Monday Morning Quarterbacking: What went wrong

N8 v2.0

Not the sharpest tool in the shed
Oct 18, 2002
The Cleft of Venus
What went wrong
MercuryNews.com | Sep. 11, 2005 | Larry Eichel

Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina crashed into the Gulf Coast, there is little argument that the response was botched. But an extensive Knight Ridder review of official actions in the days just before and after Katrina's landfall Aug. 29 reveals a depth of government hesitancy and a not-my-job attitude that may have cost scores of people their lives.

It's already clear that a multitude of local, state and federal officials and agencies failed the people in Katrina's path.

More: http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/12617086.htm

N8 v2.0

Not the sharpest tool in the shed
Oct 18, 2002
The Cleft of Venus
What went wrong
MercuryNews.com | Sep. 11, 2005 | Larry Eichel

Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina crashed into the Gulf Coast, there is little argument that the response was botched. But an extensive Knight Ridder review of official actions in the days just before and after Katrina's landfall Aug. 29 reveals a depth of government hesitancy and a not-my-job attitude that may have cost scores of people their lives.

It's already clear that a multitude of local, state and federal officials and agencies failed the people in Katrina's path.

The Department of Homeland Security, facing its first major catastrophe since it was created, failed to issue a critical disaster declaration until more than a day after the storm. The White House never appointed a coordinator to monitor disaster developments.

Though several government agencies were certain by 6 p.m. Monday that New Orleans' levee system had given way, no official screamed for urgent help when daylight hours might still have permitted a rescue effort.

By then, water had been pouring from the damaged 17th Street Canal for perhaps as long as 15 hours. A National Guard timeline places the breach at 3 a.m. Monday and an Army Corps of Engineers official said a civilian phoned him about the problem at 5 a.m.

But officials sounded no alarm until Tuesday morning, after the city had been flooding for at least 24 hours.

No one knows how many people might have survived Katrina if officials had responded more aggressively. The official death toll in Louisiana and Mississippi is now at 365, at least some of whom died in the sweltering heat of the Superdome or awaiting evacuation from flooded hospitals.

Scores of others may have drowned unnecessarily in their homes. In Mississippi, some may have been lulled into complacency by memories that they had survived the last great gulf storm, Camille, in 1969. In New Orleans, others were cut off by the torrent unleashed by the collapse of levees that were never designed to withstand a Category 4 hurricane like Katrina.

It's clear that four years after terrorists, on another late summer day, flew hijacked aircraft into buildings in New York and Washington, the United States is still unprepared to respond to catastrophe -- even when it comes with days of public anticipation and warning.

A final accounting of what went wrong and what went right will take months, perhaps longer. Some agencies performed splendidly: The Coast Guard launched rescue missions for people trapped by the flooding as soon as the weather permitted.

The federal Department of Homeland Security, established in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, waited until 36 hours after Katrina struck to declare it an ``incident of national significance.'' The never-before-used disaster designation was established in the National Response Plan to mobilize the full strength of the federal government, including the military, to deal with a catastrophe.

The Pentagon, even as it moved its own people and equipment out of the storm's way, remained aloof. A 1993 report by the investigative arm of Congress concluded that the Department of Defense ``is the only organization capable of providing, transporting and distributing sufficient quantities of items needed'' in a catastrophe such as Katrina.

Cargo planes had been put on alert, but Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld took in a baseball game in San Diego on Monday night, Aug. 29, while floodwaters inundated New Orleans. The military didn't set up a task force to respond until Wednesday, Aug. 31, two days after landfall.

Early concern
• Bush called leaders before landfall

Before Katrina hit land, President Bush, on vacation in Crawford, Texas, was briefed repeatedly on the storm's progress. He issued disaster-relief orders, talking to the governors of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, and, on the Sunday before landfall, urging residents 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.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, its top ranks filled by political appointees and its budget hit by deep cuts, 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, a former Republican National Committee chairman, and told him not to worry, because FEMA had had lots of hurricane practice in Florida.

