Red Cross Reflects on “Lessons Learned” Ten Years After Hurricane Katrina

 

by Anita Foster, Public Information Officer, American Red Cross

A decade has passed since Hurricane Katrina made landfall, causing the American Red Cross to stand up one of its largest relief efforts in their history. Today, the Red Cross is better equipped to respond and offer aid because of the lessons learned after the 2005 Hurricane Season – which included a total of five U.S. landfalls (Dennis, Emily, Katrina, Rita and Wilma).

“Safe and Well”:

“When Hurricane Katrina made landfall and forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, almost 26,000 registered at Red Cross shelters here in DFW,” said Rosemary Mote, Red Cross Regional Disaster Officer and director of the Red Cross Katrina relief efforts in Dallas. “People needed everything when they stepped off the bus in front of Reunion Arena or the Convention Center. They didn’t have clean clothing, they hadn’t eaten a decent meal in over a week and many needed immediate medical attention. But they also needed a way to locate their loved ones.”

Until Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005, the American Red Cross had never faced a disaster that required a town of nearly 500,000 people to flee to all 50 states, Puerto Rico and Guam. Many didn’t know what happened to their loved ones. Without a system to help families reconnect, the Red Cross tapped into its international network for a software designed to help locate missing relatives in refugee camps. It wasn’t ideal, but it did help people find each other. In 2006, the American Red Cross rolled out its first American version of that international software called “Safe and Well”.

Today, Safe and Well is available 24/7 at www.redcross.org/ It’s been used to help families find each other after massive tornadoes and floods, the Boston Marathon bombing and countless other disasters.

Mass Care Task Force:

Unique to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the leaders of four major non-profits joined forces after Hurricane Katrina with one purpose – to better serve disaster victims when the next catastrophic event occurs in the Metroplex.

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The American Red Cross, The Salvation Army, the North Texas Food Bank and the Volunteer Center of North Texas first sat down to craft a joint response plan in 2006 and they haven’t looked back. It was the beginning of the “Mass Care Task Force”.

“Hurricane Katrina really brought home the need for a joint response,” said Mote. “It was sad to look back and see that while we all knew each other before the storm, we didn’t really fully understand what each agency could provide and as a result, we duplicated some efforts. We vowed to never let that happen again.”

The members of the Mass Care Task Force still meet on a regular basis, participate in disaster trainings and exercises, and even fundraise together to be sure they’re ready to respond in a moment’s notice.

Technology Advancements:

“One of the biggest advancements we’ve made since Hurricane Katrina has been the inclusion of technology into disaster response,” said Mote. “Prior to that, technology was seen as somewhat of a luxury and not something donors necessarily wanted to fund. But Katrina changed all of that.”

Today, the Red Cross has a series of highly successful apps for iPhone and Android devices that allow people to get critical information before, during and immediately following disasters. The apps all have the Safe and Well feature, allowing families to quickly share their location or search for missing loved ones.

The American Red Cross was an early-adopter of social media and began using it to provide real-time information during disasters as early as 2008. The local twitter feed, @RedCrossDFW, began sharing weather alerts and information on how to take cover during storms. In 2012, the DFW Twitter feed was recognized at the White House for using technology to saves lives.

“Having social media available during the Katrina response would have been a game-changer,” said Mote. “We could have provided powerful real-time messages to help folks know what to do before, during and after the storm. People would have been able to find out where shelters were located much faster and they could post their whereabouts for others to find them. Today, we see people use social media to tell us where they are so we can send help. It’s been an amazing revolution that we just didn’t have during Katrina.”

The biggest social media advancement in Dallas has been the opening of the Digital Operations Center, powered and funded by Dell, which allows Red Cross volunteers to sift through thousands of social media posts and offer assistance. The Dallas Digital Operations Center was the second of three to open in the country.

While there were many lessons learned during the Hurricane Katrina response in the Metroplex, one thing has never changed and that’s the desire of the American Red Cross to stop at nothing to get assistance to families in crisis.

“We can’t count the number of challenges we faced after Katrina,” reflected Mote. “None of our systems were set up for such a huge disaster so we were constantly creating new response plans in the middle of the operation. But even with that, our volunteers remained steadfast in their work and provided unbelievable services to our neighbors from Louisiana.

The Red Cross operated multiple shelters across the area, including the Dallas Convention Center “mega-shelter” and Reunion Arena. The Reunion Arena shelter was open the longest, operating 24/7 for 41 consecutive days.

FAST FACTS from the DFW Katrina Response:

People Registered with Red Cross 25,499
Meals Served 182,445
Volunteers Utilized 4,733
Direct Financial Assistance Provided $13 million
Calls for Help to Local Red Cross 276,843
Mental Health Conversations 33,706

About the American Red Cross:

The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation’s blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit redcross.org or follow us on Twitter @redcrossdfw.