During national crises, the availability of appropriate information networks and facilities may have a huge effect on minimizing the outcomes. The likelihood of possible disasters is a result of crucial shifts in environmental and climatic conditions. Although these are inevitable, it is critical to incorporate appropriate measures to mitigate the future consequences of certain disasters. Disasters in the past have served as teaching points on what can and should not be achieved in the future. Hurricane Katrina, for example, had catastrophic impacts not only on connectivity networks but also on the economies of the impacted countries, as well as a significant loss of life. Though there had been prior disasters prior to hurricane Katrina, it is evident that there were significant challenges in the development and implementation of adequate communication systems for use during disasters. This paper examines communication challenges that occurred during hurricane Katrina.
Hurricane Katrina occurred in 2005 causing massive destruction of infrastructure, property and loss of lives. It was categorized as among the five most destructive disasters in the history of the country. Though the hurricane had most destructive effects in the Bahamas, it progressed to Florida causing floods, destruction of property and loss of lives; however, as it reached the gulf of Mexico, it become stronger causing more devastation. The hurricane led to the loss of 1,833 lives and caused damages amounting to billions of dollars. In comparison to hurricanes Andrew (1922) and Okeechobee (1928), Katrina was the most devastating in terms of destruction and loss of lives (Federal Communication Commission, 2006).
The disaster recovery efforts faced significant challenges as a result of communication failure. The destruction of communication infrastructure and networks caused rescue efforts to be derailed (Comfort & Haase, 2006). The breakage of power lines, destruction of communication stations and towers made it impossible to perform a coordinated rescue operation. Essentially, it was impossible to access information on what was happening since cell phones and internet communication had broken down (Wohlstetter, 2005). Though a temporary communication center was later established in New Orleans, it was evident that a significant problem existed in communication preparedness in the event of disasters.
Impacts of communication Breakdown
The ability of government agencies to communicate effectively during disasters is vital. However, the damage caused by the hurricane Katrina made communication impossible resulting in destruction and deaths that could have been mitigated had there been an effective and reliable communication system. The emergency response teams and other first responders could not conduct a coordinated search and rescue operation. The absence of communication systems made it difficult to guide them to areas and people who needed help the most. Similarly, aid and supplies from different parts of the country could not be transported and delivered effectively as a result of breakdown in communications (Wohlstetter, 2005). Though the traditional communication infrastructure had broken down, the available systems were not interoperable further escalating the problem. Though there were attempts to solve communication interoperability challenges, it become clear that a comprehensive communication solution was needed in such situations (Kapucu, 2006). The development and implementation of such a system would require financial resources and establishment of common standards that would allow agencies and organization to acquire communication systems that were compatible across the board (Campen, 2005).
In the event of a disaster such as hurricane Katrina, common citizens expect the government to facilitate rescue operations through the provision of supplies, medical care and security (Campen, 2005). An immediate disaster response is expected irrespective of time and place where the disaster occurs. An efficient and competent disaster response is expected towards the reduction of damage to property and safeguarding lives. Ordinarily, first responders in the event of a natural disaster are local agencies including firefighters, emergency medical services, policemen and other local agencies. If the disaster cannot be managed locally, then reinforcements are sought from state agencies, organizations and the National Guard. Similarly, if these are not able to control the disaster, then the help of other states is sought by the respective state officials. When Hurricane Katrina occurred, it was not enough for a single state to counter the effects of the disaster alone; a national effort was needed to effectively address the challenges brought by the disaster.
The breakdown of communication infrastructure led to the subsequent failures in other critical systems that were needed for rescue operations (Campen, 2005). Essentially, the failure in communication resulted in a cascading effect making other emergency services to be rendered ineffective. The outcomes of hurricane Katrina made it clear that the communication infrastructure such as telephone lines, poles, cell towers and power lines were not created to withstand the kind of force that was experienced during Katrina. The force that winds blew caused the communication infrastructure in the affected areas to be destroyed and rendered useless (Comfort & Haase, 2006). Similarly, power lines failed and only services that had generators remained function for as a long as they had enough fuel to run them.
Emergency response systems were crippled such that law enforcement, the fire department and emergency services could not even answer 911 calls (Kapucu, 2006). The emergency and police stations that survived were in effect overwhelmed by the numerous calls of people attempting to call for assistance or seeking information regarding the whereabouts of their families. The floods caused buildings and bridges to collapse making mobile units unable to access critical areas. Though such units have mobile communication systems, they were only operable for limited distances considering that the cell towers that were used to broadcast wireless signals had been rendered useless (Kapucu, 2006). Meanwhile, the continued loss of electricity supply caused most response centers to run out of fuel for their generator. The problem was further complicated since roads were inaccessible or unusable and more fuel for the generators could not be obtained. These issues led to emergency command and control strategies to collapse considering that accessing re-supplies was becoming difficult as the affected area continued to flood.
