Public-Private Collaboration: Six Years After Hurricane Katrina

By Mark Cooper, Senior Director of Global Emergency Management, Walmart Stores, Inc.

Hurricane Katrina changed everything in emergency management, especially the role of the private sector in disaster response. Walmart was singled out at the time for its leadership in helping communities respond. It’s a perspective I personally observed as a first responder to the disaster. Now, as head of the company’s emergency management department, that perspective helps shape our public-private collaboration at the state and federal levels every day.

In early 2008, the public and the media had high expectations for newly elected Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and his Cabinet as we prepared for his first hurricane season. At that time, I was the newly appointed director of the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP). The governor’s directive for GOHSEP and the role of the private sector during a disaster was clear: Support the resiliency of Louisiana’s businesses and use their capabilities in disaster response whenever possible.

While the government’s hurricane response plans had matured leading up to the 2008 hurricane season, the role of the private sector was still largely undefined, including how businesses could be leveraged to help support disaster response. Much had been documented about Walmart’s success during Hurricane Katrina, especially the utilization of its supply chain capabilities. Walmart was also first to deliver vital commodities to first responders and stranded citizens and was one of the first to reopen stores in the heavily impacted areas. I had seen, firsthand, Walmart’s impact when I was deputy chief with Los Angeles County Fire, deployed to New Orleans one week after the levies broke. Walmart was open allowing me to purchase much needed personal items (after sleeping on chairs in downtown New Orleans). But the question remained: What role should and could the private sector play in disaster response?

As the 2008 hurricane season began, Louisiana built upon the Walmart example in several key areas. First, GOHSEP partnered with Walmart to help launch the state’s first preparedness campaign, “Get a Game Plan,” with the premise that government was only part of the solution.

Citizen preparedness was essential to any successful response and recovery (i.e., the “Whole Community” being promoted by FEMA). The Louisiana/Walmart collaboration included a successful plan with the store’s pharmacies and the distribution of preparedness information with every prescription, including items for preparedness kits that could be purchased in the stores. Walmart also helped support a preparedness program for children through Louisiana’s schools and ran public service announcements on television monitors at the cash registers in its stores.

Walmart’s successful response to Hurricane Katrina also contributed to Gov. Jindal’s and Louisiana’s launch of the country’s first, fully operational Business Emergency Operations Center (BEOC). Named a best practice by the Department of Homeland Security, the Louisiana BEOC provides a platform for private-sector industries and businesses, including retail, to communicate, collaborate, and coordinate with government during a disaster.

This integration also enables government to leverage the capabilities of the private sector in disaster response and contributes to a community’s overall ability to manage through a disaster. For example, during Hurricane Gustav in 2008, Louisiana utilized the BEOC concept when local restaurants supported mass feeding operations for impacted people. This program saved taxpayers approximately $1.5 million compared with the cost of FEMA-purchased Meals Ready to Eat (MRE). This partnership also infused some much-needed revenue into the hurricane-damaged economy. The Louisiana examples demonstrate the potential of the private sector in all areas of emergency management.

However, not all states have a public-private sector strategy. Challenges remain in many areas. This includes credentialing businesses and allowing their essential personnel to return when they are important to the initial stages of recovery. During Hurricane Irene, states had different procedures—or in some cases no procedures—for credentialing, as well as other regulations that presented challenges to business attempting to reopen. This made it extremely difficult for the private sector to plan and execute their recovery plans and resume business operations, thus helping communities return.

Think about it this way: When Walmart, Sam’s Club, and other retailers are able to get their people into a disaster area to restore operations, this provides the community with access to many of the basic and life-sustaining things it will need (e.g., food, generators, cleaning supplies). This also provides a place where people can meet their neighbors, exchange stories, and reconnect with the comfort of knowing that they are all right. Having businesses back in operation helps restore normalcy to life after a disaster and takes some degree of pressure off government entities as they address larger issues.

Small businesses can be very vulnerable during disaster recovery, and their obstacles to access can be even greater. While much has been done to prepare large companies, many mom-and-pop businesses remain underprepared. Their resiliency is also vital to bringing the community back. Walmart and Sam’s Club will not rest on past successes. We will continue to promote public-private collaboration, including in our international markets. We will also continue to support FEMA and state efforts to establish BEOCs to address issues such as credentialing and to support small businesses preparedness. We’re proud to play a leadership role globally, helping our customers live better by doing our part to be a neighbor that they can count on when a disaster strikes.

[Editor's note: This article is part of The Role of Business in Disaster Response report.]