If anyone thought new Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was going to take the go slow approach to taking the reigns of the Department, they were really mistaken.  In office for just over a full week, she has rifled off a series of Action Directives in a number of critical areas.  From critical infrastructure protection, information sharing with state and local governments, cyber security, the Northern Border, etc., the Secretary is asking all the right questions on all the right subjects as she begins to get a handle on the issues at hand and mechanisms at her disposal to address them.

While I agree with all of the issues she has asked to be briefed upon, in the spirit of the NFL Challenge Rules I am going to reach for my red challenge flag and throw it onto the field for her to go a booth review on one of her most recent Action Directives.

Yesterday (January 28th), she issued a Directive on Hurricane Katrina asking for an update on the Department’s efforts on Public Assistance, Hazard Mitigation, Housing and other recovery efforts underway in the Gulf Coast.  It is more than appropriate for the new Secretary to ask for an update on these efforts, but unfortunately she’s forgotten about the other named nightmare of the 2005 Gulf Coast Hurricane Season: Hurricane Rita.

Striking almost a month after Katrina, Rita struck the Gulf Coast on September 24, 2005 between Texas and Louisiana as a Category 3 storm bringing tremendous destruction and disruption to the region.  While the storm only killed seven people compared to the nearly 2,000 killed by Katrina, Rita’s impact and devastation to the Gulf Coast area was also significant.  Unfortunately, the impacts of this storm are often overlooked and forgotten, and I fear that is the case with Sec. Napolitano’s recent Action Directive.

The worlds of Southwest and Southeast Louisiana have always been distinct, and their performance during the respective storms demonstrated that as fact.  As Katrina revealed, the relationships between elected state, city and parish leaders and public safety units in Southeast Louisiana was anything but productive and functional (non-coordination of radio communications, no back-up plans, poor support to emergency shelters, etc.).

In contrast, elected state, city and parish leaders in Southwest Louisiana as well as their respective public safety units did have positive, productive relationships and plans with another. Their end results during and immediately following Hurricane Rita proved it.

Unfortunately their successes (improved evacuations, smaller loss of life, etc) when compared to the tragic debacles on the other portion of the State has meant that they have been often overlooked and forgotten when it comes to attention and assistance.

All of us recognize that Katrina is a scar that DHS, FEMA, Louisiana, the Gulf Coast and the nation will always have.  Scars are reminders of traumas that hopefully spur us to take action so that they don’t occur again.  Rita also left scars, and we should not forget about them either.

I applaud Sec. Napolitano for asking for updates on what is happening with Katrina.  God knows she doesn’t want to replicate former DHS Sec. Chertoff’s Katrina experiences.  As evidenced this past summer during Hurricane Gustav, huge strides have been made by DHS, FEMA, the State of Louisiana and its 2005 hurricane-ravaged regions in how they prepare and respond to disasters.

I hope that when the Secretary is briefed by FEMA and other DHS leaders on those improvements they will be clearly visible to her and her assembling leadership team who will in turn built upon them further.  What I also hope is visible to her and her team is the impacts of Rita and the needs and challenges that remain as a result of her fury.

Too often we only remember the big name, television centric images of disasters such as Katrina at the expense of others that don’t garner such recognition.

Madame Secretary, please don’t forget Rita.

Or Wilma…

Or Greensburg, KS…

Or Ike…

Rich Cooper blogs primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More