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THE STORM [home page]


Produced by Marcela Gaviria and Martin Smith

Coproduced by Chris Durrance

Written by Martin Smith


MICHAEL BROWN, Director, FEMA 2003-'05: FEMA is not going to hesitate at all in this storm. We're going to move fast, we're going to move quick, and we're going to do whatever it takes to help disaster victims.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: We will do everything in our power to help the people in the communities affected by this storm.

ANNOUNCER: They said everything was under control, but then came the test.

WALTER MAESTRI, Emergency Mgr., Jefferson Parish: We're asking, you know, "Is anybody out there listening? Does anybody out there care?"

JANE BULLOCK, Chief of Staff, FEMA, 1995-'01: Who was in charge of that disaster? Was it Mike Brown, was it Michael Chertoff, or was it the president?

Mayor RAY NAGIN, New Orleans, 2002-present: [radio interview] It's too doggone late. Now get off your asses and let's do something! And let's fix the biggest crisis in the history of this country!

ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE, Correspondent Martin Smith asks what went wrong—

MARTIN SMITH, Producer/Reporter: Did you fail?

MICHAEL BROWN: No, I— I do not think— I'll make a great confession here. You know what? FEMA makes mistakes in every disaster.

ANNOUNCER: —and whether America will be prepared next time disaster strikes.


RESIDENT: [home video] Wow! Here comes a blast. Geez! [unintelligible] Here it comes! It's in the house. It's up to the top. I never thought I'd die this way.

NARRATOR: Almost three months after Katrina, there are still questions. Why didn't New Orleans evacuate sooner? Why were so many people left behind?

RESIDENT: [home video] OK, I better get off the air, put this thing in a watertight bag. Man, look at that stuff! When's this supposed to stop?

NARRATOR: Where was the National Guard? Where was the Army?

RESIDENT: We've got to get out of here, guys!


RESIDENT: I can't believe this!

NARRATOR: There are just as many explanations for what went wrong: Local and state officials failed to plan. The U.S. military waited too long. FEMA was poorly led. The government was indifferent to victims who were mostly poor and black.

MAN IN TRUCK: What's up?

MAN IN STREET: How're you doing, man? I had to leave out of my house, man. I don't know whether this water's coming over that levee or what.

MAN IN TRUCK: I don't— the last I heard, it's not.


MAN IN TRUCK: The storm missed us.

MAN IN STREET: Think I can get in there to get somewhere?

MAN IN TRUCK: I got no room.

NARRATOR: In the first few hours after Katrina hit, many believed that New Orleans had dodged a bullet. At the headquarters of the Louisiana National Guard, located in the lower 9th ward, the soldiers were not yet aware that the canal levees were giving way. The Guard's commander was monitoring the situation from Baton Rouge.

Maj. Gen. BENNETT LANDRENEAU, Louisiana National Guard: I spoke to an airman at Jackson Barracks and I asked him about the water, and he told me that it had rained very little and there was just— except for just a few puddles of water in the parking lot, there just was no water. And then he hesitated a minute and he said, "Would you hold the line a minute? I need to look at something."

And he came right back and he said, "I don't know why, but there's probably a foot of water on Claiborne Street." Then immediately, he said, "Sir, there's two feet of water on Claiborne Street." Very shortly, he said, "Cars are beginning to float out of the parking lot. There's a river of water moving into this area."

NARRATOR: Trapped inside the headquarters were around 300 soldiers. They lost power. Their back-up generators flooded. Their communications center was useless. They lost 15 high-water trucks with mobile communications packages. The Guard spent most of the next 24 hours saving itself.

Across town, the police headquarters was also under water. Only three quarters of the force showed up for duty.

911 OPERATOR: Police operator 16. OK, ma'am, what is your location?

CALLER: 6023 [unintelligible] Rampart. [unintelligible]

911 OPERATOR: OK, and you're in the attic?

NARRATOR: With most of the city's switchboards flooded, residents were lucky if they could make a 911 call.

CALLER: I got a handicapped girl. The water is coming up.

911 OPERATOR: So you are on the roof?

Capt. JEFF WINN, New Orleans SWAT Team: Lower 9th ward was in real bad shape, 5th district was in real bad shape. At 3:00 and 4:00 o'clock in the morning, they were still calling for help, I mean, and sobbing on the air, saying, "Please, come and get me out."

MARTIN SMITH: Did you have enough boats?

Capt. JEFF WINN: No. If anything haunts me about this whole situation, it's pulling them back and saying, "Look, we've got to go back out at first light."

NARRATOR: For many, it was too late.

MARTIN SMITH: And the failure of communication systems cost lives in those first days. Fair statement?

Lt. Gen. STEVEN BLUM, Chief, U.S. National Guard: If any lives were lost because people were late to getting there, it's because the people that couldn't call 911 and tell them where they were. That's communications. They couldn't pick up their cell phone, they couldn't pick up their house phone and call anybody and say, "I'm trapped in an attic. Come get me."

MARTIN SMITH: Nor could a SWAT team that was in a forward position call for backup.

