Katrina was a perfect storm, all right. Multiple mistakes at multiple levels, compounding and multiplying and cascading into one of the deadliest disasters in American history. There are postmortems yet to be done and after-action reports still to be written, of course, and hearings and investigations and recriminations aplenty to come. But for EMS-any arm of which might face an off-the-scale disaster of its own tomorrow-it's prudent to start asking "what went wrong?"
It's a complicated issue to sort out. The Katrina response involved a complex patchwork of local, state and federal resources, with scopes of responsibility containing both gaps and overlaps. Information infrastructures were shattered, making reliable facts hard to come by. The weeks after the storm saw plenty of finger-pointing, ample "he said/she said," and only rare admissions of error. Historians will write the final verdict. But it's clear there's blame to go around.
THE LOCAL LEVEL
Failures were perhaps most acutely felt at the local level, where they began well before landfall.
Since 2002, New Orleans has received $18 million in federal funds to plan, train and equip for disaster. But its $16 million command center wasn't due to open until 2007, and plans to upgrade power and water supplies at the Superdome, the city's designated "shelter of last resort," hadn't progressed beyond the talking stage. Accepting evacuees at the facility, as officials knew from housing residents there during Hurricanes Georges in 1998 and Ivan in 2004, would likely bring problems with supplies and keeping order.
Evacuating the city was started too late. The Hurricane Pam drill of 2004 showed planners that a full evacuation of New Orleans could take up to 72 hours. But Mayor Ray Nagin announced a voluntary evacuation just 48 hours before Katrina, and made it mandatory less than 24 hours before. And city officials well knew of the estimated 100,000 mostly poor residents without their own transportation.
By Monday morning, the storm pounded ashore and the first levee breaks occurred. But with communications down, the Army Corps of Engineers had no way to tell anyone, and Nagin had no way to reach Washington. As the waters rose, public- safety providers relied on to save lives instead had to save themselves. An estimated 250 police officers- 15% of the city's force-vanished from the job. Police headquarters had to be evacuated. The department itself had only limited gear and no swiftwater rescue capability.
Fire and EMS forces faced similar destruction, despite the heroic efforts of dozens of EMS providers who stayed or were stuck in the city following EMS EXPO. In New Orleans, 21 of 30 fire stations were destroyed or severely damaged, and 30% of firefighters were unaccounted for almost a week after the storm. In other areas, entire departments were wiped out.
This, it quickly became apparent, is a major flaw that imperils a lot of emergency plans: They depend on emergency providers who may become incapacitated.
"The New Orleans fire and police departments just imploded," says flood/swiftwater rescue expert Jim Segerstrom, who was in the city as Katrina approached to train local public-safety personnel looking to form a water-rescue task force. "I don't think anybody took into account that those people would be concerned about taking care of their own families in this kind of event."
As a potential remedy, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has raised the idea of training military troops to respond in such a circumstance, but Pentagon leaders are said to favor expanding regional mutual aid agreements.
Elsewhere, with communications out, providers still on the job had little idea what was happening around them. Calls for help went unanswered. Information was passed via couriers and note cards. Four years after 9/11, disaster responders once again found themselves unable to communicate.
"There were two problems there," says water-rescue expert Slim Ray. "You have communications interoperability, which was identified after 9/11 and still really hasn't been solved. And then you need some sort of communications backup, in case your primary methods get knocked out-which of course is exactly what happened with Katrina."
These failures came at a terrific human cost. In a flood, the local level is where lives are saved. If those resources are incapacitated or ineffective, citizens will pay the biggest price.
"Flood events are predictable- they always happen the same way," says Segerstrom. "With the storm coming, what they needed to do was activate the evacuation plan and preposition trained swiftwater/ flood rescue resources for the aftermath. Have the dispatchers keyed up and prearrival instructions and rescue priority dispatch in place. Drill your emergency managers on flood responses-not the aftermath of the flood, but the initial response, when they're getting calls for help. All that stuff needs to be activated, in place and ready to go."
THE STATE LEVEL
At the state level, resources that could have helped the beleaguered locals had their own problems. The Louisiana National Guard, for instance, spent Day 1 of the storm trying to save itself.
Floodwaters that topped windows at the Guard's headquarters cut off communications and ground transportation before eventually prompting its complete evacuation, with 375 Guardsmen moving by boat and helicopter to the Superdome.
The Guard was already stretched. Some 3,200 Louisiana Guardsmen were serving in Iraq when Katrina hit, and were hence unavailable. Though the Pentagon disputes that manpower shortages hampered the response, many disaster experts say the 5,700 troops the LNG had available were too few. Only 1,250 of those were in New Orleans and surrounding parishes.
A lot of the Guard's equipment was in Iraq, too, including hundreds of high-water trucks, fuel trucks and satellite phones. Senators have noted that nationally, the Guard has just 34% of its equipment available for use at home.
State officials anticipated troop shortages and sought reinforcements from other states before Katrina hit. But the arrival of these units was slowed by red tape and logistics. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco eventually asked the feds for all the help they could send, but was not specific.
The governor also could have deployed water-rescue resources from other states, available under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), in advance of the storm, but didn't.
"On Sunday morning," says Segerstrom, "I started calling people in the swiftwater rescue community: 'Have you been called up? Have you been alerted? Have you been activated?' No, no, no. The first positive response I got was from someone in Texas who said they were on potential EMAC alert. Louisiana officials had no clue about swiftwater/flood rescue resources. There are trained folks out there who can respond when the levee breaks and people are screaming for help. But for rescues to occur, those resources need to be prepositioned and ready to go."
