Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen, head of the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, said at a GW-hosted panel discussion Friday that the government should work to improve the involvement of non-governmental groups in emergency assistance efforts.
While many non-government organizations and faith-based groups have assisted the victims of Katrina, Allen said that in the future he wants to see the permanent placement of these organizations in emergency response teams.
“As we move forward and look to future generations, we need mechanics that allow us to facilitate the involvements of those groups,” said Allen, chief of staff of the U.S. Coast Guard. “A lot of NGOs can respond quicker than the government.”
The School of Public Policy and Public Administration hosted the discussions on Katrina’s impact on New Orleans and its influence on federal policies last week.
Allen, who earned a master of public relations degree from GW in 1986, spoke via video into Jack Morton Auditorium during the Friday event to speak to students, faculty and guests about his plan of action for the future. He is spearheading the recovery efforts in the areas affected by Katrina. He replaced former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown in the wake of controversy concerning Brown’s handling of the situation.
“It was a much different situation than the government was expecting to deal with based on the natural disaster precedent,” Allen said.
Allen described what happened in New Orleans as a “hybrid event,” sending damage with the actual storm and its subsequent floods. Hurricane Rita, which hit the Gulf Coast shortly thereafter, increased the devastating effects.
“Evacuees ended up in almost every state of the union,” Allen said, adding that the main challenge is finding them, registering them with FEMA aid and then trying to help them find housing. “I think what we learned is that you have to forward deploy.”
But Allen does not have time to dwell in what went wrong. “My top three priorities are housing, housing, housing,” Allen said. Aid is currently being given on a family-by-family basis with no end in sight.
Allen explained the main problem with rebuilding the New Orleans area comes down to the “chicken and egg problem.” Government officials need people to return to the city to work and rejuvenate the economy, but many of those in the work force have no home to return to.
“We need housing for workers and workers for housing,” he said.
Allen also described the balance between federal and local government involvement as a healthy one.
“The federal role is to support state and local governments … we look to them to show us the key parameters,” he said.
Allen was optimistic about his work with both New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and President Bush.
When asked about how to prepare for future disasters, he firmly stated, “We need to think of ways to allow communities to be more resilient.”