Lt. Gen. STEVEN BLUM: That's correct. Nor could a soldier that's out in a boat, in some cases, call back and say, "I've got five people on a roof and my boat can only handle four," that kind of business.

WALTER MAESTRI, Emergency Mgr., Jefferson Parish: We've got hungry people, we've got frustrated people, we've got angry people.

MAN ON SIDEWALK: No food! No water! I mean, the bare necessities! We need help! We all need assistance!

WALTER MAESTRI: And we're asking, you know, "Is anybody out there listening? Is anybody out there watching? Does anybody out there care?"

WOMAN ON SIDEWALK: New Orleans is hot! We can't take this! We've been out here for three days. And we've been asking for help.

MAN ON SIDEWALK: Where the policeman at? Where the National Guard at to control all of this?

Mayor RAY NAGIN, New Orleans, 2002-present: I'm swimming in it. People are trying to give me their babies that are sick, and senior citizens saying that they— you know, they couldn't take it anymore. We need help. We need troops. We need resources. We need food. We need water.

NARRATOR: But it was the mayor's responsibility to stock the shelters with enough food and water and to mobilize city and school buses for evacuation. Five hundred were flooded when the levees broke.

MARTIN SMITH: Did you ever talk about having buses on higher ground prior to the storm?

Mayor RAY NAGIN: No, other than what we normally do is to put our RTA buses, you know, at the location that has never flooded.

MARTIN SMITH: Why not move buses to high ground?

Mayor RAY NAGIN: We did not have the drivers. We had the buses, but there were no drivers. We had to scrounge around to find enough buses—

MARTIN SMITH: And you had no National Guardsmen to drive the buses.

Mayor RAY NAGIN: The National Guard was not on the ground.

MARTIN SMITH: There were National Guardsmen at Jackson Barracks.

Mayor RAY NAGIN: At Jackson Barracks? Jackson Barracks flooded.

NARRATOR: On day three of the disaster, President Bush flew over the area.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: The National Guard is nearly 11,000 Guardsmen on state active duty to assist governors and local officials with security and disaster response efforts. FEMA's moving supplies and equipment into the hardest hit areas.

NARRATOR: What the president couldn't see was what was happening on the streets below.

RADIO INTERVIEWER: What did you say to the president of the United States, and what did he say to you?

Mayor RAY NAGIN: I basically told him we had an incredible crisis here and that his flying over in Air Force One does not do it justice.

MAN ON SIDEWALK: How is a 3-week-old infant going to be able to survive out here with no milk, no water?

NARRATOR: On day four, Mayor Ray Nagin went on a local radio show.

Mayor RAY NAGIN: I don't want to see anybody do any more goddamn press conferences. Put a moratorium on press conferences. Don't tell me 40,000 people are coming here. They're not here!

MARTIN SMITH: When I hear you on the radio there on Thursday, you seem a little unglued.

Mayor RAY NAGIN: I was. I mean, you know, I was watching all this suffering at the Superdome, and I was hearing the president do a press conference. I was hearing the governor do a press conference. And I was hearing all these people doing press conference. And what they were saying was not reality.

Gov. KATHLEEN BLANCO, Louisiana, 2004-Present:   To Mr. President, thank you, thank you, thank you.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF, Secretary of Homeland Security: We are extremely pleased with the response of every element of the federal government—

Mayor RAY NAGIN: And I just— I said, "Uh-uh. I've had enough of this." And then I called up behind it and I said, "Look, here's what's really going on." And the rest is history.

[radio interview] It's too doggone late. Now get off your asses and let's do something! And let's fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country!

NARRATOR: State and local officials were 80 miles away in the state capital, Baton Rouge.

Gov. KATHLEEN BLANCO: Director Brown, I hope you will tell President Bush how much we appreciate it. These are the times that really count.

MICHAEL BROWN: What I've seen here today is a team that is very tight-knit, working closely together, being very professional, doing— and in my humble opinion, making the right calls.

NARRATOR: In his first full-length TV interview post-Katrina, former FEMA director Michael Brown tells FRONTLINE that during the crisis, he misled the public to quell panic.

MICHAEL BROWN: Well, because I'm not going to go on television and publicly say that I think that the mayor and the governor are not doing their job and that they're not— they don't have the sense of urgency. I'm not going to say that publicly. I don't think that's the proper thing to do.

MARTIN SMITH: So though you said that, you didn't feel that way at that time.

MICHAEL BROWN: Oh, absolutely not. You know, I'm just not going to go on public television and bash in the middle of a disaster what I think people should or should not be doing.

CROWD AT CONVENTION CENTER: We need help! We need help! We need help!

NARRATOR: Brown's assurances weren't convincing.

WOMAN AT CONVENTION CENTER: We've haven't eaten in, like, five days.

NARRATOR: By day four, he appeared completely out of touch.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC News: Where is the aid? It's the question people keep asking us on camera.

MICHAEL BROWN: Brian, it's an absolutely fair question, and I got to tell you from the bottom of my heart how sad I feel for those people. The federal government just learned about those people today.

