Interview Sally Forman
The communications director for the city of New Orleans when Katrina hit, Forman has written a book about her experience, Eye of the Storm. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on May 18, 2010.
Tell me where you were when you heard about Katrina. ...
... On Friday ... it very much looked like this was probably a Category 2, maybe a 3, heading toward Florida. ...
It wasn't until Friday night -- I was actually at the Saints game in the Superdome. ... In the women's room in the Superdome you can actually hear the radio, ... and it said, on a newsbreak, that the cone of certainty had now included Louisiana. So I knew at that point that meant we were on duty. ...
What was the reaction at that point?
No fear, nothing other than you do your job. It was, make sure we have everything in order. We had an emergency evacuation planned. Everybody knew their task, and we stuck to those tasks. It was just a matter of being on track with what you were set out to do.
Now, what did you hear from the mayor at that point? Or what were you telling him at that point?
I believe I heard Friday night that he said let's have a meeting [Saturday]. We all got together as an executive staff, including Fire, Police, Emergency Preparedness, Health, and we all came together in the mayor's office to talk about every person's job and then any additional jobs. For example, there were certain elected officials that needed to be called to invite them into the press conference, invite them into the OEP calls.
OEP is what?
Office of Emergency Preparedness. The calls that are made to the Office of Emergency Preparedness offices around the country are often made at certain intervals. So I believe our intervals at that point were four hours. And the calls are consistent, and you're getting weather updates from NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and various entities as to what the tracking is, what the severity is, etc. And those emergency officials would then relay that to elected officials. ...
[Are you] still thinking this is a pretty normal hurricane?
Very much so.
So you've been through this drill before?
Almost everybody there had been, because it was part of your job to know what the emergency evacuation plan was, and we all had tasks within that plan.
Anybody, at that point or even anytime before, ever talk about worst case scenarios?
Sure. It was part of your training when you first became a member of the executive staff. You would go into the OEP office and look at what the worst case scenarios looked like. ...
As a city under sea level, you really had to prepare and know what was going on, or potentially could go on.
Of course in our situation, we often looked at the models where there was overtopping of the levees. The key with this one is the levees broke in seven places, so we've never had, as part of our emergency evacuation plan, what to do if seven levees broke.
... Is [then-Mayor Ray] Nagin in this meeting?
Sure. He was leading the meeting.
Is he a pretty good, strong, forceful guy in a meeting like this?
He is much more the type of manager who allows everybody who needs to say something to say what they have to say and then moving it right along. He is not a dictatorial type of manager, and he's not so laid back that things get out of hand. I think he's the type of manager who makes sure that everybody's there on time, everybody's doing their task. ...
[When was the moment you realized this could potentially be a big storm?]
Saturday, after taking care of my own home, ... my husband and I just decided to go to the movie theater since it was open. … It was practically empty.
And halfway through the movie, I got a text message from the mayor, which said, "Confidential," that he had just hung up with [meteorologist] Max Mayfield at the National Hurricane Center, and Max Mayfield had told him that the storm surge could get as high as 20 to 25 feet, which meant that the levees could not only be overtopped, but overtopped by a lot. ... Max Mayfield warned Ray Nagin emphatically that would mean a lot of dead bodies. ...
We immediately left the movie, and I met the mayor and all the local TV stations so that we could issue the warnings to the public that this was a very serious storm.
When does the storm roll in?
So the storm rolled in Sunday night, 24 hours later.
Where were you?
I was at that Hyatt Hotel with the mayor and the rest of the executive staff.
Tell me about getting to the Hyatt.
As I drove that morning out of my neighborhood and downtown to the city, I could see the buses that we had worked to get, regional transit buses throughout the city that were encouraging people to park their cars at these various places within each council district ... and take a public transit bus to the Superdome, because the Superdome was our refuge of last resort. ...
As I drove downtown, I could see thousands and thousands of people doing this. And I knew, wow, this was an operation in full progress. And you could just see that people were very much taking the storm seriously.
The Superdome has always been used for that, right?
