Applying Technology to Avoid Another Katrina

As we watch the disaster relief effort play out in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina we seem to be falling into the same old pattern of focusing on finding the right scapegoat rather than trying to make sure we can deal with similar future problems. Even after 9-11, the tsunami, and a variety of other disasters, we seem no more capable of effectively dealing with the critical aspects of such scenarios than we were a decade ago. In fact, we were probably in better shape to deal with such problems in the 1940s.

We need to get over the critical need to place blame, as I personally see no more social value to blaming others than I see in the actions of the mobs pillaging abandoned stores and homes in New Orleans. In both cases the behavior simply makes things worse, but in the former instance it makes people afraid to act during times when we desperately need action.

It seems to me there were three key problems leading up to the New Orleans disaster: the infrastructure was not adequately protected, there was no way to secure the city once the infrastructure failed, and there was no way to effectively evacuate the citizens who didn’t have cars either before or after the event.

The Impossibility of Disaster Avoidance

For the first problem, legitimately, I see no real fix. These once-in-100 or 1,000-years events are going to continue to hit cities all over the globe. They put so much stress on structures that are built by the lowest bidder and the events themselves are so different and so far apart in terms of time and space that I believe it is unreasonable to expect any city to be able to assure they can effectively protect against them in all circumstances. While such large-scale disasters may occur in any one city very rarely, the number of times they could occur someplace in the U.S. could become a surprisingly large number over a 10-year time frame. If we expand that to the world, it could be a large annual number of potential disasters to prepare for.

These things are going to happen, whether they’re volcanoes, tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, or a combination. Mother Nature continues to show us that she is vastly more capable than any military group. If they were still around, the dinosaurs could attest to this. It seems unlikely that in the next 100 years we will be able to do anything other than match her destructive capability with our weaponry, and that will only add to our need to be able to better deal with such destruction.

There is one thing we could do: roll out rapid online training to those in danger of getting hit by a disaster. Reminders to turn off the gas, open or close the windows, and better protect themselves and children could be sent out just as easily as we get spam and automated telemarketing. Why not use the technology we hate to provide better notification than we currently provide? Even reminding people that they need to leave could be done on a more massive scale than it’s done now. Automated feedback could record the status of families who can’t move so services can respond where they are needed most before, during or after the event.

Security Problems are Massive

The war in Iraq has provided an example of what can happen if you destroy the infrastructure of a city without a fast recovery plan. While we don’t have the insurgency problem here in the U.S., it is hard to watch video of New Orleans and not recall similar pictures of Baghdad after that city fell. Often, in such cases, you can declare martial law and curfews to get the large masses off the streets and deal with the lawlessness that remains but, after a disaster, there may be no place for people to go home to and that clearly is a problem in the case of Katrina.

What that means is, all you can do is try to roll out a massive human response in an area that already can’t support the people who are there. This may, initially, actually make the problem worse because it puts additional stress on the failed infrastructure and the citizens may see the army as a threat — putting both sides at additional risk.

It is possible to deal with this problem, however, and I suggest that one way is to turn the stricken people into part of the solution. If the people themselves could be mobilized to provide security they could move more quickly and not put additional strain on the already crippled infrastructure. Local people might also be less threatening to those in need than outsiders would be. Of course, this type of a setup would require pre-training and an organizational structure that could be called up and implemented in an emergency.

During World War II, programs like this in London helped alleviate similar problems. They could be vastly more capable here in a natural disaster situation. Implementation would require access to a communications system that could connect the various cells — and remain active during a disaster. The Iridium satellite-based phone service, for instance, is not only still in service, many folks are using the phones on the disaster site right now in the New Orleans area. Another less expensive technology is sideband FM (this is what the Microsoft SPOT wristwatches use) which could provide alerts and direct people where to go when phones and networks are down.

We have robotic observation platforms in Iraq, why not civilian versions that can identify hot spots and either dispatch authorities or protect the authorities already dispatched. Are our people any less important here than they are there?

With the citizens actively coordinated and working to solve the problem and backed up by effective technology I believe the safety issues could be better addressed in a matter of hours when otherwise it can take weeks, as we’re likely to see in this situation. It may make sense to use this same approach in Iraq: Having the citizens more involved in protecting their country has benefits that should lead to a number of positive results, from more capable politicians to a natural resistance to terrorists and other criminals.

Efficient Evacuation

If we can build weapons systems that can kill millions why can’t we build transportation systems that can save thousands? The answer is, we can. We just haven’t put the same level of research and development effort into this problem. I’m not suggesting we abandon weapons. All I’m saying is that if we are going to be aggressive in the art of killing, then for the good of the race, we should be even more aggressive at the art of moving people out of harm’s way.

In most instances what is needed is a massive heavy-lift platform that can move huge amounts of resources to a landlocked location rapidly and move huge numbers of people out of an area without having to rely on landing strips. Such a system would need to be able to operate under harsh conditions. Military transport systems are generally designed to operate under hostile fire but in most disaster instances, even if used during war, civilian rescue doesn’t need the same level of protection. As a result it can be optimized to move more things, or more people, at a faster rate.

If you can get lots of food in and take lots of people out of an area over a short period of time you can prevent many of the health and social problems that come after a disaster, natural or otherwise. We have had massive heavy lift platforms on the books since the Spruce Goose but they have simply never survived the military’s concerns, maybe rightly so in some cases. It may be time to bring the dirigible back.

Our need for these systems has never been more evident than it is this week. We only have to look back a few weeks to see where other disasters, man-made or otherwise, could have been vastly less costly in terms of human life and suffering had evacuation of the mobile civilians and the ability to deliver massive amounts of critical resources, and systems, been more capable.


My hope is we look closely at our behavior, and, rather than blaming the politicians who by the luck of the draw were in office when this disaster hit, let’s focus on assuring that the kinds of problems we experience here never happen to us as a nation or the people we care about in the world ever again. It seems pointless to focus over and over again on getting a few administrators fired when all that results is, we experience the same problems over and over again.

I’d rather focus on solving the problem. If we were we to do that, we would in fact be safer both from natural and man-made disasters. Perhaps in the latter instance, that would be in part because we simply would be much better respected for looking a lot less like incompetent fools.

Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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