MARTIN SMITH: You say, "Brian, it's an absolutely fair question. The federal government just learned about those people today." Now, you have subsequently said that you had misspoken.


MARTIN SMITH: But you said it again to Ted Koppel.

TED KOPPEL, ABC News Nightline: Don't you guys watch television? Don't you guys listen to the radio?

MICHAEL BROWN: We've been so focused on doing rescue—

I'll take you one further. I think I actually said it to Soledad O'Brien.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN: I don't understand how FEMA cannot have this information.

MICHAEL BROWN: Soledad, I learned about it listening to the news reports.

MARTIN SMITH: So you said it three times.

MICHAEL BROWN: I said it three times.

MARTIN SMITH: So how do you misspeak three times? I don't understand.

MICHAEL BROWN: I understand why people can— can now look at that tape and say, "Brown's saying he just learned about that? He really must be an idiot." I simply misspoke. I knew about it 24 hours before, and I should have said, "We just learned about it 24 hours ago, Brian."

MARTIN SMITH: I just don't understand how you would misspeak three times about that situation.

MICHAEL BROWN: Well, I'll tell you what we'll do. Next time there's a really big disaster, we'll put you in charge of it, we'll not give you any sleep, and we'll put you on this side of the chair, this side of the camera, and we'll pepper you with questions for a couple hours at a time and then see how tired you are.

NARRATOR: Brown's counterpart in Baton Rouge was Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a former school teacher and two-term lieutenant governor. Her critics say she was unprepared and made vague, confusing requests to Washington.

Gov. KATHLEEN BLANCO: You know, I asked for help, whatever help you can give me. If somebody asks me for help, and— I'll say, "OK, well, I can do this, this, this and this. What do you need?" But nobody ever told me the kinds of things that they could give me.

[CNN interview] My first conversation with President Bush was asking for all federal firepower. I mean, I meant everything. Just send it. Give me planes, give me boats, give me people.

MARTIN SMITH: You've been criticized for not asking for help in the right way, that you didn't understand the system—

Gov. KATHLEEN BLANCO: When you say, "Help, help," just, you know—

MARTIN SMITH: Well, did you ask for troops?

Gov. KATHLEEN BLANCO: I wanted, you know, more help. I wanted whatever assets they had.

NARRATOR: Mayor Nagin was asking the same questions of the governor.

MARTIN SMITH: What were you asking for?

Mayor RAY NAGIN: We need help. We need troops. We need resources. We need food. We need water. You name it, we need it.

MARTIN SMITH: And what did she say to you?

Mayor RAY NAGIN: She said she was going to help.


Mayor RAY NAGIN: Then time went on.

MICHAEL BROWN: With all due respect to them, I think they were just truly overwhelmed.

MARTIN SMITH: Well, as I understand it, when local officials are overwhelmed, that's why we have FEMA.

MICHAEL BROWN: That's correct. But FEMA does that based upon the priorities of what the state establishes. The state is still in control. We don't come in and take over. We don't have the resources to take over.

NARRATOR: And Brown claims that he couldn't really help Louisiana because officials didn't tell him what they wanted.

[www.pbs.org: Read Brown's extended interview]

MICHAEL BROWN: I talked to General Landerer—

MARTIN SMITH: Landreneau.

MICHAEL BROWN: Landreneau — I'm sorry — the adjutant general, about some of the things— you know, I actually went to him and said, "Help me help you. What do you need?" And I remember being surprised because he didn't have, like, a list of priorities or things that he needed.

NARRATOR: But General Landreneau says Brown is wrong.

MARTIN SMITH: Are you saying that he's making this up?

Maj. Gen. BENNETT LANDRENEAU, Louisiana National Guard: I'm— I'm not going to— you know, I'm not going to comment on— on what Mr. Brown said or didn't say.

MARTIN SMITH: But he's making a charge about you.

Maj. Gen. BENNETT LANDRENEAU: But I can assure you that— that we requested assistance from FEMA. We've got documentation to show that.

NARRATOR: After that interview, General Landreneau sent FRONTLINE a 48-page document from FEMA. It shows hundreds of specific requests that FEMA had received from the state for manpower, equipment and supplies.

Other Louisiana emergency managers say FEMA simply didn't deliver.

WALTER MAESTRI, Emergency Manager, Jefferson Parish: We were flabbergasted by some statements made by high FEMA officials, including Undersecretary Brown, when he said that he did not come or FEMA didn't come because the locals didn't ask. The locals did ask.

MARTIN SMITH: You told FEMA that you needed help.

WALTER MAESTRI: We needed this. We needed that. And not only help, we needed specifics.

MARTIN SMITH: And then you hear Brown saying that you hadn't made those requests.

WALTER MAESTRI: That's correct.

MARTIN SMITH: What went through your mind?

WALTER MAESTRI: It was, you know, anger. It was betrayal. It was a calamity was going to be, you know, intensified and we were going to look at now devastation squared

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Good morning. Yesterday I saw the aftermath one of the largest natural disasters ever to strike America.

