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Hurricane symposium zeroes in on response

Professor Richard C. Larson spoke on 'Recurring Problems With Disaster Response Systems' at the symposium on hurricanes held in Kirsch Auditorium on Friday, Sept. 30.
Professor Richard C. Larson spoke on 'Recurring Problems With Disaster Response Systems' at the symposium on hurricanes held in Kirsch Auditorium on Friday, Sept. 30.
Photo / Donna Coveney

The federal disaster response following Hurricane Katrina, heavily criticized in the media, was not all terrible, said Professor Kenneth Oye of political science and engineering systems at a panel discussion in Kirsch Auditorium on Sept. 30.

The discussion on "How Can We Improve Disaster Response?" was the first event in a four-part series of symposia exploring "Big Questions After Big Hurricanes," sponsored by the Katrina Response Advisory Committee. Aeronautics and Astronautics Professor and Director of the Engineering Systems Division Daniel Hastings moderated the panel.

"Federal response to Katrina varied markedly," said Oye, who focused first on the good work of both the Coast Guard and the National Weather Service.

Because of the weather service predictions, officials were informed well in advance, said Oye. Coast Guard members heeded the call and took the warning seriously, removing their families and assets from the region so that they could focus on their jobs.

Not as good was the response from the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA), which was crippled well before Katrina, said Oye. "Katrina was a reality test," he said. "The deficiencies and weaknesses (in FEMA) became apparent to all."

"There is enough blame to go around," said Professor Richard Larson of civil and environmental engineering, who is also director of the Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals.

Larson pointed out the generosity of ordinary citizens who allowed victims into their homes and donated food, clothing and money to relief organizations as well as the "many stories of emergency responders who risked their lives." But, he said fundamental lessons culled from individual disasters can help planners prepare for the future.

Using a multitude of examples from the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 to the United Airlines Flight 232 crash in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989 -- a response he graded with an "A plus" -- Larson itemized a strong emergency response system.

Well-established trusting relationships are essential in emergency response, said Larson. Responders need to be well rehearsed and prepared. Triage is an essential component in getting the injured treated and saving lives.

After a disaster, inventory management becomes important so relief can be quickly and appropriately distributed. It is crucial to have an algorithm for relocation, Larson said.

He used the example of the New York Fire Department during Sept. 11, which was sufficiently prepared to be able to respond both to the massive attacks downtown and to routine emergency calls during the same time.

Ultimately, rehearsal and preparation make all the difference. By understanding the possibilities, the United States is better able to prepare. "We should not suffer from a failure of imagination," said Larson.

Civil and Environmental Engineering and Engineering Systems Professor Yossi Sheffi, who is also the director of the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, spoke of businesses and enterprises whose resiliency after a disaster could serve as a model.

Sheffi's book "The Resilient Enterprise" (MIT Press, October 2005) looks at the preparations and supply chain design of companies who bounced back from disaster.

"There is something in the DNA of companies that are resilient and do come back," added Sheffi. These attributes include: constant communication, distributed decision-making power, passion for the work and the organization's mission as well as disruption conditioning.

The kind of preparation that companies do well in advance can make or break them, he explained. The same is true for countries.

"Our current attention to the country's infrastructure situation means that we are living on borrowed time," said Sheffi. "In many ways, Katrina was a wake-up call."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 5, 2005 (download PDF).

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