What Went WRONG
Katrina Investigation: How errors, indecision and delays left Gulf Coast residents at the mercy of a killer storm
September 11, 2005
Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina crashed into the Gulf Coast, there is little argument the response was botched. But an extensive Knight Ridder review of official actions in the days just before and after Katrina's landfall Monday, Aug. 29, reveals a depth of government hesitancy that may have cost scores of lives.
The Department of Homeland Security, facing its first major catastrophe, failed to issue a critical declaration until more than a day after the storm. The White House never appointed someone to monitor disaster developments.
Government agencies failed to sound the alarm that the city's levee system had been breached until Tuesday morning, 24 hours after it first occurred. The 17th Street Canal levee was breached at 3 a.m. Monday, and several agencies had confirmed that by 6 p.m. But by the next morning, when they finally asked for help, thousands had been trapped by the rapidly rising water.
Scores may have drowned in their homes. In Mississippi, some may have been lulled into complacency by memories that they'd survived Hurricane Camille, a Category 5 storm in 1969. In New Orleans, others were cut off by the torrent unleashed by collapsed levees.
Four years after terrorists flew hijacked planes into buildings in New York and Washington, the United States appears no better prepared to respond to catastrophe -- even when it comes with days of warning.
Some agencies performed splendidly: The Coast Guard, for instance, launched rescue missions as soon as the weather permitted.
But it's clear that a multitude of local, state and federal officials and agencies failed the people in Katrina's path.
The federal Department of Homeland Security, established in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, waited 36 hours after Katrina struck to declare it an "incident of national significance." The designation was established in the post-9-11 National Response Plan to mobilize the full strength of the federal government.
The Pentagon was also slow to react. A 1993 report by the General Accounting Office, now the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, concluded "the Department of Defense is the only organization capable of providing, transporting and distributing sufficient quantities of items needed" in a catastrophe.
Cargo planes had been put on alert, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld took in a baseball game in San Diego on Monday night while floodwaters inundated New Orleans. The military didn't set up a task force to respond until two days after landfall.
Before landfall, President Bush, on vacation in Crawford, Texas, was briefed repeatedly on the storm. He issued disaster relief orders, talked to the governors of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, and urged people in Katrina's path to seek safety.
But no member of the White House staff was assigned responsibility for tracking federal actions and no senior-level official was given oversight responsibilities.
"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," Russ Knocke, Homeland Security spokesman, told the Chicago Tribune.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency seemed unable to grasp the magnitude of the disaster. On the day after the storm, FEMA Director Michael Brown met in Biloxi, Miss., with Gov. Haley Barbour and told him not to worry, because FEMA had hurricane practice in Florida. "I don't think you've seen anything like this," Barbour said. "We're talking nuclear devastation." Brown was removed two days ago from overseeing disaster response and replaced with a Coast Guard admiral.
Before landfall, however, neither Barbour nor Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco seemed to understand the size of the storm headed their way.
Both Louisiana and Mississippi successfully turned highways one-way out of the coastal area to speed evacuation. New Orleans officials were pleased that 80 percent of the city's population had reached safety before the storm hit. But neither made any provision for getting people without cars out of the storm's path.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, after getting a dire warning from National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield 1 1/2 days before landfall, delayed issuing a mandatory evacuation order for 15 hours.
In Harrison County, Miss., where Biloxi is located, Civil Defense Director Joe Spraggins also declined to order an evacuation that Saturday, saying he wanted to see what the storm did.
Perhaps the most startling failure came in the reaction from federal, state and local officials to the discovery that New Orleans' levee system had collapsed before Katrina made landfall, inundated by rain from the storm's outer bands. Engineers had warned for years that such a collapse would be catastrophic. Yet reports of the breach Monday morning failed to spark action.
No concerted effort was made to reach people whose houses were rapidly filling with water. As many crawled into attics, and some hacked their way onto their roofs, much of the world went to sleep thinking New Orleans had survived the worst.
Not until Tuesday dawned did the magnitude of the disaster become evident.
WARNINGS CAME QUICKLY
Once the hurricane center drew the bull's-eye on New Orleans, at 10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 27, officials reacted quickly, at least in terms of issuing warnings.On Friday night, Gov. Blanco declared a state of emergency in Louisiana. Barbour did the same in Mississippi. Bush issued federal declarations.
On Saturday evening, the hurricane center's Mayfield called top state and local officials. He wanted to impress on them the severity of the storm -- and to be able to go to sleep knowing he'd done everything in his power to save lives.
One of his calls went to Nagin in New Orleans. Earlier in the day, the mayor ordered a voluntary, not mandatory, evacuation. Worried about the city's liability in ordering hotels and other businesses to shut down, Nagin had been reluctant to take the next step.
Now Mayfield told Nagin that this was the worst hurricane he'd seen and that officials ought to do everything possible to get people out of the way.
"It scared the crap out of me," Nagin said. "I immediately said, `My God, I have to call a mandatory evacuation.' "
Still, he hesitated. About 130,000 New Orleans residents lived below the poverty line, and he knew he didn't have adequate space or transportation available to get them out of town.
It was 10 a.m. Sunday before Nagin issued the order. People who couldn't get out on their own could board city buses for transport to the Louisiana Superdome, he said.
As he was speaking, the National Weather Service issued a warning that Katrina would make most of southeast Louisiana "uninhabitable for weeks, perhaps longer." The forecast predicted "human suffering incredible by modern standards."
As many as 25,000 people streamed to the Superdome. FEMA before the storm had dropped off 90,000 liters of water and about 44,000 MREs at the stadium, a place neither the state of Louisiana nor the city of New Orleans had planned to stock food or water.