NARRATOR: In Washington, it took six days for the administration to acknowledge the inadequacy of the federal response.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Many of our citizens simply are not getting the help they need, especially in New Orleans. And that is unacceptable.

RICHARD FALKENRATH, Homeland Security Adviser, 2001-'04: There was a period of days when we weren't sure who was directing the federal response, and were all the actions being taken. And the impression given in those four days is basically indelible, and it is injurious to the president. There's no question.

NARRATOR: Everyone pointed fingers at everyone else. No one came in for more criticism than FEMA Director Brown.

JANE BULLOCK, Chief of Staff, FEMA, 1995-'01: My only understanding is that someone didn't pull the trigger to get the resources there. And who was responsible for pulling the trigger is questionable because I could never figure out who was in charge of that disaster. For the first five days of the disaster, was it Mike Brown, was it Michael Chertoff, or was it the president?

NARRATOR: It had been a very long week. America's top National Guard officer says he hopes next time, things would be done differently.

MARTIN SMITH: What was the impact of the flooding of your headquarters?

Lt. Gen. STEVEN BLUM: Oh, just dramatic effect.

MARTIN SMITH: So did it make sense to have it in a place where you knew there was a possibility of flooding?

Lt. Gen. STEVEN BLUM: In hindsight, no.

MARTIN SMITH: You wouldn't do it that way again.

Lt. Gen. STEVEN BLUM: No, I don't think they would. I don't think they would.

NARRATOR: But General Landreneau insists he made the right call.

MARTIN SMITH: So you'd do it the same way. You wouldn't change the way you deploy.

Maj. Gen. BENNETT LANDRENEAU: No. We would have personnel and equipment at Jackson Barracks again.

MARTIN SMITH: I talked to General Landreneau, and he said he would do it again. He would do it exactly the same way.

Lt. Gen. STEVEN BLUM: Well, I would— I would hope that he would think that through a little more carefully.

NEWSREEL: Exceptional tides flooding inland on the Texas coast underlined the warnings on the approach of Hurricane Carla.

NARRATOR: The establishment of FEMA grew out of a series of disasters back in the '60s and '70s.

NEWSREEL: Evacuation was aided by school buses which took nearly a thousand men, women and children to safety. Reports put the total number of refugees at half a million. They were wise to get out in time.

NARRATOR: The first, Carla, struck on September 11th, 1961.

NEWSREEL: When the hurricane struck, it lashed in at 170 miles an hour. Hurricane Carla, the wildest of the century!

NARRATOR: A wave of monster storms followed.

NEWSREEL: Another 25,000 refugees to swamp already crowded shelters.

NARRATOR: When Hurricane Betsy struck Louisiana in 1965, half of New Orleans flooded. Four years later, Hurricane Camille devastated the Gulf Coast again.

NEWSREEL: From Biloxi to Bay St. Louis, everything's in shambles.

NARRATOR: There seemed to be no end.

NEWSCASTER: It's been more than a week since Hurricane Agnes brought the flood waters to—

NARRATOR: There was no FEMA in those days. Relief work was the collective responsibility of more than 100 different federal agencies.

NEWSCASTER: Free food is being passed out. Much of it comes from the Department of Agriculture.

NARRATOR: People often complained about lack of coordination and poor results.

NEWSCASTER: Many of the people here and others in the path of Hurricane Agnes were completely wiped out. Many of them feel that federal aid is too slow in coming, and too little.

NARRATOR: Eventually, it was state governors who pressed President Jimmy Carter into streamlining federal response. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was created in 1979. Ironically, over the next decade, there were fewer disasters to respond to.

LEO BOSNER, Pres., FEMA Employee Union: I remember I used to write position papers about disaster planning. We always had to use examples out of South America or a Mexico earthquake or Africa or something because there weren't killer disasters in the U.S.

NARRATOR: FEMA quickly became a sort of backwater. Under Reagan and Bush, it endured scandal and became a parking lot for political appointees.

LEO BOSNER: George Bush One appointed— this is like deja vu all over again. He appointed a non-emergency planning person in charge of FEMA. That was Wallace Stickney. The only claim to fame I ever heard was that his wife and another fellow's wife used to go shopping together and that's how he got the job to be the head of FEMA.

NARRATOR: In fact, Stickney was hired because he was a friend and past adviser to Bush's chief of staff, former New Hampshire governor John Sununu. In 1992, his FEMA would face the first Category 5 hurricane to hit the U.S. in 23 years.

BILLY WAGNER, Emergency Mgr., Florida Keys: I was at the hurricane center two days before Andrew even developed real well and I saw it unfolding, and you could see what was going to happen. I can remember that a lot of people just didn't take it seriously.

NARRATOR: Andrew was compact, just 60 miles across, with ferocious 175-mile-an-hour winds. But it missed Miami.

BILLY WAGNER: The news media, the first thing they did was go to Miami Beach and around Miami, and they said, "Oh, yeah," you know, "it doesn't look too bad." And nobody even paid any attention to poor Florida City or even Homestead. I could tell when I got up there that nobody in the state of Florida could handle the situation.

