Hurricane Harvey tests lessons learned from Sandy & Katrina

With cities deluged and under water in Texas, as Hurricane Harvey peters out on land, local and federal emergency response teams are being tested to their limits. With finite resources, and racing against time to save lives, citizens and emergency professionals must grapple with the basics of survival, and in this ‘process’ has a very important role.

I recall as a young soldier in the Eighties, being sent on an emergency relief operation after a hurricane hit the Caribbean. I was personally shocked to find many, if not most, of the people sent to help acted more as a hindrance than a help in relief efforts. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone in my thinking, and people far above my pay grade took the initial steps which helped to improve the British approach to disaster relief.  More recently, while working with a global children’s organization, I met and spoke with several people who were on the ground during Typhoon Haiyan which struck the Philippines in 2013. Without exception, all attested to the vital importance of planning and preparation for an effective response and relief effort, and just how essential post-incident review was to improving effectiveness in the future.

Disaster response management has clearly evolved from ad hoc reaction, to proactive establishment of procedures and immediate & continuing actions based upon common standards.

Or in other words, the introduction of processes and management of them.

US counterparts had already acted to standardize and codify how to respond and manage disaster response prior to my experience in the Eighties, with the creation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 1979.

Prior to FEMA being established, in the US there was some effort to codify and standardize procedures for specific disasters, e.g. flooding prevention and response being placed under the Army Corps of Engineers. This was a piecemeal approach, and it led to glaring gaps in preparedness, confusion over who had leadership and coordination authority, jurisdictional conflicts, and a variable level of response in the event of an incident.

The establishment of FEMA by President Jimmy Carter, sought to ensure cohesion and coordination of a federal response to disasters in conjunction with local and state responders, however as Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, a great deal remained to be done in mounting an effective relief effort.

Four Phases of Disaster & Emergency Management

A fundamental realization of disaster management is that it is cyclical in nature: while we cannot accurately predict where and when a disaster will strike with anything other than imminent or short time horizons, we do know that they will occur. Disaster response has broadly become more effective because of lessons learned and applied from previous incidents, though with notable failures on occasion.

Prevention & Mitigation

Knowing emergency incidents will occur leads us to identify and prioritize risk, and set in place contingency planning. In some instances, this may mean a disaster can be averted, however, most disasters cannot be prevented, only their scope and impact.


Disaster preparation involves the formulation of plans to respond to an incident, including assessing the people and resources required and coordination of efforts. Resiliency is a key focus, as the ability to mount a strong response which is effective and timely is crucial to counteract the impact of a disaster.

There are three major components:

  • Planning – who and what needs to get to the area of operation, how do they get there, evacuation routes;
  • Training – immediate actions and drills, emergency teams and skills composition, use of technology and asset mix (for instance, a sniffer dog trained in searching out people trapped in rubble will be an asset in an earthquake incident, but less so with a nuclear accident);
  • Supply – what is needed and how to effectuate delivery and maintenance in the field, for every person you put into the field of operation you must be able to feed them too, for every vehicle you use, you must provide the gas to make it work.


Sadly, this means there is an incident requiring response and is emergency management in action, also known as the “rescue” phase.

Principal objectives of response are to save lives and reduce suffering of the population, preserve and protect property, and mitigate economical loss.

Response requires effective implementation of plans and coordination of multiple agencies at local, state, federal, and in some instances, international levels. In the US, disasters are initially managed locally at least initially, and then proceed up the organizational hierarchy to state and federal levels. This allows those closest to the disaster to gauge response required, and will typically rely heavily on local government, police, fire, and EMS responders.

Response also seeks to reduce scope of damage being inflicted, for instance Hurricane Harvey response includes management of dam levels to mitigate flooding impact on the affected area.

Often overlooked, is that response also seeks to lay the foundation for recovery efforts and returning the affected area to “normality”. While the response phase tends to be intensive and relatively short-lived, the recovery phase will typically take a lot longer, often years.


Watching the news recently,  FEMA’s Brock Long plainly stated that recovery from Hurricane Harvey will take years. We have seen how long recovery takes in New Orleans after Katrina, and New Jersey after Sandy, however this is the ‘norm’ for almost every community affected by a disaster around the world.

While disaster incidents result in rapid destruction of infrastructure and local economies, it does take a great deal of human effort to rebuild them.

Initial recovery involves the restoration of local utilities, particularly water supply, sewage, power, and communications. Recovery also looks to ensure local government and agencies can maintain or re-establish control to manage the continuing process of rehabilitation and repair.

Finally, the recovery process also includes a post-mortem assessment of risk factors which caused or contributed to the incident itself and the effectiveness of emergency response. The lessons which can be learned from one incident will be incorporated into the emergency planning process, so closing the reiterative cycle.

Major Challenges in Execution of Effective Disaster Response

The major challenges to executing an effective disaster response include

Quality of Planning and Preparedness – the quality of planning and preparedness has a direct bearing on the success of emergency response, and this in turn is a function of budget and leadership.

Coordination of Agencies – in the US, the initial agencies involved will be FEMA (if activated) and Local Emergency Management Agencies (LEMA) who in turn will include local law enforcement and responders, state agencies including the National Guard, and private entities. Closely following these initial responders will be other agencies from neighboring jurisdictions, voluntary bodies and citizens, and NGOs such as the Red Cross.

