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Providing information and resources to help emergency risk communicators prepare and effectively respond in the event of a crisis.

Academic Spotlight: Abstract of Marsha Vanderford et al’s “Emergency Communication Challenges in Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention”


Hurricane Katrina caused such catastrophic devastation that it challenged the fundamental tenets of emergency communication effective in prior emergencies. This report examines the challenges faced and strategies employed by the CDC’s Emergency Communication System (ECS) in responding to Katrina.

The authors identify three main challenges for ECS during Hurricane Katrina:

  • Rapid dissemination of health messages.
  • Adaptation of health messages for diverse audiences, locations, and circumstances.
  • Phasing of key risk messages during the emergency response.

Based on ECS staff experiences and CDC recommendations, the authors highlight a number of potential solutions to these challenges. First, working within the framework of existing partnerships is an essential component for establishing trust, disseminating health information face-to-face, and distributing previously developed print materials in event of a power outage. In addition, audience analysis is crucial to adapt health messaging to reflect the literacy level and cultural context of a particular audience. Finally, it is important to develop phased messages ahead of time in preparation for an extended response.

The need for a phased approach became apparent during the extended timeframe of the Hurricane Katrina response. Most emergency communication plans, ECS’s included, treat the response stage as a unified whole, overlooking the multiple, distinct phases that constitute an extended response.

During Katrina, the type of information needed in affected communities evolvedhurricane over the duration of the response. For example, affected populations initially needed health information to help protect themselves from storm winds and debris. Later, the focus shifted to drowning prevention, floodwater avoidance, and protection against electrical hazards. As the length of time people spent in evacuation centers increased, new health information needs emerged, such as promoting hygiene, controlling infection, and reducing stress.

Emergency communication response plans that do not take into account the various stages of response may be inadequate to meet local needs. In particular, a phased approach addresses the potential of associated health threats during an extended disaster. Before Katrina, “the need for a comprehensive body of messages phased in over time had not been anticipated at any level of government.”

As a result, CDC has since developed a multiphased communication approach to extended disasters relating to hurricanes and flooding:
  1. The period immediately preceding the storm through the first 24 hours after the storm (e.g., hurricane readiness, preparation for power outages).
  2. One to three days after the storm (e.g., worker safety after a flood, keeping food and water safe).
  3. Three to seven days after the storm (e.g., preventing violence and looting after a disaster, infection control).
  4. Two to four weeks after the storm (e.g., rodent control after a flood, respiratory protection when re-entering flooded areas).
  5. One month and after (e.g., mold allergies and removal, issues with school-age evacuees attending new schools).

The authors acknowledge that specific phases are not entirely predictable, and future disasters would require variations. However, they note that many informational needs “can be predicted and phased on the basis of prior experience with hurricanes and flooding.” This approach to planning allows communications professionals to both deliver necessary health information and forecast long-term needs and illustrates that short-term goals can be accomplished without losing future ground.

The table below highlights each phase and includes specific Internet-based resources that may be of particular interest during that phase. All the material listed is cleared content available to the public on U.S. Government Web sites, from which messages can be drawn directly or crafted based on the specific nature of the storm.

Table 1: Phased Hurricane Messages

Period of Dissemination Topics
Immediately preceding landfall through first 24 hours after the storm Hurricane readiness, preparation for power outages, preparation related to prescription medications, evacuating the area of a hurricane, staying safe in your home during a hurricane, worker safety in a power outage, carbon monoxide poisoning prevention, flood readiness, electrical safety, prevention of heat-related illnesses, hand hygiene in emergency situations, coping with a traumatic event, emergency wound care, protecting your pets, animals in public evacuation centers
1–3 days after the storm Re-entering your flooded home, how to clean a flooded home safely, worker safety after a flood, preventing chainsaw injuries during tree removal, preventing injuries from falls (ladders/roofs), personal protective equipment and clothing for flood response, managing acute diarrhea after a natural disaster, cleaning and sanitation after an emergency, keeping food and water safe after a natural disaster or power outage
3–7 days after the storm Protection from animal- and insect-related hazards, electrical safety and generators, infection control and prevention in evacuation centers, impact of power outages on vaccine storage and other medicines, preventing violence after a natural disaster, animal disposal after a disaster
2–4 weeks after the storm Rodent control after hurricanes and floods, trench foot or immersion foot, environmental health needs and habitability assessments, protection from chemicals released during a natural disaster, respiratory protection for residents
1 month and after the storm (emphasis is on long-term health consequences Suicide prevention, issues surrounding school-age hurricane evacuees attending new schools, mold removal from flooded homes, mold allergies related to flood clean-up

Reference: Vanderford ML, Nastoff T, Telfer JL, Bonzo SE. Emergency communication challenges in response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. J Appl Commun Res 2007;35(1):9–25.


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