Eyewitness to FEMA Fiasco

I stepped out of my house in Baton Rouge, La.during Hurricane Katrina. Although the outer wall of the storm’s eyewas 100 miles away, the wind was worse than any I’d ever experienced.From my front porch, I could hear the electrical lines above my househumming. Whether the noise came from the electric current streamingthrough the lines or from the wind ripping past them, I don’t know.
Standing in the street, I watched the windwhip 100-plus-year-old oak trees back and forth over my roof. Branchessnapped and fell around me. A block down the street, a fierce gustripped a giant oak from the ground and sent it crashing onto a house.One block away in the other direction, a tree fell and crushed a car.
My electricity was out for five days.
I knew from the glancing blow that Baton Rougereceived from the storm that it was a bad one. However, I was totallyunprepared for what I saw when I jury-rigged an antenna to a friend’stelevision a couple of days later and caught my first glimpse of theutter devastation that had been wreaked upon New Orleans, a city inwhich I’d lived and worked for more than a dozen years.
“It’s like the Gulf of Mexico moved 40 milesinland,” Plaquemines Parish, La., President Benny Rousselle said onTuesday, Aug. 30, the day after the killer storm struck the Gulf Coast.Plaquemines Parish, which lies south of New Orleans, is where the eyeof Katrina made landfall.
Federal foul-ups
Thursday night, three days after the storm,Mike Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency(FEMA)—whose previous leadership position was as a commissioner withthe International Arabian Horse Association—said on two network newsprograms that he had just learned that day about the 25,000 peopletrapped at the New Orleans Convention Center.
Displaced residents and terrified tourists hadbeen flooding the convention center since at least Tuesday, Aug. 30.New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass had told the press that peopleat the convention center were being raped and beaten. Images of bodieslittering the ground had been shown on national television.
After Brown made his claim on ABC’s Nightline, host Ted Koppel shot back, “Don’t you guys watch television? Don’tyou guys listen to the radio? Our reporters have been reporting aboutit for more than just today.”
Eight days later, on Sept. 9, HomelandSecurity Secretary Michael Chertoff—Brown’s boss—relieved the embattledFEMA director of command of the Katrina relief effort.
Yet even as he was booting Brown out ofLouisiana, Chertoff praised the FEMA director’s performance. “MichaelBrown has done everything he possibly could to coordinate the federalresponse to this unprecedented challenge,” Chertoff told reporters inBaton Rouge, La. “I appreciate his work, as does everybody here.”
On Sept. 12, Brown resigned as director of FEMA.
The president wasted no time in replacing thedisaster experience-challenged Brown with David Paulison, who as theformer chief of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department, had more than 30years experience in firefighting and rescue operations.
Despite Secretary Chertoff’s praise of MichaelBrown’s relief effort—and President Bush’s when he told Brown,“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,”—not everyone thought FEMA,under Brown’s leadership, had done all it could.
Although FEMA is not a frontline emergencyrescue or security agency—the word management in the agency’s name bestdescribes its function—many people expected more from FEMA than theygot.
A New Orleans police officer I spoke with twoweeks after the hurricane hit had nothing but contempt for the federalgovernment’s early response. “We got no assistance from FEMA,” he said.
Terry Ebbert, New Orleans’ director ofhomeland security, blasted the federal government’s response to thedisaster. “This is a national disgrace. FEMA has been here three days,yet there is no command and control. We can send massive amounts of aidto tsunami victims, but we can’t bail out the city of New Orleans.”
Ben Morris, mayor of Slidell, La., a citynortheast of New Orleans that was hard hit by the storm, called FEMA’sresponse “criminal.” Morris told Reuters: “At FEMA, they keep sayingthey are coming, but they don’t. I think they’re useless.”
One reason, although certainly not the onlyreason, for what many perceived as the government’s slow response tothe disaster was the near total communications blackout. Radio networksfailed, cell phones didn’t work. I overheard one Plaquemines Parishofficial later say, “We would have been better off using smokesignals.”
And then there was the gunfire. Looters shot aNew Orleans policeman in the head. Patient evacuations at CharityHospital had to be stopped twice Thursday morning because a gunman wasshooting at doctors and patients. In other parts of the city, snipersopened fire at rescue helicopters.
“This is Armageddon,” a Jefferson Parish sheriff’s sergeant said as he stood in front of a flattened building.
Unrelenting attention
Once media coverage was restored, FEMA wasn’t helped by numerous stories of its incompetence in the local and national media.
According to The New York Times , FEMAbureaucrats held up hundreds of firefighters from around the countrywho had volunteered for duty in New Orleans for several days in Atlantawhile they underwent training on community relations and sexualharassment.
The Times also reported that William Vines, aformer mayor of Fort Smith, Ark., said that FEMA officials delayed fordays the offloading of thousands of bottles of water bound for NewOrleans from two tractor-trailer rigs because the trucks didn’t carrythe proper paperwork.
