New Orleans: More than just hurricanes

Nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, much of New Orleans still looks like a war-ravaged third world country. Miles and miles of houses stand shattered and empty. Of the more than 200,000 homes either destroyed or heavily damaged, none have been replaced. In many parts of the city, the power is still not back on. Thousands of abandoned cars—turned to junk by floodwaters that swept across 80 percent of New Orleans—litter the streets. In New Orleans alone, the storm killed more than 1,000 people. Hundreds more are still missing or unaccounted for. Well over half of the residents of this great American city now live somewhere else.
The recovery will take years, perhaps decades. And will cost billions.
In April, William Gray, a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University, predicted that the 2006 Atlantic hurricane season, which began June 1 and runs through Nov. 30, will produce 17 named storms. Nine of those storms will reach hurricane strength and five will become major hurricanes. No one knows if the fragile New Orleans levee system or the city’s network of aging pumping stations can withstand another hit.
Given the dire situation, few could blame those who still live and work in New Orleans, or their neighbors along the Mississippi Gulf Coast—equally devastated by Katrina—for thinking of nothing except recovering from the last storm and preparing for the next.
Yet, there are those whose jobs require that they put hurricanes—past, present and future—out of their minds and concentrate on other threats.
Staying the course
“Our No. 1 priority is counterterrorism, pure and simple,” said James Bernazzani, special agent in charge of the FBI’s New Orleans Division. When Bernazzani arrived in New Orleans in March 2005, he knew a lot about terrorism. He had led a terrorism task force in Houston, served as chief of Hezbollah operations at FBI headquarters and was deputy director at the CIA’s Counter-Terrorist Center.
What the Boston native didn’t know much about were hurricanes.
Because the FBI’s four-story New Orleans office building sits on the southern edge of Lake Pontchartrain, where forecasters predicted a wave of water as high as 20 feet would come crashing ashore, Bernazzani ordered his agents and support staff to evacuate to higher ground. He and a handful of agents and police officers remained behind to secure weapons, ammunition, evidence and classified material.
They were on the fourth floor when the storm struck.
“I was in there with three other agents and two NOPD (New Orleans Police Department) officers and Katrina ripped the roof off,” Bernazzani told HSToday.
Bernazzani led the other agents and officers down the stairs to the third floor. With the roof gone, the pounding rain saturated the fourth floor and flooded the exposed elevator shafts. Then the third floor ceiling began to collapse. “You know that old adage about all hell breaking loose?” Bernazzani said. “I’m telling you, all hell broke loose. For six hours it was just mayhem—pitch dark, rain and the wind howling down those shafts.”
After the storm, 50 FBI employees were missing. Bernazzani formed a missing persons unit and modeled it after the bureau’s old 88 squads, also known as fugitive squads. Before long, agents had found all of the lost FBI employees, plus two from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Despite the widespread devastation and the destruction of its office building, the FBI’s New Orleans Division stayed focused on its law enforcement and national security missions, Bernazzani said. The Joint Terrorism Task Force, run by the FBI and manned by other federal, state and local law enforcement officers, continued to identify potential terror threats and to neutralize them.
“The JTTF has not skipped a beat,” Bernazzani told HSToday.
Terrorists look for targets of opportunity. Because New Orleans suffered such a crippling blow last year, Bernazzani said the city might appear to be an even more tempting target. “I would never put it past the Sunni-jihadist movement to attempt to bayonet the wounded,” hesaid.
Although the FBI has no specific intel about planned attacks in Louisiana, Bernazzani said his counter-terrorism agents have been busy. “We have identified supporters of various international terrorist organizations, mostly in the form of fundraising,” he said.
The money being raised by those supporters is going outbound, Bernazzani said, which indicates to him that it is intended to support terrorist activities overseas. “If we see money coming inbound or it’s staying here, we’ve got a problem,” he said.
“Al Qaeda and the Sunni-jihadist movement are our main concern right now,” Bernazzani explained. “However, we cannot discount the Lebanese Hezbollah, who are the proxies for the government of Iran.”
What worries Bernazzani most, he said, are Al Qaeda’s aggressive efforts to acquire WMDs, the detonation of a “dirty bomb” (conventional explosives wrapped in nuclear material) and the possibility of a terror group sinking a ship in the Mississippi River or blowing up part of the levee.
Filling the void
Another priority for the New Orleans FBI is violent crime.
Although New Orleans has never had a true Los Angeles or Chicago-style gang problem, it has topped the list as the nation’s murder capital more than once during the last 15 years. Most of that drug-fueled violence can be traced back to the city’s loosely affiliated, primarily black, neighborhood drug organizations.
Now that Katrina has dislodged much of the city’s criminal element, Bernazzani said he suspects that non-traditional (non-Mafia) organized crime groups will try to establish a presence in New Orleans and fill the void left by those who evacuated.
“The storm caused demographic and population shifts that this area had never seen,” Bernazzani explained, “and with that, a shift in the criminal population.”
With anywhere from 40,000 to 50,000 debris removal workers in New Orleans, Bernazzani said law enforcement has discovered that hiding within that population are members of violent Latin street gangs, such as MS-13 from Central and South America, the Southwest Cholos from Houston, the 18th Street gang from Los Angeles and the Latin Kings.
“We never had a Latin gang problem prior to Katrina,” Bernazzani said.
Other ethnic groups are also trying to capitalize on the crime vacuum left in the wake of the storm.
Beginning in February, the FBI New Orleans Gang Task Force rounded up 14 members of an Asian drug gang from Canada that was trying to set up a post-Katrina drug distribution network in eastern New Orleans. So far, agents have seized several hundred thousand dollars in cash, $5 million worth of marijuana, 170,000 tabs of Ecstasy, an 18-wheeler and several luxury cars.
