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Chronology of a Catastrophe: Hurricane Katrina Timeline

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This article originally appeared in the November 2005 issue of EMS World Magazine.

Friday, August 26

  • Day 2 of EMS EXPO in New Orleans. The National Association of EMTs' annual meeting occurs concurrently.
  • Federal, state and local disaster officials meet in Louisiana to discuss FEMA Disaster Declaration No. 1601-which concerned July's Tropical Storm Cindy. Katrina had crossed south Florida the previous night as a Category 1 hurricane, killing 11, and was rapidly strengthening. It was expected to strike the Gulf Coast by Sunday evening or Monday. "Shouldn't we just apply for Katrina money now?" jokes one Louisiana official.
  • Army Corps of Engineers teams are activated in Mississippi and Louisiana. Gulf Coast states request troop assistance from the Pentagon. 10,000 National Guard troops are dispatched along the Gulf Coast.
  • Governor Kathleen Blanco declares a state of emergency for Louisiana.

Saturday, August 27

  • The final day of EMS EXPO. Many attendees and vendors begin leaving the city.
  • The National Association of EMTs cancels its awards banquet planned for Saturday evening.
  • New Orleans officials tell residents to begin evacuating, and Mayor Ray Nagin says he'll open the Superdome as a shelter of last resort for those with special needs. He tells evacuees to bring enough food and drinks for three or four days. The evacuation, Nagin warns, could become mandatory. (A 2004 FEMA drill had concluded that an evacuation of New Orleans could take up to 72 hours.)
  • Katrina strengthens to Category 3, and the National Hurricane Center says it could be a Category 4 or 5 storm by the time it hits the Gulf Coast. "This is really scary," stresses director Max Mayfield. "This is a worst-case scenario." He urges Nagin to make the evacuation mandatory.
  • Contraflow traffic plans are activated to allow vehicles to get out of the city.
  • Officials in Louisiana's Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles, Lafourche, Terrebonne and Jefferson parishes also call for evacuations.
  • Governor Haley Barbour declares a state of emergency for Mississippi.
  • Blanco requests a major disaster declaration from President George W. Bush that would allow relief to start coming. Bush declares a federal emergency.

Sunday, August 28

  • Katrina, now Category 5, heads straight for New Orleans. Mayfield warns local, state and federal officials, including FEMA director Mike Brown and Homeland Security Secretary Mike Chertoff, that it will cause devastating damage and flooding, and that the storm surge will likely overcome the levees protecting the city.
  • Nagin makes the evacuation order mandatory-the first time this has happened in New Orleans-at 11 a.m. This is less than 24 hours before Katrina's expected landfall.
  • Airlines begin shutting down service even before Louis Armstrong Airport officially closes Sunday afternoon. Rental car companies also close, leaving many visitors stranded in the city.
  • Activated under local and state emergency plans, city buses begin picking up evacuees without their own transportation and taking them to shelters, including the Superdome.
  • The Louisiana National Guard asks FEMA for 700 additional buses. It gets 100.
  • Evacuation orders are posted along the Mississippi coast. A state of emergency is declared in Alabama.
  • Coast Guard resources begin readying for search and rescue efforts once the storm passes. Ports and waterways are closed.
  • By 3 p.m., an estimated 10,000 are already at the Superdome. Those with special medical needs are segregated. By the next day, this number exceeds 25,000, with more than 600 with special medical needs.
  • Additional shelters open throughout New Orleans.
  • Around 400 evacuees are moved to regional hospitals before Nagin's ordered curfew goes into effect.
  • Late Sunday night, Katrina weakens a bit and tacks slightly to the east.

Monday, August 29

  • Just after midnight, local firefighters are told to stand down and head for refuge.
  • Buoys in the Gulf of Mexico detect waves in excess of 40 feet.
  • Police spend the night answering some medical calls, including taking some cardiac patients to hospitals, until they too are pulled off the streets around 4:45 a.m.
  • Katrina makes landfall in Louisiana around 6 a.m.
  • At around 6:30 a.m., much of New Orleans loses power. Phone service fails a few hours later.
  • Around the south, National Guard and other resources prepare for the storm's aftermath. Search and rescue efforts will fall to the National Guard, the Coast Guard and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. FEMA stages medical teams, rescue squads and food and water supplies.
  • Katrina strikes New Orleans around 8 a.m., with sustained winds of 135 mph and a storm surge of 18 feet. Reports come almost immediately of waves topping levees.
  • At 8:14, the National Weather Service reports a levee breach along the Industrial Canal. A floodwall along Lake Pontchartrain gives out as well. More failures follow.
  • Holes are torn in the Superdome's roof.
  • From Baton Rouge, Brown, hours after the storm, asks Chertoff for 1,000 FEMA personnel, but gives them two days to arrive. Assets from the U.S. military's Northern Command (Northcom) are also positioned in the Gulf states, but FEMA's only request to the military is for six helicopters.
  • FEMA also tells emergency personnel from other states not to come to the affected area without coordination by state and local officials.
  • Bush declares Louisiana and Mississippi major disaster areas, freeing up federal funds.
  • By midafternoon, looting is being reported, and fires break out.
  • By 2 p.m., there have been at least 100 distress calls from residents of the Lower 9th Ward and eastern New Orleans. Within another few hours, hundreds are reported trapped by rising floodwaters. In St. Bernard Parish, the water level reaches the second story of the courthouse.
  • Police officers, firefighters and private citizens with boats begin conducting rescues. The Coast Guard also moves quickly, saving more than 1,000. As the storm passes, additional teams fan out to search for survivors. They work into the night.
  • The Red Cross predicts "the largest recovery operation [it] has ever attempted."
  • Blanco asks Bush for federal assistance, telling him, "We need everything you've got."