The Advocate , a newspaper in Baton Rouge,La., reported that a federal official ordered a Pennsylvania surgeon tostop treating patients at a makeshift triage center set up at the NewOrleans International Airport because he wasn’t registered with FEMA.When told he had to leave, the doctor was giving chest compressions toa female patient who had gone into cardiac arrest.
“I begged him (the official) to let mecontinue,” Dr. Mark Perlmutter told The Advocate . “People were dyingand I was the only doctor on the tarmac. Two patients died in front ofme.”
FEMA spokeswoman Kim Pease reportedly said, “The voluntary doctor was not a credentialed FEMA physician.”
Help came more slowly than everyone wished, but it did come.
By Sunday, Sept. 4, six days after the storm,a clearer picture of the massive relief effort spearheaded by FEMAbegan to emerge. Most of the starving evacuees had been rescued, givenwater and food, and shipped to shelters as far away as San Antonio,Texas.
Thousands of National Guard troops andactive-duty soldiers, including paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne,had landed in New Orleans to help the beleaguered New Orleans PoliceDepartment restore order.
According to the Sunday edition of the NewOrleans Times-Picayune , dozens—not hundreds—of police officers hadabandoned the city; some had even taken part in the looting. But thevast majority of the 1,500 officers had stayed on the job, withoutcommunications, without orders, without food, without water, withoutrelief for days on end. They saved thousands of citizens and engaged inrunning gun battles with bands of armed thugs.
“The bulk of this Police Department stoodintact,” Chief Eddie Compass told The Times-Picayune . “We fought themost unbelievable war and we survived. I’ve been rolling oncalls…fighting off people with my bare hands.”
I talked to Rep. Richard Baker (R-La.) aboutthe federal government’s response time. He said that for the first 24hours after Katrina slammed ashore on the Gulf Coast, there was nothinganyone could do. “We were at the mercy of the storm.”
After that, Baker said, FEMA and otheragencies moved personnel and material in as fast as they could. Rescuework began almost immediately. By late Friday, most of those strandedhad been evacuated to safety. “Could that have been shortened a day ortwo? Possibly,” he acknowledged.
Col. Henry Whitehorn, commander of theLouisiana State Police, told me that from a law enforcementperspective, he was satisfied with the response he got. “We’re gettingtremendous support from everybody,” he said.
One thing is certain: The support needs tokeep coming, because New Orleans and the other devastated areas aregoing to take years to recover. With more storms to come, hopefullyeveryone can learn from the mistakes made in the aftermath of HurricaneKatrina. HST
Chuck Hustmyre is a retired federal agentand freelance writer based in Baton Rouge, La. He is the author of thetrue-crime book Killer With A Badge and the novel House of the RisingSun . His previous article for HSToday was “Guarding the Queen of theMississippi”in the August 2004 edition. He can be reached [email protected] .
“Pictures don’t do it justice”
A couple of days after the storm SidGautreaux, police chief of Baker, La. —a town of 15,000 about 80 milesnorth of New Orleans—took five of his officers to New Orleans to helpwith both search and rescue and security.
The city was in chaos. The New Orleans PoliceDepartment (NOPD) had moved out of its flooded headquarters on BroadStreet and set up a command center at Harrah’s Casino at the foot ofCanal Street. “When we got there, NOPD—what was left of them—weresleeping on the concrete outside Harrah’s,” Gautreaux told me.
Law enforcement communication was almostnonexistent. There was no electricity. “It was unbelievable to be inthat city after dark. You couldn’t see your hand in front of yourface,” he said. The only light came from burning buildings.
The anarchy was at its peak. “All the storeson Canal Street were looted,” Gautreaux said. “Pictures don’t do itjustice. There’s no telling how many murders got committed. If you wentinto the convention center you had to go in with not one, but two tacteams.”
Danny Edwards, the fire chief of Baker, sentfour of his firemen to New Orleans to help with the rescue effort. Oncein the city, they boarded a boat and motored through floodedneighborhoods looking for survivors. When their boat’s propeller fouledon Elysian Fields Avenue, the Baker firemen killed the engine so theycould clear the obstruction. They heard screaming coming from a nearbyhouse. Inside, they found a woman standing on her kitchen counter inchest-deep water. She’d been there for four days. “Her skin was justhanging off of her,” he told me.
“He just couldn’t hang”
Like fellow movie tough guy Sean Penn, whoseeffort to rescue stranded children in the aftermath of HurricaneKatrina foundered after his boat, laden with his entourage—and apersonal photographer—sprang a leak, actor Steven Seagal found thatbeing a hero on the streets of New Orleans is a lot harder than it ison a movie set, according to the accounts of officers on the scene whorequested anonymity.