Only a few other times. Again, it's something we called the refuge of last resort, because you want to provide a place that's a safe haven for people who have no public transportation or who have no means to evacuate, but you want to also encourage people to leave if at all possible. And also, you really save the Superdome for very severe storms. We have a lot of storms that come through that are tropical storms or, you know, Cat 1.
So what's the date?
So that date was Sunday, Aug. 28, 2005.
Why the Hyatt Regency?
The Hyatt Regency was chosen, I believe, because you always look for vertical evacuation. And logistically it was easy for us, because it was across the street from City Hall.
Describe where you hunkered down.
The executive staff was on the fourth floor, and the general hotel population was on the third floor. So we were in several meeting breakout rooms. We slept in a few and met in a few on the fourth floor.
And did you have your family with you?
I did. And we all just laid out blankets. The city council was in the same room as us. People laid out blankets and sleeping bags and just slept on the floor.
Your expectation at that point is what?
My expectation is we were going to ride this out, and everything was going to be OK, and it was going to be bad winds and perhaps just a tiny bit of overtopping, but that we would get through it.
So what happens that night and the next morning for you?
So that night we pretty much stayed up all night monitoring, and we all of a sudden started to get a little nervous when the windows started to break in the hotel. We heard more and more popping going on, and broken glass. And you could go out into the main lobby area and see that pieces of the insulation on the roof were starting to become a little bit weakened, and also there was the side of the lobby atrium that was one big giant pane of glass, and you could see where certain windows had already blown out.
So we knew that the hotel itself, the building that we were in, was completely weak and fragile, and we were hoping that it would sustain the rest of the storm.
It did, though, didn't it?
It did. Yes.
Did you sleep through the storm?
When did the storm pass?
I believe it started at 6:00 p.m. ... and officially ended at roughly noon the next day.
You actually go outside around the time that it ends, in the afternoon, right? What did you see? You're exploring, weren't you?
Yes, I was exploring. I saw some water on the streets; I saw a lot of broken windows, a lot of signs pulled down. I saw the whole side of our hotel torn off. I saw banks with a whole wall taken out. I saw dogs and people scattered about. I saw what looked like a city that a major storm had just passed through. ...
No sign yet of flooding?
No sign yet. But it wasn't long.
As far as the composure of the city, the populace, the people, the police, what's going on?
Very composed for the most part, because most people were still hunkered down. We could see that people were starting to wander. But it wasn't a lot of people in the street at all. …
What about the police at this point, and the emergency response units? What are those people doing?
They're all working. The few that we saw weren't sharing the same thoughts that most people on the street were. Most people on the street were saying, "Whew, looks like we were OK here." ...
But I quickly ran into Fire Chief [Charles] Parent, who had a very, very worried look on his face. And I said, "Charles, what's wrong?" I knew by looking at him that something was terribly wrong. And he said he had just heard via radio from two of his firemen that had been in a tall building near a lakefront. They could actually see a levee that had been completely torn open, 200 feet he was surmising, and that the water had begun to pour into Lakeview, [a neighborhood of New Orleans].
And he said, "We've got to get this message out." This is not [known] to the general public at this point. He was saying, "I know the mayor doesn't know this." I said: "He absolutely doesn't. I was just with him." And I said, "What are you doing to fix this?" And he said, "At this point, we're trying to get down there to verify this." So he and the [Sewerage] and Water Board head [over], and several other people were going to try and make their way over there to see if indeed this is what had occurred.
So that's the first that you hear about anything significant happening with the levees? What happens after that?
So I went back and told the mayor. The mayor and a few other emergency personnel were still at the Hyatt in the room that we were working in. Col. [Terry] Ebbert, our Homeland Security director, and several of the Emergency Preparedness people were still on the eighth floor in City Hall. They had actually ridden it out in City Hall. They, too, had felt the swaying of the building, the breaking glass. But they, too, were totally fine and intact in terms of bodily harm, etc.
But Col. Ebbert said, "I think we're getting some reports that there are some really, really bad places." In fact, he had been told that several police officers who were on rooftops were jumping in to rescue other people. ... It was clearly becoming a picture of maybe we didn't miss this storm; maybe we did have something much worse.