However, a number of communication systems remained in operation especially since they did not use the same infrastructure as other public and private systems (Comfort & Haase, 2006). For instance, satellite radios were working continued to function and satellite phones were functional immediately after the first phase of the storm had passed. Though these were in short supply, they proved to be effective when other communication systems had broken down (Campen, 2005). Other services such as ham radios remained in operation as long as they had power to sustain them. Though these systems managed to survive the hurricane, their effectiveness in coordinating rescue and emergency operations was very limited.
The deployment of the “Mobile Emergency Response Support (MARS) teams to certain regions with the aim of facilitating communication did not have any impact in solving the problem especially in the initial days of the storm (Jenkins, 2009). These outcomes can be attributed to the fact that the existing communication infrastructure had been destroyed making it impossible for responders to access a reliable communication channel for the coordination of response activities. Meanwhile, control systems were damaged to the extent they were rendered useless making it difficult to manage or control other systems (Kapucu, 2006). For instance, the “Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA)” systems failed. Since they depended on internet connectivity, they could not connect to the network and remained out of commission for elongated periods (Jenkins, 2009).
Police in affected areas such as New Orleans were forced to use two radios to communicate with emergency responders. However, these could not be relied on to coordinate a comprehensive response operation considering that they could only be effective in short distances. The problem was further escalated since the different responders such as the police departments, fire departments, emergency medical services, government and non-government agencies in the local and state level had different communication systems that were not compatible with each other (Campen, 2005). These presented with an interoperability problem that could have been avoided if there was a uniform disaster communication systems in place.
The impact of such massive failures in communication was illustrated by the large number of lives that were lost, displaced people and escalation of health problems considering that critical infrastructures such as the sewers could not withstand the pressure and burst leaking waste in the streets and everywhere that was flooded. These challenges occurred after the occurrence of hurricane Katrina illustrated that the existing disaster management systems particularly, the communications infrastructure were ill prepared for a disaster of hurricane Katrina magnitude.
Implications of communication failure
The implications for the failure in communication systems during the disaster were severe. A significant number of people that died could have been rescued in time, similarly resources could have been allocated effectively where and when they were needed. However, the reliance on existing communication infrastructures and systems did not prompt any action towards the development of systems that could be used in the event that a national disaster that disabled or destroyed traditional communication systems occurred (Comfort & Haase, 2006). The modern developments in technology have seen numerous innovative systems being developed. However, little effort was made prior to the disaster to deploy systems that could withstand the severity if a disaster such as hurricane Katrina.
In a short span of time, the communication infrastructure and systems that disaster response teams could have used were rendered useless. Consequently, various agencies had their communication systems effectiveness reduced or utterly eliminated. The outcome was that there was a communication black out that made it impossible for information to be sent or received within the affected regions. For instance, the New Orleans Police Department was unable to communicate for three days since the hurricane hit the area (Federal Communication Commission, 2006). Though here were few back up channels in operation, their effectiveness was significantly reduced since they could only go so far in addressing the problem.
Meanwhile, responders from neighboring States could not even communicate with one another since their two-way radio’s operated in different frequencies from each other. Meanwhile, the National Guard could not contact FEMA or other authorities considering that critical information and data was under lock and key (Jenkins, 2009). These issues made it impossible to know which people were where, doing what and when, resulting in a degraded situational awareness. A prevalent problem was the sheer indication that response coordination efforts were failing since there was no prior knowledge of disaster management and planning. The responders did not have in itemized informational needs and did not identify in advance the potential sources of critical information that could be used in the management of the disaster (Kapucu, 2006). The availability of a preconfigured list of the type and scope of information needed and the sources to derive it from could have given the responders an advantage in coordinating and prioritizing response operations.
The failure in communication also presented since the formed joint task force did not have uniform communication system such as numbers that were preassigned to ensure that messages were delivered to the right people and a t the right time (Federal Communication Commission, 2006). Instead, messengers had to be dispatched to the various command centers to deliver printed messages that gave incident managers and commanders instructions on what was supposed to be done. These communication strategies were largely ineffective since they took time to be delivered and appropriate questions and feedback could not be sent back in a timely manner.
