Hurricane Katrina, one of the most deadly natural disasters to hit the USA in modern history. It flooded a city leaving survivors stranded on rooftops and tens of thousands of evacuated civilians, desperate for food and water, crammed into the Superdome. 6 died in their supposed shelter. 4 of natural causes, 1 of a drug overdose and one committed suicide, jumping from the upper-level seats. In New Orleans, a city in a developed nation, help should’ve been swift and effective. Instead, people died in medical centres as they waited for evacuation and federal troops to arrive. Bodies lay in the street, floated in the water and were left abandoned in their homes. What went wrong?
The disaster response got off to a promising start. The hurricane was identified early on the 23rd of August 2005, when it was just a tropical depression over the Bahamas. The National Hurricane Centre began tracking the storm and issued the first of the 61 advisories it would release over the next week. The federal government caught on to it quickly, began close monitoring and generated simulations. If it was to become a hurricane they were not going to be taken by surprise.
On August 24th the depression grew to a tropical storm and was named Katrina. At this point, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) got involved and activated its Hurricane Liaison team. By the 25th FEMA had dispatched resources like water, ice and food to areas predicted to be hit. Florida was prepared, but sadly 14 people still lost their lives through drowning, falling trees, car accidents and carbon monoxide poisoning from generators.
Louisiana was next in the firing line and just one year before, government agencies had performed a simulation exercise with fictional ‘Hurricane Pam’ hitting New Orleans. A draft plan had been created, it was incomplete when Katrina hit but still provided rough guidance. They knew the levees could be overtopped and the bowl shape of New Orleans could be submerged. So extensive flooding and evacuation needed to be planned for. Surely, with this much notice, in one of the most powerful countries in the world, tragedy could be avoided.
On the 29th of August 2005, Katrina made landfall in Louisiana as a Category 3 hurricane. Its 130 mph winds felled trees and caused major damage to buildings. The resulting injury and traumas led to 25% of deaths. But, by far the most deadly and damaging impact was a result of the storm surges. The combination of low pressure and high winds generated enormous waves up to 8.5 metres high. These breached the levees and when added to the 20cm of rain that fell along the coast caused extensive flooding. 80% of New Orleans was left underwater the leading cause of death? Drowning. Most in their own homes. They climbed higher and higher to avoid the water but it kept rising and once they reached their attics, they had nowhere to go. Bangs and screams echoed through the streets as people tried desperately to break out. Some were prepared with axes and made it onto their roofs, they created makeshift signs begging for help, food and water. Those who fled in boats had to push bodies aside with sticks.
1863 people died in total. The most deadly hurricane in the US since 1928. For one of the world’s superpowers with 6 days to get ready, pre-staged supplies, sophisticated modelling techniques and engineered levees that’s a shocking figure. Why was it so high?
The first failure occurred 40 years before the hurricane. Authorised by Congress in 1965, the Flood Control Act commissioned the Army Corps of Engineers to construct defences to protect Louisiana from flooding at a cost of $738 million. You might be thinking, ‘Wait a minute, you said failure and this sounds great.’ Well, unfortunately, the project wasn’t due to be completed until 2015, 10 years after Katrina hit. But, worse than that the Army Corps was a federal agency and they cut corners to save money.
Engineers built levees on areas on weak sand and peat instead of firm clay. Other sections had inadequate pilings of only 10 feet instead of 17. These parts collapsed and floodwater rushed uncontrollably into New Orleans, doubling the area that would’ve been flooded by overtopping alone. Resident, Lucrece Phillips, described hearing her downstairs neighbours hammering on their ceiling and pleading for help as the water rose. Then silence.
Louis Farrakhan, Nation of Islam Leader, believed the levee failure to be more sinister than simple incompetence. He and other public figures accused the government of intentionally breaking the levees with dynamite to divert the floodwaters away from wealthier neighbourhoods. His claim was taken seriously and reached the United States House of Representatives who were investigating Katrina. They deemed it to be an urban myth, unsurprisingly, as how could the US do something so blatantly evil? Oh, except in 1927 when 30 tons of dynamite was used on the Caernarvon Levee during the Great Mississippi Flood. The intention was to protect the city of New Orleans and instead sacrifice the poorer St. Bernard Parish and all of Plaquemines Parishes. The residents were never compensated for their losses.
Since Katrina, the public has clamoured to blame the federal government for the slow and ineffectual handling of the disaster. Federal officials, eager to deny responsibility, in turn, named federalism as the culprit. The system splits responsibility and decision making between federal, state and local governments, causing confusion, tangles of red tape, slow decision making and inaction.
