Sometimes in 2011, this writer got an invitation to attend the annual International Disaster Conference and Expo (IDCE) which takes place every year in the city of New Orleans in the United States of America.
But due to a short notice and stringent requirements for US visa, the writer missed the opportunity to attend the global conference. The following year, after the worst flood disaster in Nigeria, another invitation was extended to me as the spokesperson of National emergency Management Agency (NEMA). Surprisingly visa was granted even at short notice after an interview that was less than five minutes at the US Embassy in Abuja!
For decades, New Orleans was reputed to be a city of good music, tantalizing cuisine, rich culture and friendly dwellers who welcome visitors from across the globe with open arms until the arrival of Hurricane Katrina, which on August 29, 2005 washed away the city and devastated the Gulf Coast. Thousands of people fled their homes as huge sections of the city disappeared under floodwaters.
The disaster in this city of mostly black people has been described as one of the deadliest, costliest and most destructive of the 2005 series of Atlantic hurricane in the United States of America. The over 1,500 people that died in the disaster were mainly those who refused to heed the early warning. It was also estimated that over $80 billion was lost due to damages to property.
The incidence also exposed the weakness of humans in relation to technology. The hurricane surge protection failures in New Orleans are considered the worst civil engineering disaster in U.S. history and this prompted a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), who were the designers and builders of the levee system. There was also an investigation of the responses from federal, state and local governments, resulting in the resignation of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director, Michael D. Brown and of New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) Superintendent Eddie Compass.
While first timers in the city could have anticipated an excursion into sites of ruins and traces of destructions from Hurricane Katrina, it was amazing that New Orleans is not only bubbling with full of side attractions is a great example of disaster resilient city that have recovered faster than expected. From the well-tarred road networks, magnificent structures and uninterrupted utility services, Katrina disaster story is now in the past tense. New Orleans is re-enacting its old reputation as one of the most popular convention and leisure destinations in USA.
It wasn’t surprising that the annual IDCE is designed to always take place in New Orleans with a mission to unite public and private sector professionals from around the world for discussions regarding policy, lessons learned, best practices, and forward thinking, resulting in the mitigation of loss of life and property when catastrophic events occur.
Though conferences on disaster management are held in various cities of the world, IDCE is reputed to be the only event supported across a broad spectrum of industry perspectives: Homeland Security, Emergency Management, Emergency Response, Disaster Recovery, Business Continuity, Resilience, Global Security, Large Loss / Claims, academia and many more.
During a breakout session at the IDCE Conference, participants were told of how within six months of the Hurricane Katrina, government declared that every parts of New Orleans had become safe as no soil was contaminated and the air quality was pure, while, water and sewage systems were gradually restored. Involvement of the residents and the community in the planning effort also ensured rapid transformation of the city. Relief agencies and volunteer groups helped many returnees especially in the provision of hot meals, packaged food, bottled water and other supplies.
The U.S. military and other relevant security agencies were involved in the reconstruction of the damaged buildings and structures. Faith-based and community-based organisations as well as individuals all volunteered in providing necessary relief to the displaced people while some non-profit organisations played active roles in mobilising funds in rebuilding houses of the poor and low-earners. Philanthropic organisations involved in financial services also made donations of cash with some providing soft loans to enable victims to return to their businesses.
There is no denying the fact that USA has an effective, reliable, integrated, and comprehensive system to alert and warn the American people. This writer was fascinated by the sophistication of Early Warning Alert System being regularly utilized to warn residents of looming disasters which contributed to minimal loss of lives during Hurricane Katrina.
The Director for the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Antwane Johnson told participants that beyond local alerting system, his agency is integrating public alert and warning systems so that warning messages could reach the target audience as soon as possible through various channels including television, radio, online media, mobile phones and public signage simultaneously. The system has collaboration with various institutions, including telephone operators, media owners and volunteers in its successful implementation because it facilitates single emergency alert message delivery to all available public dissemination channels.
After losing billions of dollars in tourism business due to Katrina, the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau successfully embarked on a rebranding campaign to reposition the potential of the city. The outcome of the crisis and reputation management campaign has propelled the tourism industry of the city to become taller and stronger than expected.
The success of the rapid recovery efforts of New Orleans from the catastrophe resulted from the massive supports from various institutions, groups and individuals who volunteered to sacrifice in the recovery processes. The great lesson here in disaster management is that while we cannot prevent or even anticipate all disasters, we should plan and prepare for any eventuality that could occur due to nature or human error. Nigeria and other developing countries, especially in Africa have a lot to learn from the disaster resilience and recovery strategies employed during and after Hurricane Katrina in the United States of America.
Yushau A. Shuaib
Head, Public Relations
National Emergency Management Agency