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
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
This, it quickly
became apparent, is a
major flaw that imperils a lot of emergency
plans: They depend on emergency
providers who may become
"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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
cuts and any "brain drain" in
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
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
"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.