When the Category 3 Hurricane Katrina made its second landfall along the U.S. Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, the storm devastated local water systems in Louisiana, Mississippi, and parts of Alabama. Extensive power outages shut off water service for entire communities, while downed trees and damaged structures ripped up main water lines and destroyed water wells. Large accumulations of debris subsequently complicated efforts to deliver emergency generators and to locate and repair leaks. As a result of the damage to water and wastewater systems, the hurricane had severe environmental health implications, affecting over 4,000 drinking-water systems that together served more than 15 million residents in the Gulf Coast region (Department of Homeland Security, n.d. [updated 2006]).
In response to the water system damage and in accordance with mission assignments issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under the National Response Plan, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) quickly deployed personnel to the region. U.S. EPA responders assessed damage to water and wastewater systems, provided emergency technical support to utilities, tested water quality, and communicated with the public on water-related hazards. Confronted with damage that spanned sizable expanses of rural territory, however, federal responders lacked the regional familiarity necessary to craft a fully comprehensive rural response effort. Instead, the success of post-Katrina water restoration efforts relied in large part on the endeavors of state and local water officials and their networks of informal partnerships.
Successes of the Rural Water Response
Even before the hurricane winds had fully subsided, state rural water associations and local public works departments had dispatched water technicians to size up damages, pinpoint individual breaks and leaks, and secure and deliver key equipment such as generators and water tanks. In response efforts across all three affected states, water personnel relied frequently on pre-existing relationships with local utilities and peer organizations to assess system and community needs and to dispatch adequate response tools.
Drawing on these networks, as well as on their regional knowledge, many local water personnel were able to improvise quick solutions to communications and delivery obstacles. For instance, a public works official from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, borrowed a radio from a local law enforcement officer to call in an urgent supply request when other communications systems were inoperable (Moore, 2006)...