Sunday was the first day of FEMA’s Hurricane Awareness Week—and also the 1,000-day anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall. The event’s tagline, “Get Serious. Be Prepared.” carries a subtle undertone: be ready, because we’re not. Almost three years after Hurricane Katrina, the federal government is aware of hurricanes. But they’re still not ready.
FEMA and its partner federal agencies argue that better coordination among agencies, combined with preparedness efforts by citizens and communities, means a better response to the next big storm. The truth is, they’re nowhere near ready. The relationship between different levels of government has been clarified on paper—but not in reality. The almost 400-page National Response Framework, unveiled in January to much fanfare, doesn’t reflect key lessons the government should have learned from Katrina.
But while governments at all levels have been playing the blame game and fiddling at the margins, social scientists in the Gulf Coast have been quietly studying what works in disaster response. Here are some tips for dealing with the next six months.
For-profit companies can help with disaster relief—sometimes even more effectively than the government. Unlike FEMA and other bureaucracies, retailers live and die by customer loyalty. Moving supplies from place to place as efficiently as possible is their stock and trade. Why can’t they build brand loyalty and bring their supply chain management expertise to disaster response?
The answer: they can. And they do. After Katrina, large and small retailers sought to be good corporate citizens. They didn’t “price gouge,” since that alienates customers. They quickly and, despite some government efforts to keep them out of affected areas, effectively got supplies where they were most needed.
Moreover, many big-box retailers reopened almost immediately after Katrina–providing jobs and supplies critical to rebuilding. Disaster response planning must allow retailers to do what they do best: bring goods to market. Unfortunately, there’s still little room for them to do so.
If you get hit by a hurricane, look for Home Depot Homer or Wal-Mart’s bouncing smiley face. They’re probably more likely to have duct tape and water than the federal bald eagle.
Neighbors matter. News flash to Washington: families rebuild their homes as parts of communities, not in isolation. If nobody is coming back to your block, chances are you won’t either.