media can often be, it was an enormous asset to be able to hear from family and friends in the path of the storm to know they were OK, and to know what was or was not happening where they were. Social media also proved to be self-policing. When faux images of destruction in NYC started to make the rounds of everyone’s computer screens, other users could prove the images were fake and at the same time report on real conditions that needed immediate attention.

Long Island damage, Sandy

Damage to areas of Long Island, N.Y., seen during a Coast Guard overflight following Hurricane Sandy Oct. 30, 2012. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Rob Simpson

In terms of mainstream media coverage, again in the absence of the dysfunctional drama that was the Blanco and Nagin dynamic playing out in dueling press conferences; the spoken and unspoken charges of racism in storm response; post storm riots or looting taking place; or other things that could possibly go even more wrong, coverage of Sandy seemed to dissipate fairly quickly. Yes there still was coverage by the cable and network stations as well as print reporters, but media in all of its forms is quickly drawn to the biggest centers of gravity. Those centers of gravity would quickly shift to other things – namely the final days of the presidential race; the resignation of CIA Director David Petreaus and details of the affair that caused it; and the continuing drip, drip, drip of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

It’s hard to compete for media attention and focus when the distractions are epic smash mouth politics, the resignation of America’s top spy because of a biographer-mistress, murder by terrorists and accusations of a cover up, and now a new conflict occurring between Israel and its neighbors.

That didn’t happen during Katrina. The only other truly major news story in that time frame that seemed to draw some media attention away from the Gulf Coast destruction was the death of Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and the nomination of John Roberts to replace him.

Some have even gone so far as to call the lack of media coverage of the ongoing challenges left by Sandy-affected communities a conspiracy by members of the media to protect President Barack Obama and his re-election.

NYC lights coming back on

The sun rises over New York City Nov. 2, 2012. More lights were on in lower Manhattan because of the efforts of numerous agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ 249th Engineer Battalion. DoD photo by EJ Hersom

There can be no doubt that the president’s handling of the pre- and post-storm situation had the television cameras and microphones focused squarely on him, but it’s a sour grapes charge when the facts are that he’s the guy with ultimate oversight of the federal response to the situation because of the position he holds. If everything goes OK, he’s going to be OK, but as we all know in life it only takes one “Oh sh*t,” moment to wash away any goodwill or good feelings someone may have about you.

What will be telling as we begin what will be a long recovery process for the Jersey coastline, Staten Island and parts of Long Island, is how the media will stay on top of the story. Every year since Katrina, much like the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001, we have media stories talking about what has or has not happened since those historic events.

Sandy was also historic, even if it did not have the casualty counts of thousands dead as 9/11 and Katrina did. Sadly the long-held media axiom [in news coverage] “If it bleeds, it leads” may not give Sandy the media coverage it deserves or warrants. Only time will tell on that front.

Part 2: Location, location and location, power/fuel & emergency management capacity

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Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...