``I don't think you've seen anything like this,'' Barbour responded. ``We're talking nuclear devastation.'' Brown was removed Friday from overseeing disaster response and replaced with a Coast Guard vice admiral.​

Both Barbour and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, also seemed not to understand the size of the storm headed their way when they issued their first National Guard call-ups -- Barbour, on Friday night, Aug. 26, and Blanco the next morning.

Barbour summoned only about 1,000 Guard members initially, said Mississippi National Guard Lt. Col. Tim Powell, and placed an additional 600 on standby. That number was consistent with what the state had needed 36 years earlier after Camille, but it was inadequate given the gambling-fueled boom that had brought tens of thousands of new residents to the coast.

Blanco's contingent was larger, 4,000, but it was dwarfed by the more than 30,000 that eventually would be summoned to help.

Both Louisiana and Mississippi successfully employed so-called contra-flow plans that turned superhighways 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 state had made any provision for getting people without cars out of the danger zone.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, after receiving the direst of warnings in a dinnertime phone call at home from National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield a day and a half before landfall, delayed issuing a mandatory evacuation order for 15 hours. He finally told residents that the storm surge ``most likely will topple our levee system'' at 10 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 28, when Katrina was on his city's doorstep.

Nagin wasn't alone in his hesitancy, however. In Harrison County, Miss., where Biloxi is located, Civil Defense Director Joe Spraggins, in his job less than a month, also declined to order an evacuation Saturday, saying he wanted to wait to see what the storm did. A mandatory evacuation order came Sunday. The state's emergency management director, Bob Latham, worried that residents wouldn't evacuate because of false alarms in the past.

N8 v2.0

Not the sharpest tool in the shed
Oct 18, 2002
The Cleft of Venus
Scary surprise
• Levee breaches left unattended

Perhaps the most startling failure came in the reaction -- or the apparent lack of one -- from federal, state and local officials to the discovery that New Orleans' fragile levee system had collapsed hours before Katrina even made landfall. Engineers and emergency planners had warned for years that such a collapse would be catastrophic for the below-sea-level city and the people who lived there.

Yet reports of the breach failed to spark action. The commander of the New Orleans district of the Army Corps of Engineers, Col. Richard P. Wagenaar, finally confirmed between 3 and 6 p.m. Monday that a breach had occurred and reported it to headquarters in Vicksburg, Miss.

The mayor had told reporters during a 1 p.m. news conference that there was an unconfirmed report of a levee break, but he quickly turned to other topics. Shortly before nightfall, a FEMA official, back from a helicopter survey of the city, reported the breach to his colleagues in Baton Rouge, then broke the news to the mayor.

Still, no concerted effort was made to reach the thousands of people whose houses were rapidly filling with water. As many crawled from their flooded bedrooms into attics, and some hacked their way onto their roofs, much of the world went to sleep thinking that New Orleans had survived the worst.

Not until Tuesday dawned did the magnitude of the disaster become evident.

There were many other instances of bungling. Federal officials, accustomed to serving a supportive but not commanding role in a disaster, waited for specific requests from state and local officials. Local officials, overwhelmed, trapped by the devastation around them, and unable to survey the damage, couldn't gather the information they needed to make specific requests. Radio communication was impossible and phone service as bad.

Determining what took place in the aftermath of Katrina is daunting. No single person or agency has a bird's-eye view of everything that happened, and memories quickly fade for officials who have been working non-stop for days with little sleep. Many are uncertain what day of the week it is. Others are deeply enmeshed in rescue work and can't be reached.

Some information is unavailable -- the Department of Homeland Security, for example, was unable to provide an accounting of Secretary Michael Chertoff's comings and goings in the days immediately before and after the storm -- and with a series of investigations likely, some accounts smack of political damage control.

Digging for truth
• Solutions found to information gap

Still, Knight Ridder reporters in Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as Washington and California, found many officials willing to talk at length about preparations and responses. All but one of the interviews were on the record.

Knight Ridder 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 notes for accounts of events they had witnessed.

