September 11, 2005
By Andrew Martin, Cam Simpson and Frank James, Washington Bureau. Andrew Zajac of the Tribune's Washington Bureau and staff reporter Angela Rozas in Jefferson Parish, La., contributed to this report
WASHINGTON -- Hours before Hurricane Katrina ripped into the Gulf Coast, flattening southern Mississippi and turning New Orleans into a deadly swamp, a team of emergency officials held a midnight telephone conference.
During the call, local officials were so certain of catastrophe that they asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to include extra medical staff in its first wave of responders to help with casualties.
At that point, in the final hours of Sunday night, preparations for Hurricane Katrina were following a plan that had been drafted only months before as part of a simulated exercise called Hurricane Pam, a joint effort by local, state and federal officials.
"We worked through together what each [agency] was responsible for," said Walter Maestri, emergency management director for Jefferson Parish, which is adjacent to New Orleans. "That became the paradigm that we expected every agency to follow."
As the storm developed into Hurricane Katrina, there were numerous government plans for its arrival in Louisiana, all with great detail about evacuation, relief and responsibilities.
But a Tribune review found all the plans suffered from fatal problems: Some state and local plans didn't deal with issues such as rescuing people from flooded homes. Others deflected problems such as evacuations from the local government into the laps of the poorest citizens. And still others, including the federal government's much-touted plan for dealing with disasters in the post-Sept. 11 era, were not implemented quickly enough.
The review was based on interviews and scores of state, local and federal records, including hurricane plans. It found:
New Orleans' plan for dealing with its poorest residents during a major hurricane essentially was to cross its fingers. After struggling to come up with an evacuation strategy, New Orleans officials announced in July that they couldn't provide transportation out of town before a hurricane, so residents effectively were on their own.
Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco submitted letters to President Bush on Aug. 27 and Aug. 28, well before Katrina's landfall, asking for federal help. But the head of the Homeland Security Department didn't designate the storm an "incident of national significance," a post-Sept. 11 reform that would trigger the full weight of the federal government, until at least 32 hours after the storm roared ashore Aug. 29.
Based on the Hurricane Pam exercise, local authorities were prepared to deal with the aftermath of the storm for 48 to 60 hours, at which time FEMA was supposed to take over, Maestri said. But instead of arriving on Aug. 31, as expected, the federal agency didn't arrive in force until Sept. 2. By that time, New Orleans had collapsed into chaos.
"My anger, my frustration, is I don't feel that the federal government, FEMA in particular, lived up to their end of the bargain," Maestri said. "We were prepared. The problem was the cavalry didn't arrive."
Neither Blanco's office nor New Orleans' officials could be reached for comment.
However, Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said, "We're going to be our harshest critics. . . . No one was pleased with the response time, but I remind you there was in response to Hurricane Katrina the largest mass mobilization to a natural disaster ever."
Emergency officials in Louisiana long have been planning for a catastrophic hurricane, doing simulations and developing a succession of plans. Louisiana, for instance, uses the Southeast Louisiana Hurricane Evacuation and Sheltering Plan, last revised in January 2000, and New Orleans has its own plan.
Under those plans, local officials are responsible for dealing with Category 1 and 2 hurricanes and fast-moving Category 3 hurricanes. But if the storms are stronger, the governor is responsible for proclaiming a state of emergency and seeking federal assistance.
The Hurricane Pam exercise dealt specifically with a powerful storm's aftermath, making it different from previous exercises that had focused primarily on preparedness. The first series of meetings, which ran for a week in July 2004, included more than 270 participants, among them 21 representatives from FEMA.
The plan was meant to bridge efforts of state, local and federal officials, said Madhu Beriwal, president of Innovative Emergency Management, the consulting firm that ran the exercise.
Among the issues that were supposedly resolved in the exercise was how to get those stranded by a hurricane out of harm's way. The plan established for search and rescue included as many as 800 searchers.
It was not clear why that plan apparently fell apart in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Theme: Get people out
If there is a theme in the various hurricane preparation plans, it is that evacuation is the most important component. And Hurricane Katrina gave local officials time to prepare.
It began as Tropical Depression 12 near the Bahamas on Aug. 23 and was renamed Tropical Storm Katrina a day later.
Though the storm weakened as it passed over Florida, where it left 11 people dead, forecasters predicted it would strengthen once it reached the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It did, and by 5 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 27, Katrina was declared a Category 3 hurricane and was 435 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River.
The same day, a hurricane watch was declared for southeast Louisiana, and Blanco asked Bush to declare a federal emergency for her state.
Blanco apparently used the language required to trigger a large-scale federal response: "This incident will be of such severity and magnitude that effective response will be beyond the capabilities of the state," she wrote.
While Bush declared an emergency, he stopped short of deploying the full-scale response that Blanco sought. In an Aug. 27 release, FEMA said it would mobilize everything necessary "to protect public health and safety."
At 1 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 28, the National Weather Service declared Katrina, which was 310 miles southeast of the Mississippi River, a Category 4 hurricane and said "preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion." The weather service's announcements for the remainder of the day became increasingly dire.