Is Nagin talking to the police at this point?
Yes, he was.
What is he telling them?
Remember, "talking to" is one of those terms that you have to be very careful about in post-Katrina New Orleans, particularly the first week, because we no longer were talking via telephone. We no longer were talking via two-way communication. Everything was starting to shut down. So our communication mode was becoming very different. It was Paul Revere, you know: You get this message to me, I give it to someone else. And we know what happens with those messages sometimes.
Was it pretty apparent very quickly that afternoon that the communication system for the police was not functioning?
Not yet. We knew it was not going to be great for everybody, but we still had satellite phones, so we were not all that concerned. Unfortunately, the satellite phones didn't wind up working later either.
At what point does this really kind of turn catastrophic for you?
It began to turn catastrophic Monday afternoon when we started getting very significant details that not only had there been a breach at the Lakeview station that I just talked about, but we were also hearing about a terrible wall of water that had come, that the Army National Guard actually saw coming through down by the Jackson Barracks. They had walked out after the storm and thought, "Oh, this is great. Looks like we survived the storm," and all of a sudden they heard what sounded like an explosion, and they turned; they see a big, large wall of water coming toward them.
So Col. Tom Beron and the whole group of Army National Guardsmen went and got on the top floor of the Jackson Barracks. So they all survived. However, you could tell that that amount of water coming through, there were a lot of problems in the mix. ...
Tell me about mind-set here at this point. What's the psychology of the administration?
The psychology of the administration was: "Don't panic; everything's under control; we're going to be OK here. We just need to keep doing exactly what we know how to do." At the same time it was, "Oh, my God, we're in deep trouble here." So we had two things going.
But you never want to panic, because you're sending a message to the general population to panic. At the same time, there were too many reports coming into us that were so scary and frightening, particularly when you're hearing stories of your own rescuers needing to be rescued, or your own rescuers who are talking on their radio to the squadron, and they're telling them the water is rising and they're not going to make it. These were very emotional scenes that were playing out all over the city.
Which rescuers are you talking about? Are you talking about the police department?
Rescue workers, police department, fire department, EMS.
What kinds of stories do you remember from that afternoon?
The story that bothered me the most was, I'd run into a police officer who told me that they had been on the telephone with an officer who was in his attic, and he was drowning, and they talked to him up until the time he drowned. That was very sad. ...
When do you see this turn psychologically, the composure, say, within the administration?
I think we really all held it together through Thursday, when we realized it just didn't seem like things were going to get any better very quickly and we were, at that point, in dire straits.
But I think that we were able to hold it together -- we, not me, we, meaning the wonderful National Guardsmen, police officers, fire chiefs, firemen, firemen and women, EMS workers, everybody there, and then those people who weren't rescue workers who really rose to the occasion. I have to tell you, there were some incredible people, because people that I saw in elected positions, appointed positions, strong people all across the board in some cases, caved when they saw the state of our city, and they found their home, they found their loved ones. And then you have some very fragile people who just rose to the top and became unbelievable heroes. So it was really amazing to watch. ...
Aug. 30 to Sept. 1 seems to be a bit of a moment here where things go out of control a little bit. Can you describe that process on the 30th, what you experienced? ...
If you look at a day like Tuesday, Aug. 30, the storm had passed, and most people thought we were out of the woods. But it was clear that we were having some very significant problems come up. And never in our lifetime did you ever think about the fact that you would be driving through your city and seeing dead people floating through your streets. …
We did have people in our city helping people. We had rescue workers; we had emergency personnel; we had medical personnel. We just didn't have a lot. For the need and the amount of people who needed the help, we just did not have a lot of people. ...
What is Canal Street?
For many years it was the widest main street in all of America. And it's a very historic street in New Orleans. It's got the streetcar that runs through it. It has old shops and galleries, palm trees that line the street. It's a very historic part of New Orleans. The French Quarter sits on one side, and the Central Business District sits on the other. ...