Once the Hurricane Center drew the bull's-eye on New Orleans, at 10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 26, officials reacted quickly, at least in saying all the necessary words.

On Friday night, Gov. Blanco declared a state of emergency in Louisiana. Barbour did the same in Mississippi. President Bush backed up each declaration with a federal declaration of his own.

On Saturday evening, the Hurricane Center's Mayfield made a round of phone calls to top state and local officials. He wanted to impress on them the severity of what was about to happen.

One of his calls went to Mayor Nagin in New Orleans. Earlier in the day, the mayor had asked residents to leave. But his order was voluntary, not mandatory, and residents understood the distinction. Worried about such matters as 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 this was the worst hurricane he had ever seen and that public officials ought to do everything in their power to get people out of the way.

``It scared the crap out of me,'' Nagin recalled. ``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 that he didn't have adequate shelter space or public transportation available to get the poor out of town. And what about hospitals? Should they be exempted? He and the city's lawyers wrestled with the issues through the night.

It was 10 a.m. Sunday morning before Nagin went on television and issued the order. People who couldn't get out on their own could board city buses at 12 locations for transport to the Louisiana Superdome, the shelter of last resort, he said.

As he was speaking, the National Weather Service at 10:11 a.m. issued a warning that Katrina, by then a Category 5 storm -- the most severe, with winds of 155 mph or more -- would make most of southeast Louisiana ``uninhabitable for weeks, perhaps longer.'' The forecast predicted ``human suffering incredible by modern standards.''

By bus and by foot, as many as 25,000 people streamed to the Superdome. FEMA before the storm had dropped off 90,000 liters of water and 43,776 MREs at the Superdome, a place neither the state of Louisiana nor the city of New Orleans had planned to stock with food or water.

Hard lessons
• Better planning would have helped

Why not? 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.

Asked what lessons he learned, Jones replied that the state needs to rethink what ``mandatory'' evacuation means.

At the Army Corps of Engineers headquarters near Tulane University in central New Orleans, the phone call came into the bunker at 5 a.m. Monday, just as the storm was blasting the city. The caller said there was a breach in the levee along the 17th Street Canal.

No news could have been worse. The levees were the reason that a Category 4 or 5 hurricane hitting the city had long been considered one of the nation's most likely catastrophes-in-waiting.

Most of the bowl-shaped city sat below sea level. Once the levees broke, the bowl would fill.

There was no way to get to the levee, at least not then. But the bunker was not the only place with the news. Mayor Nagin told reporters during a 1 p.m. news conference there were unconfirmed reports of a breach on the 17th Street Canal. But he couldn't be sure, and he didn't sound too concerned, talking more about a burst water main and suggesting that life would return to normal in a matter of days.

Finally, at 3 p.m., with the worst of the storm having passed, the engineers ventured out to see if they could drive to the canal across town and confirm the damage. They ran into 10 or 15 feet of water near where Interstate 10 meets I-610.

``It was just a lake there,'' said Wagenaar, the Corps' district commander. ``My first reaction was, `Wow, we are in trouble.' I knew that amount of water should not be at that location that fast. We knew something was wrong.''

When he returned to his office, Wagenaar notified his superiors at headquarters in Vicksburg that the levee had failed, then wrote a formal situation report, which he filed by e-mail around 7:30 p.m. What happened to that report is unclear, Corps spokesman John Rickey said.

By Tuesday, Aug. 30, the focus was on FEMA.

With New Orleans flooded and the extent of the devastation in such Mississippi cities as Biloxi and Gulfport becoming clear, FEMA's few publicly available reports show that it was deploying eight additional disaster medical assistance teams, each with 35 members; that it had sent emergency crews to check out possible oil spills; that it was 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 had flown into Baton Rouge on Sunday and had ridden out the storm at the state operations center there, confident that adequate preparations had been made. His agency had pre-positioned ice, water and MREs in three layers: in the storm zone, in adjacent states and at logistical centers in Atlanta and Denton, Texas. But getting the supplies distributed was a daunting challenge.