"Katrina . . . now a potentially catastrophic Category five hurricane . . . headed for the northern Gulf Coast," the weather service announced at 7 a.m. The bulletin at 10 a.m. said, "Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks."
By then, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin had issued a mandatory evacuation for New Orleans, its first. The city is difficult to evacuate because of its large population and unique layout: The roads out of town are limited, and many of them cross bodies of water and are prone to flooding.
What's more, an estimated 134,000 residents had no means of getting out of town. In July, city officials produced DVDs to distribute in low-income neighborhoods warning that they didn't have the resources to evacuate people who lacked transportation, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported.
By all accounts, getting everyone else out of the area went well, with an estimated 75 percent of residents evacuating before the storm. The inability of planners to deal with people who couldn't or wouldn't leave became quickly apparent.
Nagin originally had intended for the Superdome to be used for people with special medical needs, and it was stocked with enough water and food to accommodate them. But when the doors were opened at noon Sunday, it had become the city's "last-resort refuge," designed in the state's hurricane plan as a place for residents who didn't evacuate the city.
Last-resort refuges are intended as a safe place for people to go during a storm, and then the people are supposed to go home or be transported to more permanent shelters outside the city. However, the Hurricane Pam plan warns that in the event of a major storm, "some shelters of last resort may be turned into long-term shelters." No further details are provided.
That same day, Sunday, Aug. 28, Blanco urged the president to declare "a major expedited disaster" for Louisiana, and she again used the language to trigger a forceful federal response. It didn't come.
Because New Orleans' levees were built to handle only a Category 3 hurricane, it long has been predicted that the city would flood if a larger storm hit. The National Hurricane Center reiterated that point in briefings with FEMA and the Homeland Security Department, saying that the levees could be topped by a stronger hurricane's storm surge.
That night, Maestri talked with local, state and federal officials for one last time before the storm hit.
"Everybody was fairly calm," Maestri said. "We felt as comfortable as we could be."
In addition to requesting additional medical personnel, Maestri said he also asked FEMA for two generator packs to provide power for sewage pumping.
Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast about 6 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 29, 40 miles from New Orleans.
That morning, Nagin told the "Today" show that pumping stations had stopped, "so we will have significant flooding. It's just a matter of how much."
At approximately 11:30 a.m. Monday, FEMA Director Michael Brown finally sounded the alarm at the agency, proposing that 1,000 Homeland Security officials be sent to the region to support rescuers, The Associated Press reported. He estimated it would take them two days to arrive.
At that time, the main stock of emergency supplies was at Camp Beauregard in Pineville, La., about four hours from New Orleans. Various media reports indicate there were 3,000 National Guard troops at the ready, and food, water and cots available for 10,000 people.
The next morning, on Tuesday, Aug. 30, the floodwall at the 17th Street Canal broke and sent water gushing into the city. By midday, widespread looting was reported. While there was little federal presence in the city, a Pentagon spokesman said there were enough National Guard troops on hand to handle the emergency.
That night, roughly 32 hours after landfall, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff declared the hurricane an "incident of national significance," the first time the designation was exercised. Though it came long after Blanco's request, it triggered the full weight of the federal government into the disaster.
The delay--Chertoff is empowered by law to act before a disaster strikes--is likely to become a focus of congressional investigators.
The next day, Wednesday, Aug. 31, the federal government was supposed to arrive in force to relieve local officials, according to Maestri. And indeed, that day, the military set up Joint Task Force Katrina at Camp Shelby, Miss., and mobilized 10,000 additional Guardsmen, but they remained up to 48 hours away from the disaster zone.
By this time, the Superdome, holding an estimated 23,000 people, was stifling because power failures had shut down air conditioning, and it reeked of overflowing garbage and excrement. Thousands also were stranded at the city's convention center.
The Louisiana National Guard on Wednesday began supervising the evacuation of the Superdome on buses that took evacuees to the Astrodome in Houston, a process that took several days.
Despite multiple reports about the horrific conditions at the convention center, which hadn't been designated as a last-resort refuge but where thousands of evacuees congregated anyway, Brown said he wasn't aware that people were stranded there.
On Friday, Sept. 2, Bush praised FEMA's efforts.
"Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job," he said. While Bush toured the area, a caravan of federal rescue workers finally rolled into New Orleans.
While the response to Hurricane Katrina strayed from the Hurricane Pam plan, it might have been worse. The Pam exercise estimated that 61,290 would die in a catastrophic hurricane, six times more casualties than the number Nagin has predicted.
Still, Maestri said he was appalled by the federal response and particularly incensed by Brown's comment to a television reporter that FEMA hadn't responded sooner because no one asked.
"I was flabbergasted," he said. "The reason we did Pam was so that we wouldn't have to ask. What do I have to do, send him an engraved invitation?"
On Friday, Sept. 9, while talking to a reporter, Maestri got a call from federal authorities: The generators he had requested from FEMA on the eve of the storm had finally arrived.