Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Trying to prevent the next Katrina
A year after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, officials on the local, state and federal level are not only pausing to honor those who lost their lives, they're also trying to convince themselves and residents of the Gulf Coast that this will not happen again ... that next time, things will be different.

In New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers has erected flood gates to keep waters from filling up fragile canals that buckled under the weight of Katrina's floodwaters last year. It is staggering what the Corps has accomplished in the last year, but even Corps officials admit, the true measure of their success won't be known until the next storm hits.

In the course of the past year, a lot of work has gone into arranging buses, trains, planes and automobiles to shuttle people out of the city if another storm threatens the Crescent City. There are 200 buses on standby in Louisiana, and another 1,600 that could quickly be pulled into service. Twenty-four train cars sit idle at the station, waiting to evacuate people in case of emergency. It's all part of a plan to get people out of the city, especially people who don't have the resources to get themselves out.

But in the course of all this planning, one group has seemed to fall by the wayside -- the elderly. In the aftermath of Katrina, 32 residents of St. Rita's nursing home died before rescuers could reach them. In response to that tragedy and other similar cases, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals decided to test nursing homes in the affected region to see if they'd be ready when the next big one hit.

So teams from the DHH set forth to test out hurricane readiness plans for the 72 nursing homes in the New Orleans area. They were checking to see if the nursing homes had things like adequate generators to power life support devices, sufficient transportation contracts to get residents out if the need arose and a place to shelter those residents in the days following a catastrophe.

The results of those surveys were mailed to the operators of the homes in July. The outcome?

Out of 72 nursing homes, only 21 of them complied with the minimum licensing standards for emergency preparedness. Nineteen facilities had one fault in their plans -- either they didn't have adequate generators or they didn't have a bus contract to evacuate. Then there are the other 32 nursing homes that had multiple gaps in their emergency preparations -- not only did they not have generators, they also didn't have a plan for how or when to evacuate.

So, one year later, the question remains: If and when the next big storm hits New Orleans, will the people who need help the most be in a position to get it?
Posted By Megan Towey, CNN Producer: 6:07 PM ET
  31 Comments
Hi Megan-
It does not matter if there are shuttles, planes, trains, and buses for evacuation if there are no drivers ready and available when disaster strikes again. How can the nursing homes not possibly be prepared after the harrowing experience at St. Rita's? I am so glad that CNN is on top of this so government officials and viewers do not forget. It is amazing how quickly we block these dreaded images out of our mind if we are not reminded. Keep it up until things change for the better. Good job!
Posted By Anonymous Betty Ann Taylor Nacogdoches, Tx : 6:43 PM ET
The St. Rita thing stunk to high heaven as I recall there was testimony that EMTs arrived to evacuate the facility and were refused. Residents were only evac'd if families came and picked them up. Given Medicare/Medicaid reimbursment rules, I would question that the residents were not evac'd to ensure the facility would receive per diem reimbursement.

At one time OSHA was on the ball and put pressure on facilities to have evac plans, sprinkler systems, back up power systems, emergency response drills, unlocked breaker exit doors and other systems from eyewash stations to PPE. OSHA was supposed to get their funding from enforcement and fine collection. THE WHOLE SYSTEM IS A FAILURE and as facilities become more corporate the thrust is to CYA, not meet minimum standards. Welcome to the third world.
Posted By Anonymous linda, bella vista, ar : 6:59 PM ET
Without an emergency plan in place, it will be the most vulnerable who will suffer, once again.
Posted By Anonymous Rollande, North Bay ON, Canada : 7:24 PM ET
When do we decide to take matters into our own hands and build homes and communities that can either withstand the types of natural disasters a given area is prone to or move to areas less threatening? Is that so unreasonable? Living below sea-level was bad enough but what about Miami right there on the tip of FL, too? Don�t people care to feel safe and secure? Fortunately, there are many things we can do to prepare, and most such preparations are good for any number of other potential disasters! Here are a few:

Potential Home Design Solutions:
Instead of trying to out-class our neighbors in homes with extravagant formal living areas (that are hardly ever used), and fancy/decorative exteriors, we need features that will help us cope during times of hardship and disaster. Regardless of where we choose to live, our homes should have:

A more basic, efficient, and less wind-resistant �square� shape. Decorative exterior features (like dormers, staggered rooflines, and garage extensions) really only provide more places for the roof to leak, more surface area for heat to escape, and a greater potential for severe damage to occur.

A bunk bed visitors� room sized for four bunk beds to help during mass evacuations.

All bedrooms should be more equally sized for adults to use. This gives close family members and friends a much more permanent and comfortable place to stay if their home was destroyed or if they were let go from their job or got a divorce.