Critics of the agency, many of whom used to work there, said the response was inadequate but not surprising. Under the Bush administration, they said, FEMA had been reduced to a shadow of its former self, its budget gutted, its authority sapped.

One problem, they said, was structural. 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 than acts of nature.

N8 v2.0

Not the sharpest tool in the shed
Oct 18, 2002
The Cleft of Venus
Lack of experience
• Political appointees dominate agency

FEMA itself was light on experience and heavy with political appointees, starting with Brown, a lawyer who had 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 prior disaster experience. In addition, 14 of the top 25 posts were being filled on a temporary basis or by someone working two senior jobs at the same time.

Homeland Security officials acknowledge they were struggling to come to grips with the problems on the ground. On Monday, Bush, while flying from his ranch to California, had made major emergency disaster declarations for Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, freeing up federal funds.

But there was one step that the government had failed to take in this new, post-Sept. 11 emergency system: issuing an ``incident of national significance'' declaration. That would make disaster recovery a national responsibility.

Sometime in the late afternoon or early evening Tuesday, Chertoff made the declaration, but no public announcement was made until Wednesday. Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said no specific event triggered the decision, just an avalanche of problems.

``There are extraordinary frustrations within the department,'' he said.

From the outset, it was clear that this was the sort of disaster that would require the intervention of the active-duty military. That intervention, when it came, would prove critical in turning the tide.

FEMA's initial request for military help did not come until Tuesday, Aug. 30, the day after the storm, said a Defense Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity. It was for two helicopters for flyovers.

The military's Task Force Katrina, based at Camp Shelby, Miss., under Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, wasn't activated until Wednesday. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld ordered the move after the Department of Homeland Security made its ``incident of national significance'' declaration.

The military 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 search and rescue missions. Five Air Force helicopters from the 920th Rescue Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., and the 347th Rescue Wing from Moody Air Force Base, Ga., began flying search and rescue missions in Mississippi. Eight helicopters from the Army's 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas, arrived in New Orleans.

Even a U-2 spy plane was pressed into service, providing aerial images to FEMA officials trying to assess the region's destruction.

For all the criticism that has been directed at the decision-makers at every level, it is important not to forget how daunting the aftermath of Katrina was.

The disaster deprived local communities, especially New Orleans, of many of their ``first responders.'' Some police officers and firefighters were trapped or dead or occupied with their own families. Some simply abandoned their jobs, contributing to the breakdown of law and order.

The flooding in and around the city caused all sorts of logistical problems.

In Louisiana, there was plenty of food and water in the affected areas, some of it courtesy of FEMA. But officials had no way to distribute it.

``We don't distribute house to house,'' said National Guard Col. Jay Mayeaux, who served as the logistics chief for the disaster response.

On Thursday of hurricane week, the American Red Cross begged to be allowed to go in to do the distribution. National director Marty Evans made a personal plea to Louisiana Gov. Blanco. But state officials said to wait for better conditions.

Finally, on Friday, the long-sought reinforcements arrived. A military convoy plowed through the waters of New Orleans 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. And now the people were in place to distribute the food and continue with the slow work of evacuating the city.

When the time comes for the postmortems one big question will be one that 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 to get them evacuated out of this city?''

N8 v2.0

Not the sharpest tool in the shed
Oct 18, 2002
The Cleft of Venus

The federal response to Katrina was not as portrayed
Jack Kelly | Sunday, September 11, 2005

It is settled wisdom among journalists that the federal response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina was unconscionably slow.

"Mr. Bush's performance last week will rank as one of the worst ever during a dire national emergency," wrote New York Times columnist Bob Herbert in a somewhat more strident expression of the conventional wisdom.

But the conventional wisdom is the opposite of the truth.

Jason van Steenwyk is a Florida Army National Guardsman who has been mobilized six times for hurricane relief. He notes that:

"The federal government pretty much met its standard time lines, but the volume of support provided during the 72-96 hour was unprecedented. The federal response here was faster than Hugo, faster than Andrew, faster than Iniki, faster than Francine and Jeanne."

