Atlanta area relief officials cite lessons learned after Katrina

When Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast, Georgia threw open its doors, exposing the state’s character as it improvised to help tens of thousands of needy evacuees. But the storm also exposed weaknesses and gaps in the state’s emergency operations, with lines that stretched as long as football fields and confusion about who was in charge of what.

Government and non-profit groups here say they have tackled shortcomings that hobbled their response to the huge storm a decade ago. But some systemic challenges remain that could hamper the state’s ability to handle a future disaster, according to a review by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of public records and interviews with state, local officials and non-governmental leaders.

The early response to Katrina in Georgia was plagued by communication missteps and turf battles. In particular, the region’s balkanized government made it tough to coordinate a response. The same problems, according to experts, became apparent during the 2014 ice storm that paralyzed the region.

Retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who oversaw the New Orleans relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina victims, said he had warned the Atlanta area that it was ill-prepared to handle severe weather and other disasters before last year’s ice storm — nicknamed “Snowpocalypse.”

The Atlanta area’s biggest problem, he said, is its lack of centralized decision-making, where one person would have the final say for the whole region. Instead, the Atlanta area is home to dozens of cities and counties with their own political leaders.

Georgia officials insist they have learned from past mistakes and that after Katrina and the ice storm they have made adjustments.

“We are vastly better prepared for weather events than in the past,” said Jim Butterworth, director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.

He said the agency started planning days ago for the possible impact of a storm off the coast of Florida, making arrangements such as contacting emergency officials across the state, ensuring chainsaw teams were available and examining potential traffic choke points on highways.

But some experts question whether those lessons would be quickly implemented in the heat of an emerging crisis.

John Travis Marshall, an assistant professor of law at Georgia State University, said Georgia needs to take seriously the lessons it learned.

“The snowstorms showed how vulnerable the city is, and how easily basic things can be taken down,” said Travis, who worked with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority after Katrina struck. “You have to do resilience planning before disaster strikes. Recovery delayed is recovery denied.”

Many of Georgia’s difficulties dealing with Katrina are highlighted in a report authored by a group of Atlanta lawyers. Released nearly after a year after the storm struck, it praised the state’s response absorbing some 100,000 evacuates. But it also pulled the curtain back on disarray behind the scenes. Local officials blasted the response of charities. State leaders, in turn, fought with the feds.

“The evacuation to Atlanta exposed significant strains between local governments and nonprofit organizations that should be addressed, “ the report said.

It added, “These strains could hobble Atlanta’s ability to respond in the event of a significant man-made or natural disaster that hits closer to home.”

“Uncertainty remains about the proper roles for government agencies and nonprofit organizations in responding to natural disasters in Atlanta,” read a report assess sing Georgia’s response.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross came in for some of the sharpest criticism.

Red Cross workers lacked proper training. They seemed to have not arranged medical care for the evacuees, and they resisted when Emory University doctors stepped in to fill that gap, the report found.

Moreover, the Red Cross closed a relief center with little notice, sewing anxiety among the evacuees. And they alienated smaller relief organizations by making them feel ignored, the report said.

The nonprofit’s relationship with local government officials deteriorated so much that the Red Cross was kicked out of DeKalb County’s one-stop help center less than a month after Katrina swept ashore. Then-DeKalb Chief Executive Officer Vernon Jones criticized the nonprofit’s performance, writing in a letter that year: “It was never our intention to be the uncompensated crowd control and de facto management support system to the unwieldy and chaotic operations of the Red Cross.”

John Watson, Gov. Sonny Perdue’s chief of staff at the time, said the charity “was paralyzed by the volume of people that were essentially crossing Georgia’s borders.”

“They did not know… the right things to even ask of us from state government.”

Eric Corliss, regional disaster officer for the American Red Cross of Georgia, said the charity helped 43,000 families in Georgia when Katrina hit, feeding, housing and clothing evacuees. In contrast, it helped 4,000 families in Georgia during the entire fiscal year that just ended in June.

“We did more than 10 years worth of activity in a compressed time frame,” he said.

And they did adjust. When it became clear the evacuees were not going home anytime soon, the Red Cross and other groups shifted their strategy from finding shelter space to finding hotel rooms for the evacuees. After seeing people bounce from government center to health facility to charity office for services, the Red Cross led the effort to open “mega-centers” that combined many of these relief efforts under one roof.

Since the storm, Corliss said The Red Cross has been focusing on how it works with other nonprofit groups and public health agencies. Partnerships have been built between the Red Cross and local and national organizations, including the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and the Salvation Army.

FEMA - which footed the bill for evacuees housing - also came in for a bruising review in the report.

“The provision of FEMA housing benefits was fraught with difficulty in Atlanta,” the report said.

There was confusion on policy, delays accommodating the evacuees, and trouble convincing local governments to assist FEMA and GEMA. Many local officials were afraid they would have to shell out their own money and not be reimbursed. A year after the storm, some hadn’t, the report noted.

FEMA was unprepared, sluggish and “difficult to deal with,” recalled former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin.

“I didn’t think they were prepared and I still don’t think they were prepared,” she said. “Once the storm hit, their preparedness lagged. They were slow.”

But some charity leaders have argued the state should not escape it’s share of blame. They complained to the AJC that when the initial crisis subsided and the emergency shelters closed, the governor and GEMA were too quick to hand off responsibility as evacuees struggled with longer-term needs such as housing, furniture and jobs. The state’s lack of clear leadership at that point slowed efforts to move evacuees out of hotels, and forced the United Way and others to call their own Katrina conferences and coordinate relief efforts, they said.

“The governor’s office and the state government were not providing an active leadership role, ” Khurram “Ko” Hassan said at the time. Hassan was then the coordinator of Katrina relief efforts for the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta.

“After the first month and a half, we felt we were kind of left on our own to figure out FEMA’s policies and deadlines, and how to continue to assist evacuees on a local level in large numbers,” he said.

On its own initiative, the United Way of Greater Atlanta raised more than $10 million to help evacuees in the area.

Protip Biswas, who served as the United Way’s point person for Katrina relief efforts in the Atlanta region, said that model works best.

“We are much quicker if we can get the community to support us with funds and use that money for the first response rather than wait for the government,” he said. “Whenever we waited for an answer (from the state), it was slow.”

Georgia’s state government agencies say they’ve learned from past missteps. They’ve identified point people to focus on helping the most vulnerable during disasters. Databases have been improved so they can better track the people they serve amid emergencies. They say those databases helped during last year’s ice storm when the state was able to make sure adults under their watch were OK.

“Sometimes we operate in a vacuum,” said Jonna West, the Georgia Emergency Management Agency’s homeland security division director. “After Katrina, because of what we saw, we invited other people to the table.”

Butterworth said that hurricane planning begins in the Spring and that GEMA recently participated in an emergency exercise in Savannah that included several jurisdictions.

Communication and partnerships go hand-in-hand,” he said. “We communicate early and often.”

Still Honore, a former Atlanta resident who now gives talks on disaster preparedness after his work in New Orleans, said the Atlanta region’s very makeup creates hurdles.

“Atlanta still wants to be Peanutville and operate like New York City,” he said. “And it is never going to be there until they get rid of some of these itty-bitty governments they have got around Atlanta.”