NARRATOR: The storm had damaged or destroyed 125,000 homes. Thousands were stranded without food or water. Overwhelmed, local emergency managers waited for FEMA.

KATE HALE, Dade Emergency Mgr., 1988-'96: And we waited and we waited. And it became apparent that the outside world really didn't get what was going on, really didn't understand how desperate the situation was, and you're looking at people in your community dying as a result of it. We had people from FEMA telling us that they couldn't give us the resources cause we hadn't asked the right way.

JANE BULLOCK: We simply didn't get the resources down there in time. We had no relationship with the State of Florida, so we weren't sitting with the governor finding out what was going wrong, and we were dysfunctional, just as we— as FEMA was dysfunctional during Hurricane Katrina.

KATE HALE: At that point in time, it became apparent that we needed to do something extraordinary. We had nowhere else to go.

[press conference] If we do not get more food and water into the South End in a very short period of time, we are going to have more casualties because we're going to have people who are dehydrated, who are without food, babies that need formula. All I know are a lot of people are saying why aren't we doing more. We're doing everything we can. Where in the hell is the cavalry on this one?

Within three hours, apparently, the switchboard of the White House was just absolutely inundated with calls from all over the United States. The Pentagon was activated in three hours.

REPORTER: Mr. President, do you, as president, bear some responsibility for the delay in federal help?

Pres. GEORGE H. W. BUSH: We're not talking about delays. The military was ready to move instantly— hot planning right from the very beginning.

NARRATOR: President Bush nudged his FEMA director to the sidelines and inserted his secretary of transportation, Andrew Card, as fix-it man.

ANDREW CARD: This is not a time to stand around and talk, it's a time to get busy, and that's what I'm down here doing.

NARRATOR: Card was immediately besieged with questions over why it had taken five days to send in the troops.

ANDREW CARD: As soon as Governor Chiles made the request for federal troops to come in and assist, we acted on that request.

Pres. GEORGE H.W. BUSH: I don't want to participate in the blame game, and nor is Governor Chiles.

NARRATOR: Andrew was an election year disaster for the Bush administration. The new Clinton White House recognized the political value of reforming FEMA.

RICHARD CLARKE, National Security Council, 1992-'03: After Hurricane Andrew, which was in the last year of the Bush administration, everyone realized that FEMA had been a dumping ground for political favors and political appointees. And the Clinton administration said, "OK, we don't want to have that happen on our watch, what happened to President Bush 41 with Hurricane Andrew. So let's clean out all the political appointees, not put Democratic political appointees in there, but get professional emergency responders from state emergency response units and create it as a professional agency."

NARRATOR: Clinton tapped James Lee Witt, formerly Arkansas's state emergency manager, to become the first FEMA director in the agency's history with direct experience in disaster management. He was also a very savvy pol.

LEO BOSNER, FEMA, 1979-Present: I remember the first day he was there. He stood in front of the entrance of FEMA, like a politician, and he shook hands with the FEMA employees coming in at 8:00 o'clock in the morning. "I'm James Witt. I'm your new director. Glad to meet you." And right away, people thought, "Hey, this is interesting. This is something different."

JAMES LEE WITT, Director, FEMA, 1993-'01: Everybody across the country loved to hate FEMA, and the morale was just terrible. It just wasn't performing, and we made FEMA a more functional organization, a flatter organization and with less bureaucracy.

NARRATOR: Republicans and Democrats alike agree that under Witt, FEMA finally became the professional disaster agency it was supposed to be.

MARTIN SMITH: You were never tested with a disaster of this proportion, though.

JAMES LEE WITT: Well, I don't know if I— if you— not the magnitude, I guess you would say, but probably close. North Ridge earthquake was one of the largest in history, the Mississippi River flood was quite large, nine states, and Hurricane Floyd, which flooded almost all of North Carolina.

NARRATOR: Witt focused on prevention, or mitigation, working with communities to prepare for disasters. He began Project Impact with $30 million in seed money.

JAMES LEE WITT: Congress asked us to do a cost-benefit analysis on the mitigation, and we did that. And we found that every dollar spent saved anywhere from $3 to $5 in future losses. But it did more than that, it saved lives.

NARRATOR: Project Impact gave money to seven pilot cities, and by 2000, nearly 250 communities had joined. But not all cities had participated in the program. New Orleans, for one, opted out.

MARTIN SMITH: What would New Orleans have gotten had they participated in Project Impact?

JANE BULLOCK: New Orleans could have sat down and brought all their community leaders together, both private sector and public sector, and looked at what their risks were. Obviously, everyone in New Orleans recognizes that they live below sea level, recognizes that the levees are a protection, but as we've seen, not the ultimate protection. Then they could begin to address some of the issues.

Gov. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), Presidential Candidate: I— you know, as governor, one of the things you have to deal with is catastrophe. I can remember the fires that swept Parker County, Texas.

NARRATOR: In the 2000 presidential debates, Bush praised Witt and FEMA.

Gov. GEORGE W. BUSH: I've got to pay the administration a compliment. James Lee Witt of FEMA has done a really good job of working with governors during times of crisis.