[On Tuesday afternoon] I decided to take a walk down Canal Street, and it was a very frightening walk, because I could see, as I was walking past all the shops, that people were looting the shops. I saw two police officers, and I said, "It's clear; look what's happening." And they said: "It's happening all over. There's nothing we can do about it."
Then I saw the most frightening scene I'd seen yet, and that was two people inside their -- looked like perhaps a Thai restaurant. It looked like the owners, a man and a woman who were behind the glass doors, and there were 30 to 40 people pushing on the glass doors to get in.
And at this point, remember, a lot of people were under a lot of pressure. They thought the water was going to continue to rise, and they were trying to do whatever they could to survive. I think a lot of people thought they needed food; they needed something that could get them out of there. They needed anything that they could barter or trade. People saw people walking with electronics, and they said, "Now, why are they stealing electronics?" Well, perhaps they were stealing electronics at that point to trade it for water. I don't know, but it was very primal, and many survival instincts were setting in.
... What kind of items did you really see them taking, predominantly?
The best recollection I have is I can remember one man walking out with a big thing of diapers on his shoulder, and the man right behind him had two big jugs, probably water, Gatorade, and the next man behind him had some kind of -- looked like paper towels or some kind of paper products. Then you could just see people grabbing food items and liquid items, anything that they could use as provisions. ...
What happens when you get back to the Hyatt, after you've made this walk on Canal Street? Do you remember?
Police Chief [Eddie] Compass and Marlon Defillo, who was one of his deputies, came in and shared with us that a looter had shot one of our police officers in the head and that he was seriously injured. ... It was a very, very sad moment for them, for the entire force, but also for the mayor and for all of us, because it showed that perhaps people within our city would start turning upon each other. That was a very frightening and very surreal moment for us. ...
Our police and firefighters at that point were completely focused on search and rescue, and here they were being shot at. And the looting was intensifying. It made the mayor furious, and that's when he said we need to declare martial law. ...
Before the shooting of [Officer] Kevin Thomas, was there anything that would suggest to you that we go from search and rescue to martial law?
... It was very clear that from Monday, when we started getting bits and pieces of really bad incidents that were happening, those incidents weren't slowing down. We were hearing of fires, of robberies, of carjackings. We were hearing of horrible deaths and drownings and rescues that needed to be occurring at the same time that we were hearing of police officers involved in gunfire and of good people on the street being threatened by thugs or by wandering animals.
There were so many different types of incidents that we were getting reports on. And of course all these reports, because phones were down, were coming via word of mouth. Yet there was no way to call a police captain in a particular district and let them know what was taking place in their district, according to someone's verbal testimony. So it was clear that we were having some civil societal breakdown. It was very clear. ...
Prior to the police officer being shot, what's the reaction of the mayor at this point? Is it growing consternation, frustration, or is he keeping thing cool?
Very cool. He's a very level-headed man. Ray Nagin was not one to show a lot of emotion. He stayed very steady, and no matter what came his way, he tried to work on it. He was very methodical. He's an accountant by training. So he was one of these people that always kept things in perspective, kept a little list going of all the things that were needed.
He tried to focus on the big-picture items, and that big-picture item that he wanted fixed, first and foremost, was the sandbagging of the 17th Street Canal, because we were told that was where the water was coming in. Little did we know that there were several other breaks. ...
Why did [the news of Officer Thomas' shooting] have such a big impact?
Up through when the storm hit on Sunday, and then the reports that were coming in on Monday, most of those reports we're receiving on Monday were weather-related. It was water; it was wind; it was devastation. But it was natural and manmade at this point, so we could deal with that, because of our emergency evacuation plan, the steps that we knew had to be taken by emergency personnel, fire, rescue, etc.
When we started to see things that were perhaps people-oriented -- i.e., looting -- that's when you start to take a different look with a different eye and say, OK, we're still rescuing, but we've got this other situation developing. ...
When Ray Nagin heard that a police officer had been shot in the head and was seriously injured by a looter, he knew everything had changed. He became furious. He turned and said: "We need to declare martial law. This is not what we're dealing with right now. We are dealing with search and rescue. We're dealing with saving lives. If some thug or some thugs are going to go after our cops, then we're going after them."