According to Art Jones, division chief of the disaster recovery division of the Louisiana Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, the idea was that the Superdome should be the shelter of last resort, not a place where people would stay for a long period of time.
After the worst of the storm had passed, Marty Bahamonde, a FEMA spokesman, told the mayor what he'd seen of the city from a Coast Guard helicopter. He described the surge of water as "surprising in its intensity."
"The mayor was devastated," Bahamonde said. "He knew his city was damaged beyond what they'd realized."
Why the news of the levee breach didn't produce a bigger response baffles Ivor van Heerden. As the head of a hurricane center at Louisiana State University, he oversaw a simulation last year, known as Hurricane Pam, in which a slow-moving Category 3 storm swamped the city.
"What's very obvious," van Heerden said, "is that the powers that be either didn't recognize how bad the flooding would be ... or totally misunderstood what the impacts would be."
By Tuesday, Aug. 30, the focus was on FEMA.With the extent of the devastation now clear, FEMA's few publicly available reports show FEMA said it was deploying eight disaster medical assistance teams. It had sent crews to check out possible oil spills. It was also working with the Department of Agriculture to provide food and water, and with Health and Human Services to supply doctors and medicine.
FEMA Director Brown was confident adequate preparations had been made. His agency had pre-positioned ice, water and Meals-Ready-to-Eat in the storm zone, adjacent states, and pre-existing logistical centers in Atlanta and Denton, Texas. But getting the supplies distributed was proving to be a challenge because of the damage caused by the storm.
Critics of the agency said the response was inadequate but not surprising. Under the Bush administration, they said, FEMA had its budget gutted, its authority sapped.
Before Sept. 11, FEMA had been an independent, cabinet-level agency devoted to coordinating the federal response to natural disasters. Now, it was part of the vast new Department of Homeland Security, with its focus more on acts of terrorism.
Michael Chertoff, the department's secretary and a former appeals court judge, hadn't been hired for his expertise in natural disasters. In the days after Katrina, he said, "the collapse of a significant portion of the levee leading to the fast flooding of the city was not envisioned."
In fact, the simulation exercise that predicted the flooding was paid for by FEMA, and experts had been forecasting a levee collapse for years.
FEMA itself was light on experience and heavy with political appointees, starting with Brown, a lawyer who'd worked for an Arabian horse association before coming to the agency, first as general counsel, then as deputy director, then director.
Of the top 10 natural-disaster jobs listed on FEMA's Web site, five were occupied by individuals with no disaster experience.
DECLARATION WASN'T MADE
Homeland Security officials acknowledge they were struggling to come to grips with the problems on the ground. On Monday, Aug. 29, Bush had made major emergency disaster declarations for Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, freeing up federal funds. But there was one step the government failed to take in this new, post-9-11 emergency system: issuing an "incident of national significance" declaration. That would make disaster recovery a national responsibility and enable the government to deploy troops.
Sometime in the late afternoon Tuesday, Chertoff made the declaration, but no public announcement was made until Wednesday, Aug. 31.
From the outset, it was clear this was the sort of disaster that would require the intervention of the active-duty military.
It had an immediate impact. Air Force combat air controllers had the New Orleans International Airport reopened by Friday, Sept. 2, when evacuations of the critically ill began.
The USS Bataan, an amphibious assault ship, arrived off Louisiana and began helicopter search and rescue missions. Five Air Force helicopters began flying search and rescue missions in Mississippi. Eight Army helicopters arrived in New Orleans.
Even a U-2 spy plane was pressed into service, providing aerial images to FEMA officials.
A military convoy plowed through the waters of the city and made it to the convention center.
Within minutes, the facility was secure; in a matter of hours, the needy were being cared for; in a day, the place was empty, its former residents off to more secure locations.
AFTERMATH A CHALLENGE
For all the criticism that's been directed at the decision-makers, it's important not to forget the daunting aftermath of Katrina.The storm will be remembered by the numbers: the deaths, the homes wiped out, the cost of rebuilding, and the amount of time the city and port of New Orleans were out of business. Dealing with its aftermath was an extraordinary challenge for all concerned.
The communication breakdown caused by the loss of electricity and phone service made coordination difficult. No one, including Mayor Nagin, seemed to know there were thousands of people at the city's convention center until television showed the scene Thursday.
The disaster deprived local communities, especially New Orleans, of many first responders. The flooding caused logistical problems.
In Louisiana, there was plenty of food and water in the affected areas, but officials had no way to distribute it because of the floodwaters and other damage caused by the storm.
When the time comes for a review of the response, a big question may be one Nagin posed during hurricane week: "How many people died as a result of us not having the resources to get them water, to get them pulled out of harm's way quick enough?"
How This Story Was Reported
Knight Ridder reporters found many officials willing to talk about preparations and responses. All but one of the interviews were on the record. Reporters also interviewed experts on evacuation plans, examined government studies of past disaster responses, read reports about New Orleans' levee system, and reviewed their own accounts of events they had witnessed.
Reporting for this story was provided by Geoff Pender and Don Hammack of The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Miss.; Brandon Bailey of the San Jose Mercury News in Jackson, Miss.; Erika Bolstad and Marc Caputo of The Miami Herald in New Orleans; Frances Robles of The Miami Herald in Baton Rouge, La.; Seth Borenstein, Drew Brown, Joseph L. Galloway, Ron Hutcheson, Jonathan S. Landay, Shannon McCaffrey and Alison Young of Knight Ridder's Washington Bureau; and Pete Carey of the San Jose Mercury News in San Jose, Calif.