The communication breakdown rendered the responders both unable to see or hear anything for a protracted period which caused the trapped civilians more suffering and pain. While the local, state and federal governments have a responsibility to protect the civilians against such incidents, hurricane Katrina proved to be a nightmare that saw the authorities wondering about while attempting to make sense of a situation that was changing rapidly and confusing at the same time (Wohlstetter, 2005). Hence, the situation turned into chaos making it difficult for leaders and public officers to make decisions that would direct the disaster response operations.
Since there was no reliable information source especially for the public considering television and radio signals were down, a climate for conjecture was created causing massive speculation, rumors and misinformation (Piper & Ramos, 2006). These made it difficult for the government to discharge its roles especially preservation of public order causing the public to feel dislocated from the government and loss of confidence that appropriate action would be taken. The fact that the available media was reporting negative information such as people being shot or mugged in areas that were considered as a refuge. In addition, the assertions that there were snipers killing emergency responders made it difficult to coordinate rescue operations for people that were trapped.
While such information was unauthenticated, erroneous and misguiding, the public took it to be true since they did not have access to alternative sources of information that could provide accurate and reliable facts (Federal Communication Commission, 2006). The implications on the response strategies were that resources were redirected and responders demoralized since they did not wish to be targeted. These outcomes are largely attributable to the inadequate understanding of the situation and the inability to present the true state of events to the public (Piper & Ramos, 2006). These outcomes were largely caused by the failure of communication systems since the first wave of hurricane Katrina.
Most states have disaster preparedness systems and mechanisms in place; however, the occurrence of hurricane Katrina was a key indicator that the systems in place were not equipped to deal with disasters of such a magnitude. The distinction between ordinary disasters that are localized to certain areas and a disaster that cripples regional communication systems must be made. It is not prudent to expect that the strategies designed to deal with small scale disasters can be effectively applied in such critical incidents as hurricane Katrina (Federal Communication Commission, 2006). Though New Orleans was a center stage of a failed disaster response, it does not imply that the challenges witnessed are unique to the State. These are issues that most States realized that lack the systems and resources to prepare for such a disaster.
The fact that the first responders faced numerous communication and coordination challenges points to the need of a systemic response strategy that comprises of first and second responders in the event of a natural disaster such as Katrina. The first responders would attempt to rescue operations while the second responders would be tasked with restoration of critical services such as communication. The occurrence of such natural disasters cannot be prevented; however, mitigating strategies can be implemented to ensure that effective response mechanisms are in place.
The state and federal government should form a joint disaster response task force that has uniform communication systems in the event of disasters. These would ensure that the interoperability problems experienced during the hurricane Katrina are eliminated. The joint task force should have pre-assigned numbers that make it easier for response units to communicate immediately a disaster occurs.
The National Guard should have designated roles towards responding to disasters considering that the military has adequate resource that could aid in the recovery processes. Similarly, dedicated military communication channels can be set aside as a backup in the event that all communication systems fail. These would ensure that communication link does not break and the response strategy is continued as planned.
The government should make investments in new information communication infrastructures that are resilient and capable of withstanding severe disasters such as hurricane Katrina or even worse. The all communication systems including backups failed illustrates that there was laxity on the part of service providers. The state and federal government should create joint strategy that compels all service providers have developed and implemented sustainable communication backup systems that can withstand severe disasters.
The state and federal agencies should work closely with non-governmental organizations towards the creation of systemic disaster recovery strategies and procedures. These will ensure that the recovery process is coordinated adequately while ensuring that critical services are restored without delays. A primary lesson elicited by hurricane Katrina is that there is a dire need for resilient communication infrastructure and systems that can withstand any type of disaster irrespective of its magnitude.
The communication breakdown during hurricane Katrine highlighted major problems with existing disaster management systems. However, it led to the development of collaborative relationships enabled local response teams to establish cooperation with other agencies, organizations, non-governmental organizations, volunteers and government agencies in dealing with the disaster. These collaborative relationships ensure that a comprehensive disaster management response system is established on a local, state and national level. The failed response outcomes have led to the establishment of comprehensive disaster response plans, emergency response management and risk assessment strategies that are integrated in the rescue operation protocols with the aim of ensuring that relevant guidelines are followed and implemented accordingly. Significantly, the need for a comprehensive state and national disaster management plan is vital to ensure that local or state agencies are not overwhelmed when disasters occur in a given region. A combined strategy has a higher change of producing positive outcomes in contrast to individual disaster management efforts.
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