Tuesday, August 30

  • With 50,000-plus left homeless by the storm, city officials debate opening the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where EMS EXPO had been held, as another evacuation shelter. The center is not a designated shelter under the emergency plan.
  • Nearly 5,000 more National Guardsmen are deployed following a request from Blanco.
  • In Mississippi, the death toll is announced to exceed 100.
  • NAEMT President-elect Jerry Johnston tells EMS providers not to self-dispatch to affected areas.
  • Water levels continue to rise throughout New Orleans, including around the Superdome. Hospital evacuations begin.
  • 9-1-1 call takers working on the second floor of police headquarters are reportedly moved to tears by calls coming from those trapped in attics and on roofs by rising floodwaters.
  • Police communications fail, and police headquarters is evacuated.
  • Four are confirmed dead at the Superdome, with 500 more special-needs patients in dire need of evacuation.
  • News sources report that the Louisiana Department of Homeland Security is keeping the Red Cross from assisting at the Superdome, for fear of encouraging more victims to descend on the overloaded facility.
  • FEMA requests additional military ships and helicopters.
  • Local officials request anyone with a boat to help in rescue efforts.
  • Looting grows, with some police officers and firefighters reportedly joining in. One looter shoots a police officer.
  • Some police officers do not appear for duty.
  • The National Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers begin planning repairs for multiple levee fractures, but can't say how long it will take. Most local personnel and contractors have been evacuated.
  • The Convention Center is opened to rescuees and other displaced, but with no supplies and few officers to maintain order.
  • Chertoff declares an "incident of national significance" and activates the National Response Plan. He formally names Brown the lead federal official in charge of Katrina response, giving him-36 hours after the storm hit-authority to act independently.
  • Late that afternoon, Bush announces he will cut his monthlong vacation short and return to Washington the next day.
  • By this time, FEMA has moved or is moving 23 DMATs, 10 USAR task forces and two Incident Support Teams into affected areas, along with food, water and medical supplies. Other resources come from the Coast Guard, numerous federal departments and several states' National Guards.
  • Nagin announces that efforts to stop water flowing in at the 17th Street levee breach have failed, meaning rising waters will soon overwhelm the city's capacity to pump them out. Eighty percent of the city will soon be under water.
  • Jefferson Parish officials plead for power packs to keep their sewer system working; these had been promised by FEMA after a 2004 hurricane drill. "I've got a sewage problem that's going to be a medical disaster like we've never seen in this country," warns parish emergency chief Walter Maestri.
  • Rising waters stop the delivery of food to the Superdome. Blanco calls for evacuation of the damaged and deteriorating facility, to begin by Wednesday evening, but officials have ongoing problems finding buses and drivers to do it.
  • Texas approves opening the Houston Astrodome to displaced Louisianans. FEMA promises buses to convey them to Houston.

Wednesday, August 31

  • As rescue resources continue to stream in, Blanco calls for complete evacuation of New Orleans. Hospitals and the Superdome remain priorities.
  • In the Superdome, evacuees are becoming increasingly angry and restless. With no power or water, the heat and stench become overwhelming. Violence abounds. Promised buses are diverted elsewhere and don't materialize.
  • Thousands are at the Convention Center with no food or water. Crime explodes inside. Food and water for evacuees in Jefferson Parish has also been exhausted.
  • Emergency generators at Charity and University hospitals-which host southeast Louisiana's only Level 1 trauma center, and are harboring around 350 patients and more than 1,000 doctors, nurses and evacuees-run out of fuel.
  • Blanco asks Bush for more rescue resources, so that National Guardsmen can turn to stopping the citywide looting. Newsweek reports she is "transferred around the White House for a while" before speaking with presidential Homeland Security adviser Fran Townsend. Hours later she calls back and finally gets through to Bush. 3,000 more troops are sent in the next 24 hours.
  • Chertoff says he's "extremely pleased" with the response.
  • Water levels stop rising once they equalize with adjoining Lake Pontchartrain.
  • 52,000 are in various Red Cross shelters.
  • Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt declares a public health emergency. HHS will set up as many as 40 more emergency medical shelters, providing thousands more hospital beds in the region.
  • Around 1,600 patients and 8,600 others remain in area hospitals, awaiting evacuation.
  • The U.S.S. Bataan, an 844-bed hospital ship with beds for 600 patients, sits unused off the Gulf Coast.
  • Amtrak offers trains to take evacuees out of the area, but the first run doesn't happen until Saturday. Officials then tell Amtrak they won't need any more trains.
  • Nagin orders police to stop search and rescue efforts and work to contain looting.
  • Federal officials debate invoking the Insurrection Act, which would allow them to take over law enforcement in the city, but decide against it after Blanco objects.
  • Still desperate for buses, Blanco authorizes the National Guard to commandeer buses for the evacuation.

