Almost three months after Katrina, there are still questions about the breakdown in preparedness, coordination and leadership. A House and a Senate Select committee are both conducting investigations to get at what went wrong.
Here, offering glimpses into the chaos on the ground in Louisiana in the immediate days following Katrina's landfall are government officials who were responsible for disaster preparedness and response: Michael Brown, FEMA director 2003-2005); Kathleen Blanco, governor of Louisiana; Ray Nagin, mayor of New Orleans; Walter Maestri, Jefferson Parish emergency manager; Leo Bosner, Watch Officer, FEMA National Response and Coordination Center; and James Lee Witt, FEMA director (1993-2001).
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… You called the White House and said you were having a horrible time, that you couldn't get a unified command established. What did you mean?
In the 164 disasters that I've handled while I was at FEMA and, in fact, all over the world, this is how it's done. You have a unified command structure in place where all people who are responding to the disaster come together and work together as one so that you can establish the priorities and allocate the resources so that they are best utilized to save lives and sustain lives.
In every disaster in this country, I've been able to establish that. I established it in Florida last year with four hurricanes. I established it in California a couple of years ago with the California wildfires. Everywhere we go we do that, and I could not get that established in Louisiana.
And that means that somebody would be in charge in Louisiana. But wasn't Louisiana Gov. Blanco in charge?
She's the governor, so she is naturally in charge. It's my personal belief that if you're in charge, you have to make decisions; you have to give orders; you have to establish priorities. You have to make certain that you tell those around you what you expect to get done and to get those things done.
And you're saying she wasn't doing that? She wasn't issuing orders?
I couldn't find that. I couldn't see that. You know, Adjutant General [Bennett C.] Landreneau [head of the Louisiana National Guard], I actually went to him and said: "Help me help you. What do you need?" I remember being surprised because he didn't have a list of priorities or things that he needed. With all due respect to them -- I mean this from the bottom of my heart -- I think they were just truly overwhelmed.
Well, as I understand it, when local officials are overwhelmed, that's why we have FEMA. So your job is to come down there and see what it is they need when they're out of commission.
But FEMA does that based upon the priorities of what the state establishes. The state is still in control. It is the state's responsibility. FEMA comes in to coordinate and help the state. I think there's this misconception that when FEMA comes in, we take over. We don't come in and take over. We don't have the resources to take over.
We kind of come in as almost like the conductor of an orchestra, and the state says to us, "We want to have a great trombone section doing something," so we direct the trombone section to play. But if we don't get that direction from the state about what they need or what their priorities are, then we have to start establishing our own priorities and do what we can to help where we can.
… And I think what has been missed in the whole story about Katrina is that is exactly what FEMA did. … What the news cameras haven't shown or talked about is that we had the Coast Guard; we had the Louisiana Department of [Wildlife and Fisheries]; we had the U.S. military out rescuing people. Those rescuers went in there and started saving lives immediately. FEMA was doing that.
Tony Robinson, who was director of operations down there, said you didn't have enough pre-positioned; you didn't have enough in communication packages working. Given the size of the hurricane, you didn't have enough. Why not?
It's so easy to armchair quarterback this thing and say, "Well, you didn't have enough of this or that." And in some areas that may have been true. But I can guarantee the American public this: FEMA took every resource it had and activated it and deployed it to that region. What that probably tells us is if it's true that there wasn't enough, it means that FEMA didn't have enough.
Whose fault is that if FEMA doesn't have enough?
That's all their fault. That means that Congress and the administration and the FEMA director and everybody else needs to sit down and say, "If we're going to truly be ready for a catastrophic disaster, we need A, B and C."
But given that you had gone through the Hurricane Pam exercise and knew the size of this storm and knew the potential -- and, in fact, in Pam more people died than in Katrina -- it's not to me armchair quarterbacking. It's Tony Robinson telling me that you didn't have enough.
As I have said, I think that one of the biggest mistakes that I made as the FEMA director during Katrina was not immediately turning to the military and saying: "We have been overwhelmed. We need you to take over logistics, distribution of commodities, etc."
We immediately did turn to the military and mission-assigned them to start doing airlifts, start bringing things in. The mistake that I made was not doing that sooner and not giving them the orders that we needed them to do all of that immediately, because we were all overwhelmed. …
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… I will be interviewing Michael Brown on Friday, and he's going to say some things, and I want to give you a chance to respond. And I know he's said to Congress, when he testified, that he got to Louisiana, and he had an immediate sense that nobody was in charge.
