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How to survive a hurricane: The lessons we should have learned from Katrina

Story highlights
  • Russel Honoré writes that dealing with any disaster includes three phases: Preparation, response, and recovery
  • Honoré : Most people spend more time preparing for football season than they do for hurricane season

Editor's Note: (Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré led Task Force Katrina in the aftermath of the hurricane that struck the Gulf Coast in 2005. Honoré is a senior scientist with The Gallup Organization and the author of "Survival: How a Culture of Preparedness Can Save You and Your Family from Disasters," and the new "Leadership in the New Normal.")

(CNN) I was a commanding general in Korea and the Middle East -- two of the most dangerous places in the world -- and I led the Department of Defense response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, but the last month has been the most emotionally charged period of my life.

The three major hurricanes in September 2017 -- Harvey, Irma, and Maria -- were eye-opening to me. I witnessed first-hand the flooding in Houston, the ravaged landscapes in Florida, and the devastation in Puerto Rico.

I've never seen such widespread damage and so many Americans suffering from direct hits, and these hurricanes really hit home the need to have a coordinated plan to deal with the three phases of any disaster: Preparation, Response, and Recovery.

Each part of the process can be broken down to individual and government responsibilities. No part can stand alone, and no part can succeed without both the individual and the government working together.

How to be prepared, and why it's important

Each year, as the summer draws to a close and our vacations come to an end, our thoughts turn to the months ahead. Unfortunately, most people spend more time preparing for football season than they do for hurricane season.

These days, we should be much better prepared for a hurricane than we were a dozen years ago when Katrina hit New Orleans. There was no precedent for Katrina, so Katrina became the precedent and was the starting point for how to deal with future disasters. Hurricane tracking and predictions have improved tremendously since then, and social media has made it easier to keep up with official news and to keep in touch with family and friends.

A culture of preparedness should be baked in to our everyday lives -- and at the first sign of a hurricane coming your way, think of yourself as a first-responder. It is your responsibility do the following:

1. Make sure all your important papers are in a waterproof, easy-to-carry box or folder: passport, insurance documents, birth certificate, bank account details, mortgage, etc. If you have to leave home or if your home is damaged, you will need these documents. In addition, back them up on a thumb drive or on the cloud. They will do you no good if you don't have access to them!

2. Prepare a "go kit" that includes three to five days of essential supplies, such as nonperishable food, water, medications, and diapers. Freeze several large bottles of water that you can grab when you leave your home.

3. Plan an escape route. Know how you'll leave and have an idea of where you're going, whether it's to a shelter or a relative's house.

4. Take care of your pets, and have enough food for them for several days.

5. If you plan to stay in local shelter, park your car on higher ground or in a multistory parking garage.

6. Pay attention to all warnings, and evacuate when it becomes necessary to do so.

It is also the responsibility of the government (including community leaders and faith-based organizations) to prepare for disasters, but government plans are often based on the last storm -- which is a stupid way to approach preparation. Every storm is different, and every plan must be tailored to the current storm.

Here's what the federal government and FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) need to do -- but remember, there's only so much they can do without local and state cooperation.

1. Pre-stock shelters with food and water, and let people know where the shelters are. One of the reasons so few people died in Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was that the people knew they had to go to concrete buildings, which were prepared to house them. It's become routine, and people know where to go.

2. Pre-position National Guard troops where the people are and where they can do the most good. Before Harvey, the troops were in San Antonio but everyone knew the hurricane would hit Houston. As a result, it took too long for help to arrive in Houston.

3. Pre-position federal troops at federal installations near the expected areas that will be hit by the hurricane. If they're needed, they're right there; if they're not needed, they can go home.

4. Make plans to evacuate or otherwise take care of vulnerable members of the population, such as the sick, the poor, and the elderly. Help them get out and to find the best and safest shelter available.

The best first-responder is the individual

The burden is on the federal government not to wait to respond to a disaster, and in general, the White House did a magnificent job of making sure everything was done right in Florida. In fact, Florida should become a model for deploying the National Guard, traffic control for getting people to safety, and opening shelters across the state.

On the other hand, Puerto Rico was a worst-case scenario. The White House preparations for Maria were inadequate, and there was a slow deployment of troops and a failure to scale up the response when the magnitude of devastation became evident, even far short of the White House response to Katrina 12 years earlier. We were still stuck on stupid in Puerto Rico.

During and after a storm, the most immediate and effective response has to come from the local neighborhoods. Initially, each person has to take responsibility and be his or her own first responder. More people are saved by neighbors than by government agencies -- perhaps because volunteers and good Samaritans have to disregard all rules to be effective.

The government deals with numbers, but volunteers deal with names and faces.

Unfortunately, the government's response plans don't include volunteers such as the Cajun Navy that rescued so many people in New Orleans and came to the rescue in Houston. Yet without the volunteers, things would be so much worse.

How hard would it be to include volunteers as part of the response force and anticipate their needs for food, water, gas, medicine, and so on -- expenses which now are borne solely by the volunteers?

The road to recovery doesn't have to be rocky

The FEMA response after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma was magnificent, so the recovery process was smooth and efficient. Thousands of people needed help after the floods and wind damage, and being able to make immediate online applications for help was a vast improvement over the slow and burdensome process after Katrina.

On an individual basis, the recovery process is much easier if you take the necessary steps for preparation. When applying for aid, you'll need your insurance policy numbers, proof of damage to your property, Social Security number, bank details so funds can be deposited directly into your account, and the address and phone number of the affected property.

One of the keys to quick assistance is to register early at As many as 40% of small businesses fail after a disaster, but help is available from the Small Business Administration ( to help affected businesses get reestablished.

Like preparation and response, the best recovery efforts are local. Jobs like reconstruction and debris removal are best performed by local businesses, but the federal government usually gives those contracts to large national companies.

Even though the large companies may hire local contractors, those contractors are making less than they would otherwise, and a huge percentage of the recovery money leaves the community in the form of corporate profits as opposed to rebuilding the community.

Recovery is hard, but it can be made easier when everyone is working towards the same goal.