He's pretty damn serious?
Can you blame him?
What does he mean, martial law, do you think? What does he really mean? Does he know? ...
To my recollection in our earlier meeting prior to the storm, Sherry Landry, our city attorney, had actually informed the mayor … that he could declare martial law in a state of emergency. He did not need to get an ordinance passed perhaps as he might in a regular time period. In other words, the state of emergency precipitated regular processes, and he could immediately declare a state of emergency. That was my understanding.
So when we talked about it, during the storm, I said to the mayor, "I recollect that Sherry said you could automatically call one, if we're in the state of emergency." And the mayor said, "Check with her on that." If I remember correctly, he was saying to Chief Compass to get a boat. Chief Compass was needing a boat, and the mayor had said: "Well, you know, under martial law you can go get a boat. Just go get one. Go find one."
So are you saying he was kind of using it almost as a term of expression, not necessarily a legalistic term? He was saying, "I've got martial law; this is martial law; do what you want"?
Gives us more authority to get the tools you need and the resources you need. So that's when Chief Compass knew that he could, if he needed to get a boat, he could get a boat. If he needed to go into a store to get something, perhaps, he could do that. And I think what the mayor was basically saying was, "Use the resources that I've given you to do the job you need to do." ...
Do you recall who else was in the room at the time?
Chief Compass, Capt. Defillo, myself, Mayor Nagin, perhaps Terry Davis, who was my deputy, and perhaps [then-CEO] Dan Packer from Entergy, who was really the Entergy command center. And we started to take it over a little bit, do most of our business out of there.
And was [Deputy Police Chief] Warren Riley in there, by any chance?
Probably not. Warren and Eddie were hardly ever together.
Not sure. Warren ran operations for NOPD at the time. Chief Riley ran operations, and he was actually quite competent with operations. So we knew that if he were out there doing one thing and Chief Compass was out there doing another thing, that was a good sign, because Chief Riley at that point when we saw him, he was working on, what were the needs of the police department? Where can I set things up? Who can I identify is here? Let's do basic things such as roll call, see how bad our communication situation is. He was an operational thinker, and it was great that he was there.
Was he in touch with you and with your team?
Did you hear anything about a congregation of police in Harrah's?
Yes. That was later in the week. Chief Riley, that's where he started to put his operations. ... City Hall and the Superdome were at one end of Poydras [Street], and Harrah's Casino was at the other end of Poydras. The Harrah's Casino is so big that one door is actually on Poydras Street, and the other door is on Canal Street. So it was the Canal Street side of Harrah's Casino that Chief Riley set up the operations of the NOPD.
When I finally got there, I think it was Thursday, he was running enough of a ship that you could call it NOPD. People had heard that that's where all the police officers were, and he was working on finding out who indeed had been rescued. Who was stationed where? Who was still out rescuing? He was building the operations back up. ...
[What did Deputy Chief Riley report to the mayor on Tuesday?]
He just came in to give his reports to Mayor Nagin. He came to update him on what was going on on the streets and to hear from the mayor himself, but also to give him an update of where we were. It was then that he gave us what supplies and needs the police force had, which were great.
But he also said how alarmed he was, because police officers were actually running out of ammunition, that they were being fired upon, and of course they in some cases were firing back. And it was very easy to go outside and hear random gunfire. ...
Did you talk to Deputy Chief Warren Riley at that time?
Yes. I was in the room, too, and he was a colleague and someone I considered a friend and a credible resource. So I wanted to know what his thoughts were, and from a personal perspective, what was he feeling and thinking. He's a man who is strong and in control, and I wanted to know his sense of what was taking place outside.
What was he feeling at that point?
It was my understanding from looking at him and talking to him that we were dealing with a force that was completely inundated with lack of resources, a force that was trying desperately not only to rescue themselves but to rescue a lot of other people that needed rescuing, and a force that was dealing with looting and thuggery on the streets. ...