Well, he never expressed that to anybody. He was very complimentary. He seemed very comfortable with the fact that he had ordered 500 buses to help with the evacuation efforts. And in the end, 500 buses was a very small number.
But the only point of frustration that I had with Michael Brown was on the delivery of goods and services. Those buses did not start working until Thursday … about midday. If I had not called in the school buses from around the state by executive order, we would still be evacuating people maybe. …
But Brown says he couldn't get a unified command. It seemed to him, he says, that nobody was in charge. What's he talking about?
Well, I have no idea, because we have a very organized Office of Emergency Preparedness, and many communities and states have modeled theirs on our model. Did we have enough? No. I recognized that immediately. That's why we began to call in more National Guard. That's why we began to call in extra help from the federal government, and that was supposed to be FEMA. I'm not going to sit here and knock Michael Brown. Frankly, I have no idea what he's talking about. …
I just really wanted the goods and services to arrive in a timely fashion, and I think that was probably the critical frustration. I don't think that Michael Brown himself recognized the magnitude.
How could he not? He was with you. He saw it when you saw it.
When we were together on Tuesday, he did see it. But I don't know, I can't explain what was going on there. All I know is on Wednesday night I was convinced that there were no FEMA buses. I began to believe that no buses had been ordered. We were moving school buses in, but they're designed for short hauls. …
And there was a lot of back-and-forth between you and Michael Brown over these buses?
There was no angst. Michael Brown never demonstrated a sense of panic or urgency. …
But isn't that your responsibility, to have a sufficient number of buses sort of mobilized prior to this event?
Well, let me say that on Tuesday, we had buses. And we started rolling buses in on Tuesday. And on Wednesday, we got more buses. And on Thursday, we got even more buses. And then the FEMA buses joined our buses. So nobody wrote the book before all this occurred.
But let me say we're going to write the book in the future. And we were doing what was necessary. We were responding and reacting as the events unfolded and as we needed to respond and react.
There's this moment on CNN where you say to Denise [Bottcher], your press secretary: "I need to call the military. I should have started that in the first call." What did you mean?
Well, I had the feeling that there were a number of people in Washington who did not really understand the magnitude of what we were dealing with, and frankly, I asked for help -- "Whatever help you can give me." But nobody ever told me the kinds of things that they could give me. But the system was supposed to produce some things, and it felt like it was not, so I felt that maybe some bold request for the military might spark that sense of urgency. …
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… Sure, we could have done some things better, and I'm going to take a look at that. But the realities were, we put our RTA [Regional Transit Authority] buses, which are under the city's control, in an area that has never flooded before, and we were planning to use them if we needed them.
In addition to that, there were other buses that are associated with the school board that are not under our direct control. So going forward, I would like to look at a plan that basically says, OK, let's take every bus that we have available and move them to another area. And then hopefully we'll have the drivers necessary. The big struggle we had with this past event, most of the drivers evacuated. And even if we did have those buses staged, we probably couldn't have got them out.
You say you didn't have enough drivers. Why not use the National Guard to drive the buses?
… They have to be activated by order of the governor. During our event, they were slow coming also. We had maybe 200 to 250 National Guardsmen that stayed with us for the first three or four days.
[Gov. Kathleen Blanco] had activated the National Guard on Saturday, I thought.
I heard that. All I can tell you is that the amount of guardsmen that were in the city of New Orleans was a group of about 200 to 250.
There were National Guardsmen at Jackson Barracks.
… Jackson Barracks is flooded.
How big of a loss was that?
Jackson Barracks hurt for a number of different reasons. That was the area where we staged our police boats, and we were going to try and use the boats if we needed to go out and rescue people, which we did.
We had a fleet of 20 or 30 boats, and at the end of the day, the storm blew away most of them. So I don't know how many we started out with at Jackson Barracks. I had just had a briefing a couple of weeks before the storm on what their capabilities were, and I was told that they could mobilize immediately 2,500 National Guard members.
All I can tell you is that in the city of New Orleans, …we had maybe 200 to 250 guardsmen that we could account for.
Did you get on the phone? Did you have communication that you could call and ask for guardsmen?
When we could get through -- keep in mind, the hurricane … just decimated all the communications networks that were available. …
And what did you say to the governor when you got through to her? What were you asking for?
We need help. We need troops. We need resources. We need food. We need water. There's 15,000 people in the Superdome. It's flooded in the streets of New Orleans. Every available police officer and firefighter is rescuing people. We're swimming. We're confiscating boats. We're doing everything possible to save lives.
And what did she say to you?
She said she was going to help.