To combat violent crime, Bernazzani used a trick he learned during his two decades fighting America’s war on terror—information sharing. Traditionally, law enforcement and intelligence agencies don’t like to share information. Before Sept. 11, 2001, if information was shared, it was done at street level, agent-to-agent or cop-to-cop, Bernazzani said. Intelligence sharing between agencies got jammed up, or “stovepiped,” as he described it.
To remedy that, the FBI, working in conjunction with other law enforcement agencies from across the greater New Orleans area, formed the Violent Crime Information Center. Agencies now hold weekly meetings and share up-to-the-minute intelligence via an online database.
“What we did was, we broke down the stovepipes,” Bernazzani said.
Shake, rattle and roll
Like their counterparts to the west, disaster planners at the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) also have more on their minds than hurricanes. “Two other huge issues in our state are flooding and tornados,” said MEMA spokeswoman Lea Stokes. “Earthquakes are also an issue.”
Earthquakes? Yes, earthquakes.
Northern Mississippi lies on the edge of the New Madrid Seismic Zone. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, in 1811 and 1812, three of the mostpowerful earthquakes in U.S. history struck the central Mississippi Valley. The earthquakes, which experts estimate to have been at magnitudes of 7 or 8, reportedly rang church bells a thousand miles away in Boston. According to published reports, the quakes were so powerful they created temporary waterfalls in parts of the Mississippi River and even forced it to flow backward at one point.
In the southern part of the state, along the Mississippi River delta, flooding is the problem. Between 2000 and 2004, floods caused four of the eight federally declared disasters in Mississippi.
Despite the other threats, though, few residents along the Gulf Coast can focus on anything other than the possibility of another deadly storm. “Hurricane season is what’s on everyone’s mind right now,” Stokes said.
Ten months after Katrina hit, more than 100,000 Mississippi residents are living in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers and mobile homes. If another storm takes aim at Mississippi this year, everyone living in those trailers and mobile homes will have to evacuate. Many will need help.
So what could be worse for Mississippi than a major hurricane? How about a major hurricane and a deadly flu outbreak? It’s somethingMEMA officials are planning for.
In April, state health officials conducted pandemic flu drills in coordination with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Other states that are dealing with pandemic flu really aren’t having to worry about hurricanes at the same time,” Stokes said.
Needless to say, officials in Louisiana and Mississippi are hoping for a quiet storm season. HST
Chuck Hustmyre is a freelance writer based in Baton Rouge, La. He is a retired federal agent and the author of the true-crime book Killer with a Badge and the novel House of the Rising Sun. He can be reached at [email protected]
No FEMA in my backyard!
No matter where they go, no one wants them.
In south Louisiana they’ve stirred up more political controversy than almost any other topic in the 11 months since the deadly one-two punch that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita landed last year.
They’ve turned public meetings into shouting matches. They’ve turned neighbors against each other. They’ve pitted local government officials against federal officials.
What are they?
They’re FEMA trailer parks.
In the aftermath of last year’s killer storms, the Federal Emergency Management Agency purchased countless travel trailers and mobile homes. The idea seemed sound enough. Evacuees from south Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast had to live somewhere. Temporary shelters, like those set up in churches and community centers, were just that—temporary.
What was needed was more permanent housing.
Strapped for ideas on where to put hundreds of thousands of people who had just lost everything they owned, and with available housing scarce in most areas north of the storms’ strike zones, FEMA decided to cobble together entire communities from scratch.
The disaster agency leased parcels of private land, hastily arranged for the necessary infrastructure—electricity, sewerage, laundry rooms, dining halls, and security—trucked in dozens, often hundreds, of 25-to-30-foot travel trailers to each site, and then filled them with evacuees.
Then the local communities got mad.
They got mad at FEMA’s lack of cooperation. They got mad because FEMA refused to share information with local law enforcement. They got mad because crime spiked around many of the new FEMA trailer parks.
FEMA built a massive trailer park near Baton Rouge, La. It sits beside the little town of Baker, 90 miles north of New Orleans. FEMA dubbed it “Renaissance Village.” Inside the chain link fence that surrounds the park, 565 travel trailers house close to 2,000 New Orleans evacuees.
When the park opened last October, the local sheriff’s office asked FEMA for a list of residents. With thousands of probationers, parolees, and registered sex offenders missing from New Orleans, the sheriff wanted to run criminal background checks to find out if any of them were hiding out in the trailer park.
FEMA refused.
The identity of the residents was confidential, federal officials claimed. As justification for their refusal to cooperate with local law enforcement, FEMA officials cited the privacy rules of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPPA.
But the sheriff hadn’t asked for the residents’ medical records, just their names.
The sheriff’s office threatened to take FEMA to court. Still, FEMA refused to cooperate.
As the standoff continued, a sheriff’s spokesman commented: “We know there are some criminals there. We know that. And we know there are some sex offenders there.”
By December, FEMA had placed severe restrictions on the media. Security guards blocked reporters from entering the park unless a FEMA representative accompanied them. Interviews with residents had to be monitored by FEMA.
The park’s assistant manager tried to convince one local reporter that the security arrangements were similar to those found in a gated community. When the reporter pointed out that access to a gated community usually required only the permission of a resident, not the federal government, the assistant manager admitted, “I guess it’s a little different.”
Finally, the sheriff’s office got tired of waiting on FEMA. In February, after a local magazine reported that some park residents were living in fear because of the violence and dope dealing going on at the park, a couple dozen plainclothes sheriff’s deputies made an unannounced visit to the trailer park and started talking to residents.
They dragged out three wanted sex offenders and later arrested a fourth.
Now there’s talk in Congress of doing away with FEMA. In Louisiana and Mississippi, a lot of folks think that’s a good idea.

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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