NARRATOR: But after Bush became president, Witt left the agency. Like his father, Bush stocked FEMA with political appointees with little or no professional experience in emergency management. His campaign manager, Joe Allbaugh, became FEMA'S new director.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: I couldn't have made it to Washington without him, and I can't tell you how honored I am that he has come to Washington to serve his country. Thank you for accepting this responsibility.

[www.pbs.org: More of the FEMA story]

NARRATOR: Following the Bush budget-cutting agenda, Allbaugh set out to trim FEMA. One of the proposed cuts was Project Impact.

In late February, 2001, Microsoft was hosting a conference in Seattle when a major earthquake struck. That same day, as Seattle officials were crediting Project Impact with minimizing damage to life and property, the administration cut the program from its budget. And in May 2001, Allbaugh told Congress that FEMA was, quote, "an oversized entitlement program."

He brought in his friend of 25 years, Michael Brown, to be FEMA's new general counsel.

MICHAEL BROWN: In certain areas, I think that FEMA had become bloated. There was a general desire to make it as lean and mean as possible, that if there was any fat that needed to be cut out, we should cut that out.

NARRATOR: To focus the agency, Allbaugh identified the three most likely disasters facing the country. They were an earthquake in California, a hurricane hitting New Orleans and a terrorist attack in New York.

By all accounts, FEMA performed well after 9/11.

JANE BULLOCK, FEMA Chief of Staff, 1995-'01: When 9/11 happened, the career people in FEMA did what they always do. They went up to New York and immediately set up a disaster field office, set up communications.

NARRATOR: Allbaugh would not talk to FRONTLINE on camera, but in a telephone interview he told producer Martin Smith that, "The FEMA you saw on 9/11 is not the FEMA we see today," unquote. Allbaugh says the fault lies with what happened next.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Tonight I propose a permanent cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security to unite essential agencies that must work more closely together, among them—

NARRATOR: It would be the largest reorganization of government in 40 years, made up of 22 federal agencies scattered across Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia. For the new boss, the challenge was get this archipelago of agencies to function as one unit.

CLARK KENT ERVIN, Inspector Gen., DHS, 2003-'04: This would test the competence of a Jack Welch or a Lee Iacocca. The department was this huge management challenge, a huge budget, about $30 billion to $40 billion or so, the third largest agency in the government, and all cobbled together in a matter of months. And yet we had at the top someone who'd never managed anything larger than the immediate staff of a governor or the immediate staff of a congressman.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: The department is under the command of a superb leader who has my confidence. Congratulations, Tom.

TOM RIDGE, Secy. of Homeland Security, 2003-'05: If you look at the Department of Homeland Security, it's like a holding company, where you had some mergers and acquisitions, you had a couple of new start-ups, basically putting together 20-plus units of government and about 180,000 people.

[www.pbs.org: Study a chart of DHS's structure]

NARRATOR: The department became much larger than Congress had ever proposed.

MARTIN SMITH: Then they decided to form a larger department than you had recommended.

WARREN RUDMAN, U.S. Commission on Natl. Security: Correct.

MARTIN SMITH: Bad idea? Good idea?

WARREN RUDMAN: It was a bad idea because I think that any government reorganization has to come in relatively small bites and— or else you get indigestion. If you look at our original report, it was a much leaner organization. The key parts of it were FEMA, the Coast Guard, Immigration and Customs enforcement. But here you had a lot of other things that went in which, in my opinion, didn't belong there.

NARRATOR: In the bureaucratic shuffle, FEMA was downgraded from an independent agency to a sub-department of Homeland Security.

LEO BOSNER, FEMA Emergency Specialist: What it looked like to us was that for whatever reasons, a well-run system was either on purpose or accidentally just being pulled apart and shredded because our system wasn't perfect, but it worked pretty well.

JANE BULLOCK: FEMA was a very small agency. Being moved into a huge department, where it would have agencies like Immigration Services, Transportation Security Administration, groups and organizations that had 10,000 to 20,000 employees in it, and a small agency like FEMA could not possibly compete. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security became a death knell for FEMA.

NARRATOR: The morale at FEMA plummeted. Scores of life-long employees left the agency. Director Joe Allbaugh left for the private sector. Michael Brown took over.

MICHAEL BROWN, Director, FEMA, 2003-'05: When you move FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security, you do create this added layer of bureaucracy that FEMA has to deal with in terms of budgets, in terms of personnel, IT systems, everything. There was almost $80 million that was taken out of FEMA's budget to use in other areas of the Department of Homeland Security. And once we moved FEMA in there, these taxes started to occur, and we started to lose the resources, that was a mistake.

MARTIN SMITH: People inside FEMA complained that they got taxed to pay for this new overhead.

TOM RIDGE: Well, it's quite interesting they use the word "tax" because these agencies and their individual heads understood that as part of the integration process that we're going to redistribute some of the dollars they had.

MARTIN SMITH: You don't think FEMA was hurt by the reorganization.

TOM RIDGE: No. Of course not. No.

