Disaster Preparedness and Response

The destruction inflicted by the hurricanes of 2005 pose two closely interrelated challenges:

  1. Reconstructing the Gulf Coast region’s shattered infrastructure, economy, and society and
  2. Ensuring that preparations are made to ensure effective responses to future storms.

These tasks will be as complex and challenging as the Gulf environment itself. To be effective and sustainable, their planning and execution must be based on the best and most complete knowledge of physical realities and processes. Science has much to contribute to these issues.

Preparedness

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita starkly revealed the vulnerability of the existing development and infrastructure. It clearly would be illogical simply to reproduce the levees and structures of the past. If anything can be predicted with near certainty, it is that hurricanes of comparable magnitude will occur. Scientific insights into the mechanisms of hurricane formation and development, the role of hurricanes in the global circulation, and the influences of climate change have direct bearing on immediate problems of preparedness. Better information also is needed on the projected effects of future hurricanes, winds, wave action, and storm surge levels. Better data on topography, the geoid, and higher-resolution models of river flow and storm surge are needed to map the areas of vulnerability and guide rational preparedness. At present, necessary levee heights cannot be determined accurately in many locations because of imprecision in the datum for mean sea level. Science can and must provide substantial inputs to preparedness planning and execution.

Response

However resilient the new Gulf Coast may be, future hurricanes will require massive and timely responses to protect resources and lives. While potentially threatening hurricanes may be detected a week in advance of possible landfall, their final landfall may be predicted only a few days in advance. Responses can not be improvised on the spot. Plans and resources to implement these responses must be devised, tested, and put in place before the event.

The emergency response system implemented in Texas links local responders and decision-makers into disaster response districts that are in turn connected to a state operations center with a backbone communications system of dedicated high-speed lines. Real-time data from local sources, satellites, and national resources such as the NOAA Hurricane Center flow into this operations center. A common situational awareness is established among all parties. Real-time data guide local decisions on evacuation and state-level decisions on evacuation routes and destinations, as well as poststorm rescue operations. For example, helicopter rescues in New Orleans were guided by GPS and high-resolution real-time satellite images.

Such a complex response system requires meticulous preparedness, planning, training, and testing. Detailed scenarios, maps, and visualizations were used in briefings to key personnel throughout the system. Models of storm wind patterns, river flooding, and storm surge were basic inputs into these scenarios. Training at all levels employed similar data. Realistic exercises reinforced training and tested the system. Computer models are increasingly central to this effort. With such a tested system the continuity of effective government can be maintained in the face of a storm’s destructive power.

While designing and planning such a system requires information on possible winds and surges, response to a specific storm depends crucially on timely and accurate forecasts, and on high-quality, real-time data. The critical period is 96 to 72 hours before landfall when many actions that determine the effectiveness of response are initiated. Responses are massive and complex. Accurate predictions of hurricane trajectory, intensity, and structure are vital. Areas for evacuation must be defined, evacuation routes activated, and resources for transportation, evacuation management, and poststorm rescue deployed. Predictive models operating in real time are becoming ever more important as are real-time environmental data of many kinds. The collection and use of geophysical data are important both in planning for and responding to storm impacts.