Analysis of disaster responses is complex, as seen through Hurricane Katrina and today’s coronavirus pandemic. Disasters disproportionately affect vulnerable populations who are targeted for their poor social or economic status. This is likely because any federal or local government’s response to a disaster must consider the trade-off between economic stability and public health and safety. The latter should always be prioritized in an emergency. Human life is never worth sacrificing economic stability, which can always be recovered. Long-term responses must be tailored to vulnerable populations rather than creating sweeping policy for all.
When Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans on Aug. 25, 2005, it killed nearly 2,000 people and displaced over a million more. It is the most expensive natural disaster in American history, estimated to have cost $161 billion. A flawed levee system was constructed to prevent the flooding that destroyed much of the city over the weeks following Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, revealing the city’s lax preparation for any disaster of this magnitude. Previous storms left researchers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) certain that New Orleans’ levees would not be able to handle the pressure of a powerful storm like Hurricane Katrina. They were unfortunately correct.
In the case of Hurricane Katrina, the multi-billion dollar upgrade to the levee system that followed the storm should have happened before. Government officials ignored the risks proposed by experts and felt they could not justify the cost of upgrades, resulting in the endangerment of millions. The degree of displacement many faced varied based on socio-economic status. African Americans in New Orleans were often obligated to live in neighborhoods susceptible to flooding, so they were most hurt when the levees broke.
Unlike the lack of preparation for Hurricane Katrina, the government, specifically the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), had foreseen potential danger and considered the current systems for and proper reactions to a pandemic in the United States. In a 2007 report, the CDC stated: “Just as communities plan and prepare for mitigating the effect of severe natural disasters (e.g., hurricanes), they should plan and prepare for mitigating the effect of a severe pandemic”.
Our nation’s preparations for and reactions to Hurricane Katrina were severely lacking. We are currently facing something of an even larger scale. Reactions to the coronavirus pandemic could undoubtedly have been quicker; the country is still lacking a basic availability of tests. Overall, though, the response has been good, with government officials at every level adhering to expert advice. The drastic responses many of us have received have made many far less susceptible to the disease but with severe repercussions to the economy.
While some of us are lucky, albeit bored, to be at home and with family members who can work from home, many cannot. Many that work essential blue-collar jobs such as delivery drivers, warehouse workers and grocery store staff are now the backbone of American life. Their jobs are especially necessary in this crisis, but their exposure to others places them more in danger of contracting the coronavirus than others who are able to stay home. Many other “nonessential” blue-collar workers cannot work from home, and some were laid off, leaving them worried about paying bills. The workers that are currently holding our society together deserve hazard pay, adequate health insurance for themselves and their families and paid sick leave. Those who are unexpectedly without income because of this crisis deserve some form of compensation. During Hurricane Katrina, the nation overlooked the most vulnerable. Let us learn this lesson from the failures in 2005: True disaster response must consider all of society.
So far, many have been adhering to CDC and local guidelines, but the only prevention for a pandemic is mass vaccination. The challenge now is to maintain life according to disaster response policies until a vaccine is prepared. In the meantime, we must consider vulnerable populations: the elderly, the poor and the marginalized. To fall short would cause unbearable damage; but there is hope. Crises turn humans into powerfully adaptable and caring beings, as we must be.
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Aarushi Nohria is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.