In the event of a disaster, local governments would be the first to take control. If they become overwhelmed they’d request assistance from the state and the federal government wouldn’t get involved until both had reached their limits and exhausted their resources. This is described as a ‘pull’ system where affected areas must request assistance. However, in events the scale of Katrina panic sets in, officials exaggerate the impacts in their districts and request more resources than they need. Then, requests have to filter through many departments to gain approval, with the potential to be blocked at each stage. It’s slow and riddled with bureaucracy. Katrina required an immediate ‘push’ of resources from the top.
So, let’s follow the federal system and start at the bottom with Ray Nagin, Mayor of New Orleans at the time of Katrina. The Hurricane Pam trial had shown that an evacuation of New Orleans would take at least 72 hours. Armed with this knowledge and an accurate prediction of landfall it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out when to give the order to evacuate. 72 hours before, right? Nagin gave the order for mandatory evacuation just 24 hours before the hurricane hit.
He also knew that 100,000 residents didn’t own cars and would rely on public transport but had made no plans to supply it. He earned the nickname ‘School Bus Nagin’ when he turned down an offer to have residents evacuated by the fleets of yellow public school buses. His response to the offer? ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. This is a natural disaster. Get every doggone Greyhound bus line in the country and get their asses moving to New Orleans.’ Not only did the Greyhound coaches never arrive, the school buses were caught in the floodwaters and 150,000 people failed to evacuate.
Buses weren’t even the only evacuation option turned down. Rail Company, Amtrak, was running the last train out of New Orleans to move equipment out of harm’s way. They offered seats for several hundred passengers. The city declined and the train left empty.
Knowing that his residents were unlikely to fully evacuate the city he’d named the Superdome as a shelter of last resort and 9000 evacuees had arrived by the first evening. Conditions were terrible but people were told to wait it out for the federal response to kick in. The cavalry would arrive in 48 hours.
No one came and as the levees failed and the city flooded more and more people arrived. It’s estimated between 20 and 30,000 people sought refuge there with little water and no food. In a desperate bid to get help for his residents, Nagin started exaggerating conditions in the dome. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, he claimed, ‘They have people standing out there, have been in that frickin’ Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people.’ This was a lie and his claims failed to attract help. Instead, they raised tensions, scared away rescuers and turned the focus from help to security.
One official who took charge of security, and next in our federalism hierarchy, was Governor Kathleen Blanco. Riots and looting had been reported, slowing aid. To quell unrest she required troops, more than she had, as 40% of Louisiana’s troops were deployed in Iraq. Other states offered theirs but she was slow to make an official request, waiting until the day after landfall. Officials took another 24hours to approve it.
However, she can’t be accused of having had no impact on civil obedience. People had begun to take food and water from abandoned shops but others looted more freely. In response she warned, ‘These troops are fresh back from Iraq, well trained, experienced, battle-tested and under my orders to restore order in the streets. … They have M-16s and they are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill and they are more than willing to do so if necessary and I expect they will.’ I’m sure the dehydrated evacuees found that very comforting and calmed right down.
New Orleans Police Super Intendant also waded in in an attempt to defuse tensions. He ordered Police, Soldiers and Marshals to confiscate all firearms from civilians, announcing, ‘No one will be able to be armed. Guns will be taken. Only law enforcement will be allowed to have guns.’ Surprisingly, scared citizens who were living in fear of rioters and looters were not thrilled about handing over their weapons without a warrant. They were often taken by excessive force and, in one case a 58-year-old woman, Patricia Konie, had a group of police enter her house and tackle her to the ground. They were attempting to confiscate her revolver and fractured her shoulder in the process.
So while all this was going on at state and city levels, what was the federal government doing?
The Department of Homeland Security
Historically it would’ve been FEMA who’d have responsibility for this type of emergency. However, after 9/11 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was set up and FEMA’s budget was cut and shifted under their control. This put Homeland Security Secretary, Michael Chertoff, in charge of 22 departments, 180,000 employees and all national emergencies. Understandably, following 9/11, his focus was on terrorism. Hurricanes were way down his list. So far down in fact that no one had done any pre-storm planning. The list of failings was extensive. Federal law enforcement took a week to arrive and when they did, they were distracted by a turf war with officers from the Department of Justice. Neither department being able to agree on who should take the lead. No effort was made to activate the National Disaster Medical System and only one team was available for immediate medical assistance after the storm.
Unfortunately – once you get up to national level during an event like Katrina, communication becomes both vitally important and incredibly difficult. He was criticized for being a step behind most events and it wasn’t until 36 hours after landfall that he declared it an incident of national significance. Switching the response from a pull model to a push.
On Thursday the 2nd of September, 4 days after the hurricane hit, when conditions at the Superdome were most dire, he was broadcast saying, ‘Everybody is confident of the ability to maintain order.’ and ‘The fact of the matter is the Superdome is secure.’ The news channels split the screen with live footage of survivors chanting ‘help’ and shouting angrily into the cameras. He later admitted he’d had no knowledge of the deteriorating conditions at the Superdome or of the lack of food and water, calling it a ‘surprise.’