... Is he usually this upset?
No, but "upset" is not a word you would use to describe Chief Riley because he is so in control. A better [way] to describe him at this point is grave concern is on Chief Riley's face, and it is clear that he is experiencing things he's never experienced. The man has seen a lot, so I knew that something was very off. It was then that he started to tell the mayor that he was getting reports of terrible things happening in the hospitals, bad situations at hotels, and that some of the people on his force were actually running out of ammunition because of gun battles. So we knew it was a bad situation out there. And the mayor told him, "Go get control of the streets."
[According to your book, Riley] says, "Our biggest problem is we practically have no communications; we have no way to communicate now." What does the mayor say?
That's when the mayor says: "Let's stop search and rescue and bring our force back to controlling the streets. Let's stop the looting, let's stop the lawlessness, and let's put our police officers on the streets so that our citizens are protected."
Riley says what?
Riley says, "We will do that," and the mayor said, "Let's stop this crap now."
What's Riley's reaction to that, do you think?
None. He's just listening and talking. This was so much a situation where we were talking like this. Everything was going at this fast of a pace. It wasn't time to react; it was a time to listen, get your direction, and move. ...
And the fact that I can recollect any of this is solely for the fact that I would take a few notes after little tidbits of information were conveyed. ...
... So get in the head of Mayor Nagin then. At that moment he's saying that, what do you think he really meant? ...
The mayor wanted to make sure our police force was protected. He wanted to make sure our firefighters were protected. He wanted to make sure our emergency workers were protected. He wanted to make sure our medical workers were protected. He wanted to make sure that the people who were there to protect the people in need were also protected. …
Ray Nagin is a law-and-order man. He is someone who believes in law and order. ... He was saying, "Fix it," but he was not saying, "Go out and do whatever you want." He was basically saying, "Let's get this place back."
... Let's go to the WWL [Radio] interview. At that point, what happens? The mayor is out there, and he's talking pretty graphically in a certain way, right? And he's saying, "We're in desperate, desperate times, and we need some help." ... Did you have grave concerns about how he was expressing himself at that point?
Not really. My greatest concern was that we had been told that 40,000 troops were descending upon the city and that we had been told that they were coming Wednesday, and then we had been told they would be here Thursday. And we could look out the window, we could walk the streets, and we could see that there were no troops coming in.
So we were concerned that the folks over at the Superdome who really needed the opportunity to leave the Superdome … and we also knew we had another 20,000 to 30,000 gathered at the Convention Center with no food and water. So we knew that we desperately needed help yesterday, and we couldn't provide it anymore because everybody who could serve in the public safety capacity in New Orleans was already in New Orleans. And many of those people needed help now, too.
We could see that no one was in our city. ... So when he became emotional and [said], "They say they've sent 40,000 troops here, and they're not here," he had every right to become emotional. ...
And when does that interview go out?
Thursday, late afternoon, I believe?
Most of those stories came from Wednesday and Thursday, ... because Wednesday and Thursday were probably the two worst days that we experienced by far. People had been in the refuge of last resort for several days and/or roaming the streets for several days. We had no ticket out at that point, and there was lawlessness on the street. Saks Fifth Avenue and the Canal Place shopping center was on fire. The Hyatt Hotel was destroyed. The Oakwood Mall was set on fire. Several explosions had occurred in the city. One was a chemical plant; we didn't know if it was a chemical that was a pollutant.
We had so much going on that only one would have been considered a major crisis. And we still had water rising. So we had a lot of problems. And when we would hear of things occurring, it was not beyond the pale that it actually had occurred. And there was no way to verify or check out those instances to see if indeed they had occurred.
Now, it was later that we found out that many of those incidents within the Convention Center and Superdome did not occur at all. Many of the thuggery incidents that you heard about on the streets did not occur at all. So to me, there's never been a good deciphering of what really occurred and what didn't.
However, in the Superdome, they kept great records of what occurred and what didn't, so we never should have been talking about things that happened in that Superdome unless we were verifying it through the command center at the Superdome.