MICHAEL BROWN: Terrorism was the issue du jour. That was the issue. And I want to emphasize that I don't minimize that issue because I do believe it's important. But you need to be prepared to respond to a disaster, regardless of what causes it.

NARRATOR: Brown was also planning to leave FEMA for the private sector around the time Katrina struck.

MICHAEL BROWN: [teleconference] Let's get started immediately. National Hurricane Center, you want to give us an update?

MAX MAYFIELD, National Hurricane Center: There's a very, very large hurricane—

NARRATOR: For all the cutbacks at FEMA, Brown faced Katrina with some planning under his belt.

MICHAEL BROWN: OK, we will move now on to the states. Louisiana?

NARRATOR: A year earlier, the agency had sponsored an exercise called Hurricane Pam that forecast Katrina.

WALTER MAESTRI, Emergency Mgr., Jefferson Parish: Pam is the perfect model of what happened here. You know, everything that happened in Pam, which was purely fictional and an exercise, happened in Katrina.

NARRATOR: But Pam set up false expectations.

WALTER MAESTRI: Commitments were made at the end of the exercise— "This is what we're going to do. This is what you're going to do. This is what this one's going to do." And the problem here that developed in Katrina is that the locals accepted that. We believed it.

NARRATOR: After 20 days and $850,000, the administration cut FEMA's funding for the Pam exercise before it was completed. This 121-page draft report shows that key planning decisions were not yet made. The issue of medical care for hurricane victims was not yet finalized. Communications were not addressed at all. Key transportation decisions were left "to be determined."

As Katrina approached, state and city officials knew they were unprepared.

Capt. JEFF WINN, New Orleans SWAT Team: The storm was coming. It was heading dead on in.

Sen. MARY LANDRIEU (D), Louisiana: It had been gaining strength and headed closer.

Capt. JEFF WINN: A direct hit was going to be really bad for the city.

RICHARD CLARKE: They knew for days that a hurricane was going to hit a city that was already below sea level.

Gov. KATHLEEN BLANCO: I said, "Mr. President, it's going to be a big one. It's going to be bad. And I'm going to need a lot of help. Well, you know, I have a very small state."

Mayor RAY NAGIN: [August 28, 2005] Ladies and gentlemen, I wish I had better news for you, but we are facing a storm that most of us have feared.

NARRATOR: In those last hours before landfall, dozens of copies of the Pam report were distributed to emergency planners.

Mayor RAY NAGIN: Every person is hereby ordered to immediately evacuate the city of New Orleans.

NARRATOR: But when it came to evacuation they were forced to improvise.

Mayor RAY NAGIN: We basically communicated with all of, you know, the people in the city, especially the churches, to say, "Look, this thing is coming." We faxed out to everyone. We had talked about buddying system. And for the most part, a lot of churches participated and got people out.

MARTIN SMITH: Can we evacuate cities, really?

TOM RIDGE, Secy. of Homeland Security, 2003-'05: I think it would prove to be virtually impossible on very short notice to get urban America out of the way, as it were. So I think one of the difficult lessons from a Katrina-like event is that it's very difficult to do. We weren't as well prepared as we should have been. Pure and simple.

MARTIN SMITH: Why weren't you pre-positioned?

MICHAEL BROWN: We were pre-positioned.

MARTIN SMITH: With buses that you could get people evacuated out?

MICHAEL BROWN: We did not have buses pre-positioned because that was a state and local responsibility. Now, I don't want to sound like I'm, you know, passing the buck here, but we rely upon state and local governments. Evacuation laws are state and local laws. That's not a federal law.

NARRATOR: But Brown is not entirely correct. Evacuation is a shared responsibility. U.S. federal law governing homeland security states clearly, "The functions of the Federal Emergency Management Agency include ... conducting emergency operations to save lives through evacuating potential victims."

MARTIN SMITH: Weren't people dying while waiting to be rescued?

MICHAEL BROWN: Yes. They absolutely were because people who either did not or could not evacuate, as the waters began to rise, they found themselves in situations where they were going to die. And every rescuer on every helicopter and every boat was trying to get to every person that they could.

One busload would have saved some people. Two busloads would have saved twice as many people. Things like that, that I just wish all of us had been a little more oomph about.

NARRATOR: Brown's regrets aside, there was an age-old political caution operating, a belief in maintaining strict constraints on federal power.

MARTIN SMITH: Shouldn't it be the role of the federal government to be setting standards for evacuation?

Adm. JAMES LOY (Ret.), Dpty. Secretary, DHS, 2003-'05: I think it's the mayor's responsibility.

MARTIN SMITH: It's not the federal government's responsibility to make sure that our cities can be evacuated in a timely fashion?

Adm. JAMES LOY: We are really talking about a logic path that takes you to pretty Orwellian nature.

MARTIN SMITH: But yet we have educational standards. It's the responsibility of states to have good, clean air—

Adm. JAMES LOY: Yeah, I hear you. I know what— I think I—

MARTIN SMITH: It's not Orwellian to have clean air standards nationwide.