Kitchen, dining, and living areas should all be walled off to prevent a damaged wall or window in one area from adversely affecting the entire home. This is also more efficient, prevents the rapid spread of fire and smoke, and lowers noise levels!

The garage should be sized to protect AND support the service repair vans that many builders and contractors privately own.

Garage closets are needed to help keep valuable equipment secure (in case the garage door is blown out) and to help eliminate the absolutely horrific amount of garage clutter we see today.

There should be an attic greenhouse to supplement food provisions and rainwater holding tanks to provide fresh drinking water!

In general, greater self-sufficiency at the home level helps to insulate us from such massive, region-wide disasters. Renewable energy, in this sense, isn�t just good for the environment. Solar and wild generators are also good for keeping the lights on when everyone else across the region is without power.

Chris Eldridge
Author of Environmental Practices: From Living Simply to Global Advancemtns (endorsed by senator Ted Kennedy)
Posted By Anonymous Chris Eldridge, Harrisburg PA : 7:43 PM ET
Didn't an earthquake nearly destroy the city of Pompei a few decades before the Volcano did? Primitive people might have had an excuse for their arrogance, in this day and age we do not. If another storm comes this year and does similiar damage who's fault is it that people are still there? There are just some bad places to build a city. Trying to show determination is no excuse for stupidity.
Posted By Anonymous JS, regina, sk, canada : 8:25 PM ET
Dear Megan Towey,

Long time ago in my early teens, I visited New Orleans with my parents. Great city! But then I moved to New York. During my internship at the NY Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn, as a public health educator, I noticed how community development is important and even in the most neglected minority neighborhoods like Crownheights and Bedforstyvesant (Brooklyn, the community development and inspection norms are still far more upgraded then it is in New Orleans.
The chaotic situations that happened after Katrina struck, in terms how the hospitals dealt with their patients, the police, the plundering and rapes is mostly part of lack of community development.
People can turn to a community leader and organize emergency evacuation for their neighborhood. One contributes gasoline, the other offers a lift in his car, yet another may know where what destination to bring the sick and the needy.
Integration within communities is lacking, an important part of infrastructure that may have lowered the chaos and the number of deaths.
Posted By Anonymous Ratna, New York, NY : 8:33 PM ET
Megan: Although I think it's good that the teams from the DHH checked out the readiness of the nursing homes, providing the results in July surely doesn't provide enough time for those facilities to respond and be ready especially when we're already in Hurricane season. While reading your blog, I also can't help but think that the other group that has fallen by the wayside is the animals. What is the plan for them?
Posted By Anonymous Jolene, St. Joseph, MI : 8:50 PM ET
A year after the hurricane, five years after a terrorist attack, our country is no more prepared than it was before. There has been no effective "plan" for hurricanes. Although evacuations may occur earlier, who is going to help evacuate hospitals and nursing homes? Leaders should be ashamed for not what has already happened, but for what hasn't happened. I just hope New England never has a hurricane because I wouldn't trust ANYONE to help.
Posted By Anonymous Tam, Manchester, NH : 9:12 PM ET
Out of sight, out of mind. The further we move from when Katrina hit, the less important this will become as memory fades and new people (who may not have lived through it) are in positions of authority.