But there were really bad incidents taking place in the Superdome. There was a small fire. There was a guardsman that was shot; it wound up being his own gun, but at that point we didn't know. There was a suicide. There were several deaths. There was dehydration; there was fear; there was panic in some respects. There was a hole in the roof, a gaping hole, with rain coming down. And there was water surrounding the Dome, and a lot of people couldn't swim.
So we had a very tenuous situation all throughout the city. And from that came rumors and innuendo that unfortunately some officials repeated as fact.
But I have to tell you that the blame really starts with someone like me, because as communications director, had we been filling that void with solid information, then perhaps those rumors would have nowhere to go. And we weren't filling the void with solid information. Those people in the Dome and in the Convention Center would have loved getting a flyer or some kind of broadcast that told them every day everything we were doing to fix the situation.
You're a communications director without any communications. That's kind of the problem, right? ...
Yes. It's understandable, but at the same time a mistake, too, because, like I said, there were several things reported about what happened in the Dome and what happened at the Convention Center that absolutely did not occur.
Take me into that setting, that hothouse where you are.
When we heard that, for example, on Thursday night, which was probably as bad as it got, and it was late night, I was pulled aside by our health director. He said that a woman that he knew in the Superdome, which was where he was, had pulled him aside and said: "There's going to be a revolt tonight. A large number of men have marked their collars, and a certain hour they're going to overtake the guardsmen." I said to him, "How valid is this source for you?" And he said, "I trust her explicitly."
And we took the health director's information. I walked him over to the mayor. The mayor took his information, believed him and believed what he was saying, and as a result he pulled all the medical personnel out of the Superdome.
If we had had time, and if things were working normally, the mayor wouldn't have done anything without calling the head people at the Superdome, [general manager] Doug Thornton and the National Guard general that was there, and said: "Hey, you've got a revolt getting ready to happen. You need to be watchful of this." Instead he pulls the medical personnel out so they can't be hostages. That's the kind of thing that was occurring a lot more than we knew. And looking back, you can see how clearly wrong some of these things were, but what if they were right? ...
When did Ray Nagin say the thugs comment? ... He was publicly quoted as saying there are thugs on [the street]. ...
When did he say that? I'm not sure. I would have to think that was Thursday. Wednesday and Thursday were our most frightening of times and days. That's Wednesday, Aug. 31, and Thursday, Sept. 1. We were very, very worried about the safety of everybody in the city.
This was a turning point?
Wednesday and Thursday, but there was no "Stop, let's think, let's reflect on what we're dealing with" moment. … You didn't have time to stop and think about it. You walked through vomit; you walked through defecation; you walked through anything and everything. You heard a lot of reports. You kept dealing; you kept going. And if you saw somebody start to fall apart, you grabbed them for as little bit of time as you could or as great of a time as you could, and you said: "Hold it together. You can make it. You can make it." And then you'd walk to the next thing. It was one crisis after another after another after another. ...
... Let's talk about Eddie Compass. ...
Chief Compass is a very personality-driven person, and gregarious, and he was very emotional throughout the time when things started to go south. He showed his emotions when he was in that command center and alone or with the mayor. He was very honest about that it was a bad situation out there, and it was something that he was very much aware of. And he was going to go out and work hard to restore order.
From what I recall, when Oprah came to town, when she got to the Hyatt Hotel, Chief Compass and Mayor Nagin were brought over, and they all said hello and introduced themselves. She began to do the interview shortly thereafter.
It was Chief Compass who started crying in the interview. They cut for a moment, and the mayor pulled me aside and said, "Get him out of here." It was bad. And it's not what you want to ever project. It's not a good image to have a police chief crying on national television. I think Chief Compass would have wanted me to pull him out of there also.
So I was able to pull him aside and let him gain his composure, and then the mayor and Oprah walked over from the Hyatt to the Superdome, and we went inside. They gave us all kinds of warnings about it. But once inside you could see that it really had not been as chaotic of a setting as we had expected it to be.
Now, to be explicit about this, Eddie Compass in this interview, this is when he actually mentions that babies are being raped.
