The no-nonsense general who directed federal troops in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina returned to the city Tuesday to call for residents and leaders to adopt a permanent culture of disaster preparedness, from installing generators on the second floor instead of the first to making weather radios a staple holiday gift.
Swapping his trademark fatigues for a dark gray suit, retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore said residents across the Gulf Coast should invest as much effort in assembling evacuation kits and mapping hurricane escape routes as they might spend preparing for a weekend trip to a sports game.
“We need to make preparedness as important as football in Louisiana,” Honore said as he imagined a family getting ready for a big game by packing the RV, cooking pounds of food and stocking up on butane tanks.
“Football won’t save your life,” he said.
Speaking less than two weeks before the close of the 2008 hurricane season, Honore suggested steps that families, business owners and government leaders can take far in advance of any disaster – from a hurricane or flood to a terrorist attack – to ensure their safety when catastrophe strikes.
Ordinary citizens, for instance, should stock up on bottled water and plastic tarps during the winter and early spring, so they’re not waiting in long lines immediately before or after a tropical storm, Honore said.
Businesses should work to invent products to assist the public during a disaster, such as a pre-packed evacuation kit or a “hurricane wrist watch” that could electronically track children or elderly relatives, and market them beginning with their own employees, he said.
“Businesses need to be (saying): Come to us, we got this preparedness kit, (it) costs $50, give them to your employees this year instead of a ham,” he said.
The news media also have a role to play, he said.
“You shouldn’t be able to turn the TV on in Louisiana or the Gulf Coast without hearing something about preparedness,” Honore said, harking back to the proliferation two decades ago of public service announcement touting AIDS prevention and treatment.
Meanwhile, Honore said government leaders must prepare by teaching all students, from elementary school to college, how to swim and requiring them to be trained in first aid skills. Resources such as water and food also should be pre-stocked in several locations across the state at all times, he said.
From a policy standpoint, federal lawmakers must rewrite the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 that has barred physicians from releasing certain patient medical records, Honore said. Though the law aims to protect patient privacy, it has forced doctors to run needless medical tests on evacuees whose records they cannot pry loose from the hands of their primary physicians, he said.
“We better fix it and fix it damned quick,” he said. “And I haven’t seen any Louisiana doctors go to jail for violating the damned HIPAA act anyway.”
Honore delivered the keynote address at a meeting of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in the French Quarter.