"What's ideal is if you can determine where to place those kinds of resources that's not in harm's way, so they can respond quickly," says Dewayne West, president of the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM). "But sometimes that's easier said than done, depending on how fickle a storm is."
THE FEDERAL LEVEL
The biggest national scapegoat for the Katrina tragedy was FEMA director Mike Brown, whose background -belatedly noticed to be startlingly scarce of emergency-management experience-made him an easy target.
Much of the criticism directed at Brown was deserved. But FEMA's deficiencies go beyond one man.
Some were exposed a year ago, when a series of hurricanes battered Florida. An internal review following those storms found that FEMA's information-sharing system was ineffective, potentially delaying needed supplies and endangering personnel. As just one manifestation of this, $1.6 million worth of clean water intended for stricken Floridians was eventually returned to storage because FEMA could not track and coordinate its delivery. Yet less than a month before Katrina hit, Brown rejected those findings as "inaccurate" and "negative."
Structural issues also hamstrung the agency. Once a freestanding Cabinet-level entity, FEMA is now part of the Department of Homeland Security, with an added layer of bureaucracy between it and the president. Insiders have claimed FEMA's preparedness funding has been drastically cut or redirected over the last few years, and numbers of experienced personnel have left. Its top leaders on the day Katrina struck were political appointees, not disaster managers.
By Monday, with the storm ravaging the Gulf Coast, Brown asked Chertoff for 1,000 personnel, but gave them 48 hours to arrive. Military resources were near the action but untapped: The Northern Command had begun sending staff to the Gulf region four days earlier. But the only thing FEMA wanted at that early stage was a small number of helicopters. And Brown was telling local responders to stay where they were until the response could be organized.
It was Tuesday before Chertoff- who, by the National Response Plan, is the federal official in charge of managing responses to major disasters-declared an "incident of national significance," activating the government's highest level of response. Even then, no White House official was named to track federal actions or oversee the efforts of FEMA and DHS.
One Army officer told the New York Times that troops from the 82nd Airborne, which maintains a fast-response brigade able to move within 18 hours, were ready to go a day before the hurricane hit, but weren't ordered into action until days later. When they were, some 3,600, along with their helicopters, were on the ground in affected states in eight hours.
"If the 82nd Airborne had gotten there on time," former FEMA chief Gen. Julius Becton told reporters, "I think we would have saved some lives."
In a 1993 report, the Government Accountability Office determined that the Defense Department is the only organization capable of organizing and supplying the response to a disaster as big as Katrina. However, the military didn't set up a full Katrina-response task force until two days after the storm. It was also two days after landfall when Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt declared a federal health emergency, and two more days before the 2,500 extra hospital beds he ordered would be set up.
By Thursday, after FEMA assumed operations at New Orleans' airport, the pace of flights in and out slowed dramatically. With thousands there awaiting planes out, willing airlines were reportedly being told their planes weren't needed. Northcom planners also proposed sending 1,500 troops each to Louisiana and Mississippi for logistical support, but Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld never acted on the idea. And firefighters from across the nation who responded to FEMA's call for assistance were then held for days in an Atlanta hotel, playing cards and receiving training on community relations and sexual harassment.
FEMA did activate USAR task forces, but those do not have waterrescue capability.
On the whole, FEMA expected the state and city to run their own shows and ask for help as needed. But the sheer magnitude of the storm shattered the capability of those governments to do that. "When you go to war," New Orleans' emergency operations chief, Terry Ebbert, said afterward, "you don't have time to ask for each round of ammunition."
In defense of all involved, "I'm not sure anyone foresaw two catastrophic events-the hurricane and the levee failures-occurring back to back," says West. "If the levee hadn't broken, you'd have seen a whole different response scenario. You can move tree limbs and clear debris, but water is something else entirely. You're basically at the mercy of that water, as far as the time frame in which you respond."
Testifying before Congress after his resignation, a truculent Brown fingered state and local officials, but his onetime boss, Chertoff, didn't back him, saying instead that FEMA was "overwhelmed" by the storm and needed retooling. Marty Bahamonde, FEMA's only man on the ground in New Orleans during the storm, flatly contradicted Brown's assertion that he wasn't aware of conditions until days afterward, and produced e-mails he'd sent describing the deteriorating scene.
Specific weaknesses Chertoff identified included FEMA's system for moving supplies into disaster areas; the failure of communications; and the agency's ability to identify issues and target resources when state and local officials are overwhelmed. He disputed the claims of budget budget cuts and any "brain drain" in the agency.
Even a cursory glance at the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina-and this one has been far from comprehensive-reveals plenty of identifiable missteps and fodder for those wishing to improve response to large-scale domestic disasters.
Those efforts are sure to come, but for now, it's clearer than ever that communities will only be as good as their local police, fire and EMS. Nothing's going to change the fact that in those first few hours, it's all on you.
"We all have responsibilities and roles to play," says West. "We've typically been told to expect to be self-sufficient for 72 hours. Given the size of this storm and all that was involved, is that reasonable? If I'm on the receiving end [of the disaster], it's probably too long. If I'm trying to get [a large-scale response] together, it's probably not long enough.
"I guess it's a matter of perspective."