Yes. He told her, "We've got babies being raped." ... There were reports that Chief Compass articulated that turned out to not be true. And I'm sure that there were reports that Chief Compass articulated that turned out to be true. I'm not sure if anyone has ever done a full accounting of what was true and what wasn't, because by the time everything was beginning to be looked at, Chief Compass had already resigned. So we may never know where some of these reports originated and which ones are accurate and how many are inaccurate.
But it's clear when you say that we've got babies being raped that sends the message that several babies are actually being raped. And to my knowledge I don't know of one report that a baby was raped in the Superdome or the Convention Center -- thankfully.
Now, you're a communications specialist. When you have these rumors going out, when you have a public decompensation like that by your police chief, what is that going to do?
It was not great at all for us, the fact that one of our elected officials or an official like our police chief was sending the message that we were having incidents that we couldn't verify, because part of being a police chief or a mayor or a fire chief is reporting the facts. So it was not helpful to us as a city.
However, I need to state that that is predicated by the fact that none of that would have occurred had I been able to eke out in any form the valid information that needed to be eked out to citizens, whether it was just as simple as what areas of the city we are working on, restoring order in? What areas were we doing search and rescue? What areas at this point were flooded?
But we were pumping out no information, except word of mouth, and that just was not sufficient. I did not even have a bullhorn for the mayor to run around the Superdome and make shout-outs in the various levels and in the various sections. And it was a terrible, terrible void, and it allowed a situation like Chief Compass' remarks, and many other things that were said, to be said and reported as fact and then, of course, found out to be completely inaccurate.
Do you have any sense of what that does to the people who are actually trying to keep the order, keep the peace in the city?
Oh, I would think that it would be a horrific situation, because, quite frankly, when I was stopped by [an] officer who told me that there were several officers in dire straits because they had no medicine, no Prozac, no Xanax, and it was really starting to affect their performance, I knew that the very least we could do was to try and give these officers whatever kind of support we could give them, whether it was finding a pillow for them to lay on or a dry shirt for them to sleep in. Whatever it was, they needed support. ...
And by allowing the rumors to occur, by allowing the void of information, all those things led to a terrible burden that they still carry to this day, that they were ineffective. And they weren't ineffective. There were reports that 1,000 police officers left the NOPD and just abandoned their duty. False. Absolutely false. There were so many incredibly dedicated men and women that were here for five full days working nonstop, barely sleeping, working their tails off, to save people who needed saving and to help people who needed help. And they're stuck with the blemish of what we gave them. And that's a very tragic situation. ...
Were you hearing reports of police shootings at that time?
Through the week we heard reports of several police shootings, yes.
What kinds of things were you hearing?
Police being shot at, police being shot, police sometimes shooting the bad guys. When we found situations where the police actually won, you did a little cha-ching, because finally they didn't get us, we got them. And it was not to harm anyone. It was, why would anybody be going after people who were rescuing people, trying to keep people safe, and yet they were going after police officers? ...
[Do you recall the Danziger Bridge incident?]
Police Chief Compass informed us that some construction workers on a bridge were being shot at and that our officers got the people who shot at them. And it was a good feeling, because if indeed people had been shooting at innocent construction workers for the sheer sake of engaging in crazy lawlessness, then so be it if our police officers shot them to stop them. Of course that was not the case, we now know. But if it had been the case, they deserved to be stopped. ...
... Mayor Nagin states that martial law has occurred; we are now in a state of martial law. In communicating that idea to his police chief, do you think as it got communicated down the line, it might have been diffused into the ranks and interpreted in a way that might not have been intended, but resulted in violence, in acts of violence?
I think at this point, [in] the state of the city of New Orleans, that anything was possible. If you're talking about a communication breakdown and an interpretation of what a law is, could that have occurred? Very easily, because communication breakdowns were occurring all over the city. And again, the blame starts with me and our offices at City Hall, those of us who weren't as well prepared as we could have been. But clearly, could any message going down to employees or troops or personnel have been interpreted in a way that was not the way it was meant to be communicated? Absolutely.