In the wake of disaster

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 June, 2008, 12:00am

Blue, pink, yellow and purple houses in Musicians' Village are being built in what is considered 'Ground Zero' for Hurricane Katrina.

The brightly painted houses, built in a distinctive New Orleans style, are being built in Lower Ninth Ward. Volunteers from mostly faith-based groups, as well as celebrities like musician Harry Connick Jnr and actor Brad Pitt, are part of an ongoing community-based movement to rebuild the city after the devastating hurricane of August 29, 2005.

But recovery is slow-going three years after Katrina devastated the Big Easy, breaching levees and flooding 80 per cent of the city. Sarah Tuttle Edgecombe, project co-ordinator of Rebuilding Hope in New Orleans, said Ninth Ward was one of those neighbourhoods whose former residents had few resources and no insurance. 'All the devastation was worse; [some] houses were gutted; others are left standing empty. There are so many houses without lights,' she said.

The worry, residents say, is that Katrina and the devastation it wreaked will all be forgotten when the next hurricane hits. New Orleans is not ready for that, and it won't be for five or 10 years.

For one, repair work on the levees won't be completed until 2010, they say.

Katrina taught the world that a response to a major disaster can go horribly wrong, even in the all-powerful United States. But, if there has been a silver lining - be it in New Orleans, Myanmar following Cyclone Nargis or Sichuan after the earthquake - it is grass-roots involvement. About 1,800 volunteers from 30 states, young and old alike, have been doing their part in New Orleans - first gutting houses that could be saved and then building new homes, refusing to wait for federal funding.

'What I've learned since being here is that New Orleans people love their homes and love their city so much that, if they had to evacuate, they wanted to come back as soon as they could,' Ms Edgecombe said.

'They will live in their small trailers and live with 15 other family members. They will take whatever job just to be back here; they will do so much just to be able to live here,' she said.

In Bourbon Street, new bars have opened and some old ones closed. On a lazy May Sunday in front of the St Louis Cathedral, a lone saxophonist plays jazz as young families stroll the avenue. Despite the apparent tranquillity, post-disaster elements are still on residents' minds.

Karen DeSalvo, of the Centre for Health Equality Research at Tulane University's School of Public Health, said that because the downtown area was flooded, all its medical schools and hospitals were shut down for at least a year. Almost a quarter of New Orleans' population is poor, and had nowhere to go for health care.

'For us the big lesson is not to put all your eggs in one basket - everything was downtown so we were scrambling after Katrina to find ways to recreate physical places for health care and to get money to follow that. We are struggling with that almost three years later,' said Professor DeSalvo. 'The greatest part about this recovery is the individual groups of citizens who, either collaboratively or non-profit, created whatever we could out of very little to make it right - whether it is schools, the levees or health care.'

Katrina has changed how other states plan to respond to natural disasters, said Toby Clairmont, director of emergency services at the Healthcare Association of Hawaii. Mr Clairmont is also team commander of the Hawaii Disaster Medical Assistance Team, which is part of the National Disaster Medical System. The federally co-ordinated system strengthens the national medical response capability for assisting state and local authorities deal with the medical impacts of disasters.

Part of the problem with the response to Katrina was that the federal government could not provide assistance to the citizens of that state unless the governor asked for it. 'In the case of Katrina, the governor thought she could handle it,' said Mr Clairmont. But things went bad very quickly with the failure of the levees. 'The thinking today is 'push'. If there is a hurricane threatening New Orleans today, the response teams will be pre-positioned in the area so when the need emerges they can respond very quickly,' he said.

An example of the changed mentality is that his team used to be expected to be out the door in response to an emergency in, say, Guam, in two days. Now, it is two hours. 'You literally have to be like a firefighter or a policeman in uniform ready to go,' he said.

The political climate has also changed because of Katrina. 'Nobody wants to be in the hot seat like Louisiana was. They realised the governor there waited too long,' Mr Clairmont said.

The team he led from Hawaii was stuck at the airport in Louisiana for three days. 'You remember that people were stranded in the Superdome or the Convention Centre. They lived there in squalor waiting for help to arrive. Wouldn't it have been nice if we were there the first day?'

The San Francisco Fire Department runs the Neighbourhood Emergency Response Team (Nert) programme to train and deploy residents when there is a substantial emergency in their neighbourhood. Erica Arteseros, programme co-ordinator, said Nert's training programme prepares secondary school students and adults to handle themselves and teaches them what to do if a major earthquake hits.

'What I am seeing from China, I cannot imagine how you can prepare for that and not expect that any building will not fall down,' said Ms Arteseros, referring to last month's devastating quake in Sichuan.

The key in a city with limited emergency personnel is a bottom-up approach, she said. 'The most important thing for us as a fire department is to teach volunteers to work in an organised way,' she said. The first major challenge for the department is accepting civilians to help during disasters. The city has 305 firefighters for 1.5 million people. 'It is clear we need the extra bodies in areas where the fire department cannot go right away. That is the bottom line.'

The 1989 earthquake in San Francisco prompted the city to review its preparedness plan for the 'big one'. Last month, the US Geological Survey said there was a 99 per cent chance a disastrous quake would hit in the next 30 years.

Organised training was just as important as planning for the worst-case scenario, said Sheryl McCollum, who heads the Georgia Crisis Response Team. She is a certified 'first responder' who led the team deployment and response to the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta.

'If people just come in to volunteer [after a disaster], those people can do more damage if they are not trained. If they are not trained and are not part of your designated team, they have no business being there.'

A year of disasters

May 4 High waves kill eight people on the west coast of South Korea; Chaiten volcano in Chile erupts for the first time in 9,370 years

May 4-5 Cyclone Nargis strikes the Irrawaddy delta in Myanmar killing at least 134,000 people and displacing an estimated 2.4 million

May 12 An earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale strikes Sichuan province, killing almost 70,000 people and leaving 5 million homeless

June 7 A 5.5 magnitude earthquake hits the region of Oran, in Algeria

June 7 An earthquake measuring 6.0 hits the Banda Sea off Indonesia. The epicentre is about 410km south of Ambon

June 8 A 6.5 magnitude earthquake hits Patras, 200km west of Athens. One person is reported killed

June 8-15 Widespread flooding strikes the Midwestern United States. Worst hit is Iowa where 15 people die and 83 of the state?s 99 counties are declared disaster areas

June 14 A 7.2-magnitude earthquake strikes Iwate prefecture in northern Japan, killing 12 people and injuring 144

June 16 Heavy rainfall in southeastern China cause widespread flooding, killing 176 and forcing 1.66 million people to leave their homes