Resource Management & Visibility – physical assets are essential to effective response, such as availability of earth-moving equipment, mobile medical facilities, decontamination, water carriers, temporary shelters, and so on. In almost every instance, managers will not have visibility into what exactly are the resources they have available to execute a disaster response, including not knowing exactly where such assets are, their readiness state, or who is available with the necessary skills to use them.

Essential Supplies Logistics – the history of disasters is that more people will typically endure greater suffering and loss of life because of conditions after the initial disaster, for instance falling ill due to lack of clean drinking water, or complication of injuries due to lack of medical attention. Not only must essential supplies and services be made available, and quickly, but they must be delivered to where they can be used by the affected communities and people. For instance, it is ineffective to deliver canned food goods without the means to be able to open the can!

Management of Law & Order – any disaster brings opportunity for lawlessness, such as looting or crimes against people. Maintaining the physical security of responders, and of physical resources is also a major challenge, particularly for international relief operations. Official corruption poses a problem too, especially for international relief efforts with corrupt authorities, or even where there is no substantive authority present to begin with.

Political Issues – very sadly, both domestic and international relief efforts are frequently conducted against a backdrop of political chicanery. Friction between local, state, and federal operators has played a part in domestic disaster response, but it is especially demonstrated in international relief efforts. On an international scale, the emergence of “South South” together with nationalism and political ideology, have contributed to the challenges relief agencies face in delivering effective emergency response. I doubt any technology can solve these problems.

Use of Technology

We are used to seeing in a business context such phrases as, “Agile”, “Lean”, “Adaptive”, “Scalable”, and so on. Emergency management requires such buzzwords to be substantive in practice, not least because lives rely on how successful they are in delivering relief and rescue from an unpredictable situation.

Some technology developments receive perhaps more of the spotlight than others, such as the use of Social Media to mark people as safe, SMS, use of drones, and so on. I will certainly not belittle such technology applications and hardware, not least when so many people are relying upon them to survive. I will argue however, that the most important application of technology is with developing emergency planning and preparedness, and how the incident itself is managed, and in this regard, process management and its tools have a high degree of relevancy (as opposed to newsworthiness).

This will include the ability to standardize, to have visibility into operations, to understand what resources and people you have, their location, readiness state, and ability to enter and operate within the affected area. Furthermore, the ability to collaborate and communicate across the traditional boundaries of multiple organizations are crucial for effective response, as one agency seeks to cooperate with other organizations involved in relief. Also, the ability for the process management technology to be used and managed by non-technical people is essential too as it reduces the need for technical support which is otherwise non-essential to the relief effort.

If you are tasked with preparing for a disaster, then you will only be able to very broadly identify what you are likely to need to respond. This said, there will be common assets you will want on hand no matter what the incident: transport, water, medical supplies, food, and so on.  If for example, you identify a need for a dozen helicopters with heavy lift capability, then part of your preparedness should include where those helicopters are to be found, their state of readiness, and how do you get them deployed to the area of operations with the resources and personnel required to operate and maintain them. The same will apply for even the most mundane of items such as toilet paper or toothpaste, as well as the things we take for granted, such as how do look after pets and livestock and what are the physical assets you need to do this.

You may also need to establish a rolling timetable of when you want certain classes of responders in the field: it is of little use immediately bringing in a surgeon with nowhere to operate, however you will want a trauma practitioner there ASAP. Bear in mind, for every person you deploy to the area of operation, you must supply and secure them, otherwise they simply exasperate the larger incident you are grappling with, or worse, become casualties themselves.

Such planning and preparedness brings us closer to the realm of traditional management.

What people and resources do I have and can be used, where are they, who knows how to use them, how do I move them, feed and maintain them, and so on. Just as important will be how are these people and resources managed, and how can I change plans in the middle of execution to adapt to meet the unexpected. In this respect, task and resource tracking technology in conjunction with collaboration and communication tools are highly valued, because they provide the ability to gain visibility in real-time into who is doing what, with what resources, and how responders and resources can be most effectively used.

The trajectory of developments within emergency and disaster management has clearly been to establish unified coordination, create policies, establish standards and processes to identify, plan and prepare, and ultimately to respond to incidents. There will never be a one-size fits all approach to emergency response, however by imposing organization and standardization, the response to disasters has improved and can be further improved. The ultimate goal being to save even more lives and reduce the suffering of affected communities even further.

For now, however, our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Texas and Louisiana, and all those involved in the emergency response and recovery from Hurricane Harvey.

If you are thinking of helping relief efforts, either financially or through volunteering, this article from NPR provides a comprehensive list of national and local relief organizations on the ground in Houston TX and other affected communities.

About Josh Yeager, COO

As HighGear’s COO, Josh is responsible for managing the Product Development, Professional Services, and Customer Support teams. His eye for detail and quality are what drive the company forward in its pursuit of excellence.
He’s been at HighGear since the very beginning, helping to build it from the ground up as its co-founder. First, he was responsible for leading product design, but as the company and his experience grew, he took on more management responsibilities, eventually becoming HighGear’s Chief Operating Officer.
He’s a graduate of the University of Maryland. Prior to HighGear, Josh worked on veterinary pharmaceutical reference software and custom business applications.
He’s married to his beautiful wife, Tara, with whom he has four children. In his free time, Josh loves nothing more than enjoying a good book.

Schedule Consultation