Lessons from Hurricane Katrina: Ten Years Later

By: Dr. David Vanderpool, CEO & founder of LiveBeyond

As a surgeon, I am trained to analyze a set of observations, implement a plan based on those observations and review the outcomes of the plan.

Here are the facts: ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina brewed ominously in the warm Gulf of Mexico. We had no idea the amount of devastation it would unleash once it hit the mainland. When the Category 3 hurricane made landfall and tore through the Gulf Coast, doctors around the country scrambled to offer help to the affected areas. At the time, there was no organized medical group that participated in disaster relief. We were woefully unprepared. Looking back, I believe that we could have done a much better job.

FEMA has called Katrina the single most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history. Because of that one storm, more than 1,800 people across the Gulf Coast region lost their lives and over $100 billion of damage accrued.

I witnessed the aftermath of Katrina first-hand, and as a result of the experience, I started a non-profit organization centered on disaster relief and devoted my life to taking care of the poor. The U.S. is better prepared now that Katrina has happened, but probably not to the extent that it needs to be, even ten years later. The lessons we learned from Hurricane Katrina still need to be made into common policy.

First, advanced preparedness is essential if we are going to save lives and minimize the amount of damage done by a natural disaster. More than one million people in the Gulf region were displaced by Hurricane Katrina. When disaster is imminent, there should be rapid deployment of medical personnel, high voltage technicians, and heavy equipment and operators.  Throughout the country, there should be organized management of basic necessities: food, water, clothes and shelter.

Second, we have a great need for organized, deployable US medical teams. This should include mobile medical and surgical units, generators, and pharmaceutical supply. In the case of Katrina, any out-of-state doctor that wanted to help was cut short by political and economic restraints. Doctors are only allowed to practice in the state(s) that they are licensed in, and many pharmaceutical companies don’t want medicine to be distributed without charge within the borders of the U.S.

Two days after Katrina made landfall, I recruited a rapid response team and took them from Nashville, Tennessee, to the southern part of Mississippi.  At the same time that our team was navigating the destruction, we were also trying to acquire temporary emergency practicing licenses. Fortunately, Mississippi immediately declared a state of emergency, relaxing medical license requirements (Louisiana did not take this step as quickly). We secured our temporary licenses shortly before we arrived. We would have gone to help anyway, but it was nice to provide legal medical aid.

Finally, along with the medical teams, there is a need for central command and control for aid groups. In my experience with disaster relief, the first place to look for people providing support is at churches. During Katrina, most relief was faith-based; when we were there, we saw few governmental organizations. A large Baptist church offered us a place to set up a base of operations. As other health care providers arrived, we organized small teams to venture out to the poorer areas of town to deliver much needed medical care.

As we drove through the flooded streets, bystanders directed us to a house where a woman was in severe distress.  She had recently undergone surgery to remove a cancer-filled voice box and had a breathing tube placed in her neck.  As we ran into her flooded house, we found her lying on the floor, gasping for breath. Her breathing tube lay in the fetid water beside her. Fortunately, we were able to restore her breathing by quickly placing a new tube. Communicating by satellite phone and handheld radios, we were able to systematically deliver organized medical care to the people, like this woman, who were unable to leave in advance of the storm. 

In general, there are still many things we can do as a country to be better prepared when disaster strikes. The federal government spent $120.5 billion on the Gulf Region post-Katrina. The majority of that money, $75 billion, went to emergency relief operations. If we take preventative measures and put into practice what we learned from Katrina ten years ago, we will hopefully not let another disaster be as devastating or as costly as Katrina. With a bit of ingenuity, we can benefit from her legacy.