The other issue is the bottom line. It costs money to comply and prepare for emergencies and maintain that level of preparedness. Nursing homes are about making money by serving people. Until there is some financial impact for not complying, it won't get done.
Posted By Anonymous Peter, West Sacramento, Ca : 9:18 PM ET
Given the track record that consists of government groups who refuse to take responsibility in helping to fix the problem, I do not think that those who really need help should another Katrinaesque hurricane hit will be able to get it. Moreover, I don't think that what the Army Corps has done is adequate enough either. They need to continue to be working to ensure the levees are BETTER than they were Pre-Katrina, since we all know the levees couldn't hold back all that water. Katrina hits home for me since I am originally from New Orleans. I just think the molassas-type progress that has been made is not enough. Just because the city is at half its population, does not mean that there aren't citizens who won't be able to evacuate this time around. And its not just New Orleans. It is the entire Gulf Coast. As the flag says, "Recover, Rebuild, Rebirth." But we must also remember that the government needs to "step it up" as it were to make sure the flag lives up to what it says. Many of these people can't do any of those things without assistance from the government.
Posted By Anonymous Tracy: Somerville, NJ : 9:36 PM ET
Oh sure, another hurricane is going to hit. Sooner or later. It's the hurricane belt. I live in the snow belt. Learn to deal with it or move. If the people in the area haven't learned from all the hurricanes that have hit in the past whether big or small, it's too late for them to learn now. I'm prepared for any snow emergency. Forget the plasma t.v. sets and buy survival items or insurance. Get a grip on it.
Posted By Anonymous Leonard. Loves Park, IL : 9:37 PM ET
The best way to prevent the next Katrina is not to build cities in areas 7 ft. below sea level in an area none for hurricanes. If that doesn't work then how about holding the state leaders criminally responsible for not using the money they were givin by the federal government years ago to rebuild the levies for what it was meant for.
Posted By Anonymous Jason Poe, Terre Haute, IN : 9:49 PM ET
Hi Megan: It must be twice as hard trying to evacuate the elderly, in the first place they don't want to be moved, they get very confused and afraid. Therefore there should be a plan ready taking many things into consideration. I find it very disturbing that a lot of these nursing homes don't even have the barest of necessities after a full year. You would think they'd realize the more planning ahead the easier it would make the evacuation for all concerned.
Their families put them in these homes with the belief that their loved ones will be properly taken care of under any circumstances, shame on them (the caregivers) if they fail because they weren't prepared again.
Posted By Anonymous Bev Whitby Ontario, Canada : 9:50 PM ET
I would have hoped that we would have learned from the many mistakes of Katrina and yet it seems that nothing has been learned. I really hope that pressure is put upon the nursing homes to make plans to evacuate all of their residents. It is sad to think of all those who were left to drown and I hope it will never happen again.
Posted By Anonymous Kimberly Miller, Hiram, OH : 10:06 PM ET
I hope and pray ever night that faced with another tradgedy like Katrina the people who need the help get it but I am afraid that our Government will fail us yet again. I take a look around at New Orleans this week and where I live - Sunday was the FIRST time I ever saw the National Guard in my area and we were decimated by 10' of water for over 17 days. With all the media hype in town, it's a media's playground and just like for the President, it's another photo op.
It's a sad fact that the nursing homes do not have plans in place. My grandmother was a resident of St. Rita's until her death on March 25, 2005. In the 2004 hurricane season many New Orleanians evacuated as well as my family. The owners of St. Rita's assured us that they had a plan in place (remember this was 2004) to evacuate the residents - "they had buses and a place in Baton Rouge for the residents to stay" so we left town. Upon evacuating we were notified that they weren't leaving and my grandmother would stay in St. Bernard for the hurricane. Luckily circumstances were different and weren't affected. As a family we decided that if my grandmother were alive in 2005 no matter what, we would take her with us.
The outcome of St. Rita's was unfortunately not a surprise after Katrina, the hardest part for me is remembering the men and women that lived there and thinking about the horrific death that they suffered because someone didn't care enough to get them out.
Posted By Anonymous Gretchen Schneider, New Orleans Louisiana : 10:51 PM ET
In the U.S. today, it is amazing that we can let our elderly down in times of a crisis. These are people who have probably lived in New Orleans for most of their lives, raising families, working and contributing to the communities. This is how they are repaid for their efforts.
Posted By Anonymous Mary, Stamford, CT : 11:00 PM ET
I have talked with a gentleman who is a Public Health Officer and is working with New Orleans hospitals to get them up to speed and to bring back some hospitals. He seemed a dedicated public servant wanting to the hospitals to be better than before. There are knowledgable and dedicated public officials trying to make a difference. The problem is public officials such as President Bush who make a mess of the situation by appointing political hacks out to make money for their own companies. I understand from insiders in Louisana, the mayor is out for himself and the wealthy of New Orleans.
Posted By Anonymous Diane Wagener, Krum, Texas : 11:52 PM ET
I think they are in a postition to get help, but the people who check these standards have to inform them of the necessary precautions like who they can contact if they need to evacuate. Buses need to be on standby if there is an emergency in neighboring cities.
Posted By Anonymous israel,raleigh,nc : 3:05 AM ET
thank you for continuing to attempt to run poignant stories related to Katrina, I am worried that most MSM has turned their backs on the victims of this horrific catastrophe....
Posted By Anonymous allie,cleveland,ohio : 3:23 AM ET
WOW! That is unreal! It was so heart breaking to hear the fate of those senior citizens and their families. I can't believe that the Nursing Homes that make a business out of caring for them, apparently don't actually care. Are these plans public record? Are families able to see them befor admitting their loved ones to the care of these Nursing Homes?
Posted By Anonymous Susie, Huttonsville WV : 7:33 AM ET
This is a classic example of survival of the fittest.
Posted By Anonymous gkr,colby, kansas : 8:13 AM ET
Hopefully the Louisiana DHH conducted the survey with an eye toward taking steps to provide nursing homes with the generators, consultants to assist with evacuation plans, and help with bus contracts that they may need "next time." It may just be that many of these nursing homes do not have the staff, expertise, or additional funding to do much better post-Katrina than they were able to do previously.