For instance, it took five days for National Guard troops to arrive in strength on the scene in Homestead, Fla. after Hurricane Andrew hit in 2002. But after Katrina, there was a significant National Guard presence in the afflicted region in three.

Journalists who are long on opinions and short on knowledge have no idea what is involved in moving hundreds of tons of relief supplies into an area the size of England in which power lines are down, telecommunications are out, no gasoline is available, bridges are damaged, roads and airports are covered with debris, and apparently have little interest in finding out.

So they libel as a "national disgrace" the most monumental and successful disaster relief operation in world history.

I write this column a week and a day after the main levee protecting New Orleans breached. In the course of that week:

More than 32,000 people have been rescued, many plucked from rooftops by Coast Guard helicopters.

The Army Corps of Engineers has all but repaired the breaches and begun pumping water out of New Orleans.

Shelter, food and medical care have been provided to more than 180,000 refugees.

Journalists complain that it took a whole week to do this. A former Air Force logistics officer had some words of advice for us in the Fourth Estate on his blog, Moltenthought:

"We do not yet have teleporter or replicator technology like you saw on 'Star Trek' in college between hookah hits and waiting to pick up your worthless communications degree while the grown-ups actually engaged in the recovery effort were studying engineering.

"The United States military can wipe out the Taliban and the Iraqi Republican Guard far more swiftly than they can bring 3 million Swanson dinners to an underwater city through an area the size of Great Britain which has no power, no working ports or airports, and a devastated and impassable road network.

"You cannot speed recovery and relief efforts up by prepositioning assets (in the affected areas) since the assets are endangered by the very storm which destroyed the region.

"No amount of yelling, crying and mustering of moral indignation will change any of the facts above."

"You cannot just snap your fingers and make the military appear somewhere," van Steenwyk said.

Guardsmen need to receive mobilization orders; report to their armories; draw equipment; receive orders and convoy to the disaster area. Guardsmen driving down from Pennsylvania or Navy ships sailing from Norfolk can't be on the scene immediately.

Relief efforts must be planned. Other than prepositioning supplies near the area likely to be afflicted (which was done quite efficiently), this cannot be done until the hurricane has struck and a damage assessment can be made. There must be a route reconnaissance to determine if roads are open, and bridges along the way can bear the weight of heavily laden trucks.

And federal troops and Guardsmen from other states cannot be sent to a disaster area until their presence has been requested by the governors of the afflicted states.

Exhibit A on the bill of indictment of federal sluggishness is that it took four days before most people were evacuated from the Louisiana Superdome.

The levee broke Tuesday morning. Buses had to be rounded up and driven from Houston to New Orleans across debris-strewn roads. The first ones arrived Wednesday evening. That seems pretty fast to me.

A better question -- which few journalists ask -- is why weren't the roughly 2,000 municipal and school buses in New Orleans utilized to take people out of the city before Katrina struck?


Turbo Monkey
Apr 5, 2005
Chandler, AZ, USA
"We do not yet have teleporter or replicator technology like you saw on 'Star Trek' in college between hookah hits and waiting to pick up your worthless communications degree while the grown-ups actually engaged in the recovery effort were studying engineering.

Typical regressive way to start an "intelligent" conversation. Implying anyone who is critical of the relief efforts is a fantasy obsessed pot smoking adolescent.

I didn't hear anyone saying "While you were adolescent and bayoneting babies in Iraq, , we were coping with the real problems of a flooded poverty ridden city."

N8 v2.0

Not the sharpest tool in the shed
Oct 18, 2002
The Cleft of Venus
Excellent sig material!!!

We do not yet have teleporter or replicator technology like you saw on 'Star Trek' in college between hookah hits and waiting to pick up your worthless communications degree while the grown-ups actually engaged in the recovery effort were studying engineering.

valve bouncer

Master Dildoist
Feb 11, 2002
N8 how many times are you gonna keep posting the same talking heads saying the same bloody things. OK it was a snafu at all levels. I think we all accept that mate. Lets move on.