Thursday, September 1

  • Superdome evacuees begin arriving in Houston.
  • National Guard troops continue to pour into the region. The Coast Guard says it has rescued 3,000 thus far.
  • Chertoff tells National Public Radio that he didn't know of evacuees at the Convention Center, which some estimates peg at 25,000. Brown says he'd just learned of them as well. Bush says no one expected the levees to break.
  • Evacuation flights out of Louis Armstrong Airport slow dramatically once FEMA takes over. Airlines report being told the agency doesn't need any more planes for evacuees. Reports also come of FEMA stopping aid deliveries and additional manpower for bureaucratic reasons.
  • New Orleans Homeland Security Director Terry Ebbert says that FEMA, after three days, has yet to establish command and control. He calls the response a "national disgrace."
  • Northcom offers troops in a relief capacity, but Bush does not send them. Thousands more troops wait on standby.
  • By afternoon, Blanco says there are fewer than 2,400 people left at the Superdome. By now, 76,000 are in Red Cross shelters.
  • With the Astrodome full, Texas officials begin directing evacuees elsewhere.
  • In much of New Orleans, order is gradually being restored, but some hospital evacuations are halted by sniper fire. Trapped at Charity Hospital with around 200 patients, no power, food and water precariously low and looters on lower floors, trauma chief Dr. Norman McSwain pleads to the media for help.
  • Nagin blasts federal relief efforts as insufficient.

Friday, September 2

  • Volunteer EMTs and deputies from Virginia spend 12 hours working with FEMA and state authorities to try to offer assistance, but leave when the agencies can't get the necessary paperwork in order.
  • Speaking in Mississippi, Bush praises Brown for doing "a heck of a job." Later, however, he concedes federal efforts have fallen short.
  • Local officials continue to plead for buses and gasoline to get shelter victims out. The National Guard's Lt. Gen. Steven Blum says he can't tell those remaining when they'll be rescued. "You cannot help everybody at the same time," he says.
  • Coast Guard rescues reach 4,000 plus.
  • By now, 58,000 National Guardsmen are on duty along the Gulf Coast, as are 17,000 active-duty military.
  • Bush visits New Orleans and hears complaints from a number of local and state officials.

Saturday, September 3

  • Bush orders more soldiers to the area, and the National Guard sends another 10,000.
  • The Coast Guard says it has now rescued 9,500 people.
  • Buses, trains and planes continue to carry victims out of the Superdome and Convention Center.
  • The New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) announces that 200 officers have walked off the job, and two have committed suicide.

Sunday, September 4

  • The evacuation of the Superdome is completed, and only a few remain around the Convention Center. Ten died from various causes at the Superdome, 24 at the Convention Center.
  • Texas Governor Rick Perry says his state may not be able to accommodate many more than the 220,000 victims it already has.
  • A shelter in Biloxi, MS, is closed when more than 20 residents become ill with possible dysentery. The death toll in Mississippi stands at 144.

Monday, September 5

  • House-to-house searches for survivors continue, and more troops are dispatched.
  • The Army Corps of Engineers announces that one levee breach has been fixed, and a second is nearly so.
  • Hurricane victims are given more than 100,000 items of clothing and other necessities seized by U.S. customs officials.

Tuesday, September 6

  • Bush and Congress vow to investigate the federal response to Katrina.
  • The Army Corps of Engineers begins pumping out New Orleans, now only 60% submerged.
  • Rescuers continue to locate survivors; police say there are fewer than 10,000 left in the city.

Wednesday, September 7

  • Police and soldiers are authorized to use force, if necessary, to remove the last holdouts in New Orleans.
  • Bacteria in the floodwaters is confirmed to be at least 10 times higher than acceptable safety levels.

Thursday, September 8

  • Authorities say the Katrina death toll may turn out to be lower than feared, though Mississippi has now confirmed 201 deaths.
  • Bush urges those displaced by the storm to contact FEMA to get aid, but jammed phone lines prevent many from getting through.

Friday, September 9

  • Official search and rescue efforts in New Orleans end, with an announcement that fewer bodies than expected were discovered.
  • The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals reports that disease, thus far, seems to be in check.
  • FEMA director Brown is recalled to Washington and relieved of overseeing the response. He is replaced by Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad W. Allen.
  • AP reports the discovery of a 400-page report commissioned by FEMA in 2004 to determine the effects of a Category 3 hurricane striking New Orleans. The predicted results included widespread flooding and evacuations, thousands of buildings destroyed, and thousands of deaths and injuries.

Monday, September 12

  • Brown resigns as head of FEMA and is replaced by U.S. Fire Administrator R. David Paulison.

Sources-Associated Press, Boston Globe, CBC News, CNN, Knight Ridder Newspapers, Los Angeles Times, MSNBC, New Orleans Times-Picayune, New York Times, Newsweek, Rightwing Nuthouse, Think Progress, USA Today

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