Five years after Katrina, government IT still feels storm's fury

Five years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, the region continues to rebuild and the federal government is still trying to fix information technology-related problems that the storm and its aftermath exposed.

Five years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, the region continues to rebuild and the federal government is still trying to fix information technology-related problems that the storm and its aftermath exposed.

In those five years, Federal Computer Week, Government Computer News and Washington Technology have continued to cover the story because IT is central to changes in policies for emergency response and disaster preparation. From the ongoing push to expand the availability of telework for federal employees to efforts to make emergency response communications interoperable, the government’s use of communication technology continues to drive those reforms. Officials who respond to disasters are quick to point out improvements since Katrina, and lessons from the storm continue to frame policy debates.

Public outrage after Katrina — the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history — was focused on federal agencies, particularly the Homeland Security Department’s Federal Emergency Management Agency. The government as an institution also was blamed for a lack of preparation and slow response to the storm. Those lessons have spurred reforms to civilian and military institutions.

Today the situation continues to evolve. Officials cite improvements in technology, planning and policy that have helped them deal with natural disasters such as wildfires and the recent earthquake in Haiti. The government’s technology successes — and its limitations — once again were on display during the BP oil spill that battered the same beleaguered region this year.

Some key programs, such as the government’s next-generation Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, remain works in progress. Officials say they will use IPAWS to send alerts via audio, video or text in multiple languages, including American Sign Language and Braille, and FEMA has called the system the nation's next-generation public communications and warning capability.

“If IPAWS does what we think it will do, I think that will be a huge step forward,” said David Maxwell, director of the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management and the state’s homeland security adviser.

However, he added, “I really don’t have a warm fuzzy feeling that we’ve improved that much.”

The 56-year-old Maxwell is also president of the National Emergency Management Association, the professional association for state-level emergency management directors. He said one of the biggest IT-related changes in emergency response since 2005 is the growing use of social media.

“Kids are coming up, and it’s automatic with them," he said. "They have a Facebook page, they’ll do Twitter, all of those kinds of things. Us old heads are having to learn it, and it doesn’t come as natural to us, I guess.”

There’s also empirical evidence that social media is changing emergency response. Many people now use Facebook and Twitter to report emergencies or call for help, and they expect first responders to monitor those sites, according to the results of an online survey conducted by the American Red Cross.

Of the more than 1,000 adults who participated in the “Social Media in Disasters and Emergencies survey, 18 percent said they would turn to digital social media if calls to 911 were unsuccessful, and 69 percent said emergency response agencies should regularly monitor their Web sites and social media networks so they can respond promptly. Seventy-four percent of those surveyed said they would expect help to arrive in an hour.

Earlier this month, the American Red Cross convened a conference about the use of social media in emergency response. The results of those discussions — such as whether emergency response agencies will start dedicating resources to monitoring social networks for calls for help — remain to be seen.

Wendy Harman, the organization's social media director, said raising awareness about the tools is a big first step. A lot of valuable information will now be publicly available to help inform first responders, she said, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions about their use for emergency response.

“I think there’s room right now because of the evolution of our culture that we can add in this public element and [it] can provide value, but we still have to be careful in how we implement it,” Harman added.