Chertoff blamed his ignorance on insufficient communication from his man on the ground, FEMA Director, Michael Brown. Although Brown also claimed to have been in the dark, not knowing there were evacuees in the Convention Centre until Wednesday the 1st. When being interviewed by CNN he was challenged by Soledad O’Brian ‘How is it possible that we’re getting better info than you were getting … we were showing live pictures of the people outside the Convention Center… I don’t understand how FEMA cannot have this information.’ And ‘FEMA’s been on the ground four days, going into the fifth day, why no massive airdrop of food and water? … in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, they got food drops two days after the tsunami.’
FEMA, in their wisdom, did manage to fly in an additional 2000 firefighters to help in the aftermath. They kept them in a hotel in Atlanta watching training videos on sexual harassment and the history of FEMA for days, as people died. Claiming they’d called them in for community relations work and so there was no hurry to get them on the ground.
Now, you might remember that FEMA had pre-deployed supplies before the storm hit, surely slightly redeeming? Unfortunately, these were woefully inadequate, having supplied their usual shipment for hurricane response. Katrina was no usual hurricane and food and water ran out fast. Some were delivered to the wrong places and Alabama got five times the amount of water as harder hit Louisiana. They also had trucks of ice driven seemingly randomly around the country never reaching those in need. 2 years later, FEMA threw out their undelivered frozen stockpile totalling $100 million.
They did work quickly to set up temporary accommodation for those left homeless though and installed 95,000 mobile homes costing $1.3 billion. However, some of these were left unused as they were placed on floodplains and others poisoned survivors with extensive outgassing of carcinogenic formaldehyde. Only 17% ended up being occupied, taking the total cost per family housed to $125,000 – $200,000. Yes, they could’ve bought them all mortgage and formaldehyde-free homes for that.
Beyond their own failures, FEMA seemed intent on sabotaging the efforts of others by creating barricades of bureaucracy. They issued a press release instructing emergency services from outside the area to ‘not respond’ to calls for help without being lawfully requested by local and state authorities. They seemed unwilling to work with charity organisations and failed to accept or request aid. In one case the Red Cross requested 300,000 meals for the 1st of September. FEMA cancelled the order, then reordered for final delivery on October the 8th, 5 weeks later.
They even spent time removing hospital ID bracelets from the evacuating patients, replacing them with FEMA IDs. This led the hospitals to lose track and 3 months after the storm one hospital CEO admitted they still couldn’t locate some of their missing patients.
The overall feeling was they didn’t know what was needed where. They turned away trucks full of water, prevented the coastguard from delivering fuel and didn’t even respond to the offer of 50 civilian aircraft or fleets of Greyhound coaches to help evacuate the Superdome. Germany had a chartered plane full of supplies ready to leave for 9 days. Their offer was also ignored. In one case, 200 people were rescued from their homes and taken to an overpass to be collected later. They were forgotton and abandoned to fend for themselves. One survivor, Andre, with his wife and small son were amongst them. Things were desperate and people turned mean. He recalled witnessing an 8 year old boy fall 50ft from the overpass and sink into the water. No one tried to rescue him and that’s when he decided it was time to go. He took an air mattress and went into the fetid water with his family, they survived but are still traumatized by the ordeal and the bodies they saw.
FEMA blamed inadequate communication. Phones and radios failed and in some cases, it took six days to supply working satellite phones to all of their employees. But, the real source of the failings had been the budget-cutting and dismantling of the organization by the Bush administration. The Hurricane Pam simulation had shown gaps in the plan, like evacuation, but FEMA had delayed their follow up workshop until shortly before Katrina as they couldn’t find the $15,000 to cover travel expenses.
And where was the President while all this was going on? Well, President Bush had been 4 weeks into his 5 week holiday in Texas when the first alert came out. So naturally, he attended a few speeches before returning to Washington the day after Katrina made landfall.
On the flight back, they took Air Force One on a flyover of New Orleans to allow him to witness the devastation. It wasn’t until this point that President Bush seemed to understand the seriousness of the situation and finally decided to take an interest.
He appeared in broadcasts with his sleeves literally rolled up alongside Brown who was advised to do the same, in order to look as if they were working really hard. But, there was no deceiving the public. It’d been clear that federal involvement left decision making up to people without the necessary local knowledge or clear understanding of the situation. Federal departments had stalled the emergency response with politics and bureaucracy and contributed to the deaths of many. Including 44 patients found dead at the Memorial Medical Centre who’d been left in searing heat waiting for evacuation that never came.
His administration had weakened FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security was untested with seemingly no idea how to deploy its resources or authority.
On the 13th of September Bush admitted responsibility stating ‘Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government… To the extent the federal government didn’t fully do its job right, I take responsibility.’