Then time went on, and we were still struggling with resources. …
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… We were flabbergasted by some statements made by high FEMA officials, including Undersecretary [Michael] Brown, when he said that FEMA didn't come because the locals didn't ask. Well, that's wrong on two counts. The locals did ask, and on a series of conference calls that are held among all the parishes as the storm approaches, FEMA representatives are in the state's EOC [Emergency Operations Center], and we are making requests. Those conferences are recorded, and anybody who wants to hear them can hear the tapes where the requests are made.
And you made those requests yourself.
I made the request for Jefferson Parish, absolutely. It's my responsibility.
You told FEMA that you needed help?
We needed this, and not only help -- we needed specifics. …
One of the pictures that gets a lot of play are these buses underwater that weren't positioned in a place where they could aid evacuation after the storm. Big mistake?
Absolutely. And let me be clear: We know for a fact that buses were all along the interstate system for miles and miles and miles, because when we didn't get any assistance from the state or from FEMA in the time period that we thought was appropriate, I got someone in an automobile and said: "Go to Baton Rouge; go find out. I've got to know now. I'm not interested in the phones anymore; I'm not interested in the radio. Go up there, face to face, and say, 'What is happening here? Where is water? Where is food? Where is all the things that we need to get out of here?'" And he passes literally hundreds of buses lined up, school buses lined up to come and get these folks. But the problem was that because of the fear that resulted from the civil unrest, the bus drivers said, "We're not going in there to pick these people up unless you put a law enforcement official on every one of the buses, because we're afraid." …
In essence, we here were dealing with what we considered to be a series of lies that had been told to us. We asked for the assistance, and we were told, "It's coming, it's coming." Well, it didn't come, and it certainly didn't come in the timelines that we had been told. …
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In this current crisis, did you see specific examples of DHS [Department of Homeland Security] bureaucracy interfering with FEMA's ability to respond to Katrina?
Definitely. I know this because I work in the Information and Planning Section. This happened last year during the Florida hurricanes and happened even worse this time. Our job in the Information and Planning is to get information that the operational managers need to run the disaster, meaning if someplace is short of ice or short of water, or if someplace says they need more emergency teams, or if the medical teams say, "Well, we have medical teams here, but they don't have any satellite phones; we don't have any vehicles to take them someplace," our job at FEMA at the headquarters here is to act quickly and get those resources to them and get things moving, and get the information to the decision makers to do those things.
Well, what happened especially in the early stages of Katrina, was at FEMA we were getting peppered with questions from Homeland Security. And at first we sort of took it in stride. There would be questions: "Well, where are the teams located? Send us a map. Do this, do this." OK, we'd get the information for them.
But the questions would become sometimes more and more detailed: "Well, what exact kind of work are these teams doing? Give us a description. Send us a whole position description of what they're doing." It's getting very bureaucratic, and it's interfering with our work. We're there on 12-hour shifts trying to get the things done for the operational people, and it's like our sleeve is being tugged every little two minutes. And we have to answer it because it's Homeland Security, and they require an answer with questions that clearly were much too detailed to have any operational significance to these people. They weren't going to do anything with the information.
What was this a result of?
I think it was a result of two things: Number one, the people at the Homeland Security Department who have never been involved in a disaster, in emergency before, and so they're just asking questions that would be a novice's question. They might be fine if you're attending a seminar sometime, but in the middle of a disaster isn't the time to say, "Send us a description of all the teams and what they do and what their authorizations are and a copy of your laws," and everything else.
You were asked these questions?
Yeah. We were asked these questions. … If we didn't have the information at our fingertips, we, the FEMA people, were expected to go to these federal agencies [whose representatives come to FEMA during disasters] and to get them to contact the people in the field, who are out there in their rubber boots in helicopters and everything else and trying to do the rescues, and call them on their satellite phones and ask them, "Now, we know you're busy, but you can just sort of stop what you're doing for a while and give us these numbers, because we need to specify -- we said yesterday there were 312 rescues in such-and-such county, but now we're seeing it was 309. We need to clarify, was it 312 rescues or was it 309?" God, the people are out there trying to save lives. &hellipl;
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… With a storm of this magnitude, you would think -- particularly if you had a chance of it hitting New Orleans -- you would have the Corps of Engineers start getting and gathering up the biggest pumps that they could find, on a barge, to make ready to come in. You'd think that DoD would be advised, "We're going to need this, this, this and this."
I know we did that many times. DoD actually worked very close with us. They had a colonel as a liaison at FEMA headquarters with me every single day, and any time we activated that operations center, that colonel and others were there in the operations center with us, and we were tasking them. …
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