Seagal, a commissioned sheriff’s deputy inJefferson Parish who is trained for tactical operations, showed up togo on looter patrol with the New Orleans Police Department’s TacticalUnit.
After disembarking from military light armoredvehicles, the 20-man patrol—including Seagal—formed two lines andstarted walking through the abandoned streets in the pitch-dark night.
One of the officers I spoke with said thatafter a while he noticed Seagal wasn’t holding up well. “Halfway thoughthe walk, he’s dying,” the officer said. “He’s sweating profusely andhuffing and puffing. He just couldn’t hang.”
“I’m not used to walking in all this heat with all this gear on,” Seagal told the officer.
Alittle while later, the tac unit got areport of looters in an uptown apartment building. When the teamstacked up to enter the building, Seagal slipped away and caught a rideback to the staging area. “He wouldn’t even come in the building withus and clear it,” an officer complained to me. “If this would have beena movie he would have gone in and cleared the whole building byhimself. But this ain’t a movie. This is the real [thing].”
Col. John Fortunato, spokesman for theJefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office (JPSO), who was on the same patrol,disputed the officers’ account. “Everyone was hot,” said Fortunato. “Itappeared to me Seagal wasn’t experiencing any problems. He always keptup with the other officers. For someone who doesn’t train regularly, hewas always with us and didn’t ask for anything special.” As for“slipping away”, when the patrol learned that the building had beenchecked for looters earlier that night, “we all chose to get a rideback to the command post to rendezvous with some of the JPSO officersand continue to patrol the streets.”
As for Seagal himself, he had some choicewords for his critics: “It’s always the same, the type of guy who makesthis stuff up should look between his own legs to see if there’sanything there—obviously there never is otherwise he wouldn’t hidebehind anonymity. I don’t know who’s of lesser value in our world, guyswho say these things or people who like to write about it,” he toldHSToday through his publicist, David Van Houten.
Maybe the lesson for Hollywood heroes is this:Stay home, make movies, and leave the real tough guy stuff to peoplewho know what they’re doing.
“I tried for hours and hours”
The day after the storm hit, Dr. Andre’ Bruni,a Baton Rouge dentist and a New Orleans native, drove down to NewOrleans to see if he could help. He didn’t ask anybody, he just did it.Bruni ended up in a 20-foot fishing boat with an improvised team ofamateur rescuers. They cruised over the flooded streets of Lakeview, aNew Orleans neighborhood that borders the now-infamous 17th StreetCanal, the site of one of the major levee breaks.
When I spoke to Bruni, he described the scene.The neighborhood lay under eight to 10 feet of water. He and his teamof volunteers drifted over submerged cars and skimmed under powerlines. Ruptured gas mains spewed fire from the surface of the water.
“It was total devastation,” he said.
Bruni helped pull a dozen stranded residents from flooded homes and buildings.
On Wednesday, two days after the storm hit,Bruni led a small caravan of buses to New Orleans. He picked up nearly100 people who had walked across the Mississippi River Bridge to escapethe rising water. He and two friends drove them to safety in BatonRouge.
In the following days, as the mayor of NewOrleans was pleading on radio and television for buses to rescue thetens of thousands of stranded residents, Bruni managed to finagleaccess to as many as 10 buses. But rescue red tape got in the way.
The state had thrown up roadblocks andcheckpoints around New Orleans. People had to have permission to enter,even if it was to help.
“I kept calling, trying to get through tosomebody in authority,” Bruni told me. “I tried for hours and hours toget a hold of somebody.”
He never did, so the 10-bus convey he had scraped together sat empty in Baton Rouge.
“Like it was Vietnam”
On the west bank of the Mississippi River, inthe Algiers section of New Orleans, police Lt. Joe Meisch and threeother officers jumped 16 looters in a Wal-Mart. The four officers ranout of handcuffs and had to use duct tape commandeered from the storeto secure the prisoners.
Just down the street, Officer Kevin Thomas wasshot in the head as he and his partner battled four looters at aconvenience store. Thomas survived and all four suspects were arrested.
Meisch and the other officers in Algiers livedfor more than a week on food and water they scrounged from Wal-Mart.They set up a makeshift kitchen under a carport at the 4th Districtpolice station. They worked 24 hours a day.
To put gas in their police cars, the 4thDistrict cops jury-rigged an electric pump to an underground fuel tankat a gas station. They powered the pump with the battery from a patrolcar.
“The first week was the worst,” Meisch toldme. “This place was hell on earth. I was looking at a piece of(Officer) Kevin Thomas’s brain on the concrete, shot in a fight overpotato chips and beer.”
During that first week after the storm thecops took gunfire every night, according to Meisch, a former US Marinesergeant. “We’d return fire then send a patrol out to see if we hitanything, like it was Vietnam,” he said.

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