This particular story deserves follow-up and maybe even attention by the many charities to whom so many of us donated monies in the days following Katrina. Red Cross, are you listening??
Posted By Anonymous Heidi, Marietta, GA : 8:44 AM ET
Empty the stores before the storm comes and people will evacuate because there is nothing to loot.
Posted By Anonymous Sam, Austin Tx. : 9:24 AM ET
This is an outrage that there is no plan for our elderly. It shows that even a year later after katrina that there is still no definative plan for the evacutation of citizens and especially the most vulnable. I am having difficult grasping the fact that after everything that happened last year our local, state and even federal government officials are still critically unprepared for our next disaster. It is a shame that we will in the greatest, richest country of the US and we still (or it seems) that we value lifes outside of America more than we do our own people. Thank you for your continued coverage of this area. Your correspondants have been amazing. Wish our government could have the same care and compassion that we find in your coverage.
Posted By Anonymous Michele, Slidell, LA : 9:59 AM ET
If the nursing home doesn't have an evacuation plan in place, maybe the State needs to make it obvious that all of the employees of the nursing home will be held criminally liable if problems occur in the next crisis. Another possibility would be to just remove their certification until such time as they are able to meet some minimal criteria. But, of course, that would be unlikely to happen. Too much money in them homes...
Posted By Anonymous Paul, Vernal, UT : 10:33 AM ET
Comments like "The Government is just going to let us down again" or "Where was the National Guard?" really bother me. I spent a few months in New Orleans after Katrina and here is what I saw:
I saw groups of people sitting on the porch of their dilapidated house drinking beer at 8:00am while others around them worked to repair houses.
I saw people who had received their Government check and ran out and purchased a BMW, Mercedes, or Escalade, but never spent one thin dime to help their neighbors or themselves. I asked one guy what he drove before the storm. His Answer? An old pick-up truck. He even told me he was waiting for his next check so he could get a flat screen.
Hey folks, I have some advice for you. If you want help, help yourselves. Don't rebuild your homes below sea level. To me New Orleans is like a boat....A big hole in the water we just keep dumping money into. Sure it's fun on weekends, but come Monday, we still have to pay for it.
Posted By Anonymous Richard, Spring Grove, Illinois : 10:44 AM ET
Megan - Not only do we need buses, planes ect...but we need the drivers. The same with the nursing homes, not only do they need a bus contract, generator, ect, but they need caring employees who will stay to see things through. Without the actual people to do the work, the elderly and disabled will be stuck, even if they have buses coming in.
Posted By Anonymous Teresa, San Francisco, CA : 6:08 PM ET
Katrina just teaches us one thing, don't count on the US goverment to help you during a time of crisis. I watched Spike Lee's story " When the Levee's Broke" and it was just mind boggling to thing no one cared. We are too worried about Iraq, when we should be helping our own people. How sad we have become. Mike Brown was a complete idiot in the wake of Katrina, it goes to show you don't have to know a damn thing to get a job like that. He does not even have common sense. All it took was someone with common sense to get evacuations going way before she hit land. That is simply disgusting that New Orleans is still the way it was one year ago and the comment Barbara Bush said when she visited the convention center last year about the poor people stranded there was simply disgusting beyond comprehension. We desperately need someone in our goverment with guts and brains.
Posted By Anonymous Patrice Marotta, Wauconda Illinois : 6:42 PM ET
Maybe we're going the wrong way with rebuilding New Orleans in the first place. One definition of insanity is repeating the same course of action and expecting a different result. It seems to me that the government and the people haven't radically changed anything about how they are approaching this situation. Should we exhaust all those resources just to end up rebuilding again a few years down the road?
Posted By Anonymous Eric, Evansville, IN : 2:49 PM ET
The government should make everyone in the US adopt a family in New Orleans. They would be responsible for giving them food, shelter and transportation, and money. That way we can all pitch in and do our part.
Posted By Anonymous Frank, Hartford, CT : 8:13 PM ET
To the last posting: should all families be forced to adopt every family of tragedy? I am homeless. All homelessness is due to a tragedy, sometimes of their own making sometimes due to storms or floods. Who would adopt me? Duh. I help myself, and expect others to pick up after themselves too. It isn't easy but it has to be done.

As for tonites show, labor day, I say thank you to all those whose job helped those in need during Katrina and every other disaster. That includes you hard working slobs at CNN.
Posted By Anonymous lr, wheeling, wv : 11:18 PM ET
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