Adm. JAMES LOY: It's a step in the direction, and I would offer that if, in fact, the mayor or the governor had had that imposed on them, there would have been some, "Not so fast" associated with it.

NARRATOR: The Hurricane Pam exercise had predicted 100,000 people would be left behind. The vast majority of the more than 900 people who died in New Orleans were elderly, 154 of them patients in New Orleans area nursing homes and hospitals. Thirty-four died in this facility alone.

MARTIN SMITH: Why did that happen?

WALTER MAESTRI: It appears that the staff did not implement their plan, which requires them to evacuate, and I suspect didn't believe that the storm was going to be as disastrous as it was. And when they realized it, they couldn't do anything. And so they decided to save themselves, and they ran and left these, you know, 30-some-odd older people to fend for themselves. And they died in their chairs.

NARRATOR: The rescue of thousands of city residents was delayed for days by the inability of people to communicate with each other.

Lt. Gen. STEVEN BLUM, Chief, U.S. National Guard: All of the existing communications were out. They just were non-existent for probably 36 hours. The electricity is gone. Power is gone. Your phone system is gone. Your ability to communicate is literally gone. Those people were blinded, they were deafened, and they were dumb.

Gov. KATHLEEN BLANCO: And that was probably the most frustrating thing and the most— the thing that hampered efforts the most, and not have a portable network in place to take care of that.

MARTIN SMITH: Secretary Ridge told me that post-crisis communications, emergency systems, was something that they had.

MICHAEL BROWN: And for example, FEMA does have that. FEMA has—

MARTIN SMITH: So what happened to it?

MICHAEL BROWN: We used it. The problem is, FEMA doesn't have enough of it.

MARTIN SMITH: But whose responsibility is that? Whose fault is that if FEMA doesn't have enough?

MICHAEL BROWN: Well, 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."

MARTIN SMITH: If we believe this president was focused on any one thing, it was certainly preparedness and the war on terrorism. But yet four years after 9/11, we have no results on communications.

WARREN RUDMAN, U.S. Commission on Natl. Security: Yeah. Oh, I think that's a failure. I think it's a failure on the part of the Congress. It's a failure on the part of the administration, specifically, a failure on the part of DHS. People should've paid more attention to that.

I mean, if we ever learned anything, we learned on 9/11 in New York that those valiant people who lost their lives, many of them might not have lost their lives had they been able to talk to each other. They just weren't able to.

NARRATOR: The ability of first responders to talk with one another is called interoperability. Despite widespread recognition of its importance, very few cities have it.

WARREN RUDMAN: You've got to get interoperability of communications, or else you're going to have disaster no matter what goes on.

SWAT OFFICER: The primary channel is going to be Spec One. If Spec One goes down, NOPD guys, your back-up channel's going to be on Spec Two.

WARREN RUDMAN: If I were in a position to make a decision, the first thing I would do is to start funding interoperability for every major metropolitan area in this country. And I'd get it done this year.

MARTIN SMITH: He we are, four years after 9/11, and we still don't have robust interoperable communications. Why?

TOM RIDGE: The interoperable communication dilemma is one that has existed to your point before 9/11, and the tragic consequences were most vivid on 9/11. Ultimately, a nationwide system, I think, is the goal of all the emergency responders, but it will take time to develop.

NARRATOR: Back in 2003, New Orleans got a chance to upgrade its system.

NEWSCASTER: The city of new Orleans and seven surrounding parishes won a major federal grant to operate an emergency communications system.

NARRATOR: It was big news, a $7 million grant from the Department of Justice to build an interoperable communications network.

NEWSCASTER: Deputies from opposite parishes will be able to communicate with special radios.

Mayor RAY NAGIN: This is quite ambitious, but I think it reflects a realization that we must encounter the risks that we face together if we're going to be successful.

NARRATOR: The city was ready to build a network that would allow all existing first-responder radios and phones to interconnect. But big tech companies with competing plans lobbied the mayor's office. With no federal guidance, the project stalled.

MARTIN SMITH: Why not just say, "You have to have such-and-such a system in place in one year from now, and you've got to buy this system to these specifications, and that's the deal"?

TOM RIDGE: We're not going to pick a vendor over another. You can keep pressing me on this point as long as you want. The fact of the matter is that they're spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make their systems interoperable. They've begun that process four years ago. The process continues today, and in time, that is what will occur. It will not occur overnight, but there is sufficient intensity to this proposition that it will be done.

MARTIN SMITH: The Public Safety Wireless Network says that three states — Delaware, Michigan, North Carolina — have mature or widespread interoperability.


MARTIN SMITH: Well, if Delaware, Michigan and North Carolina can do it, why can't the rest of the country do it?

TOM RIDGE: It's the federal system of government. And it's one of the challenges as you build a department and try to create not a federal capability but a national capability.

WARREN RUDMAN: Well, that's baloney. We impose standards on airports. We impose standards on interstate highways, on bridges. We impose standards on harbors. We impose standards on almost everything. And the federal government, if it's going to give out money, has a right to demand standards, and interoperability is one of those standards. And to say that somehow— that that is impinging on federalism is, to use a polite word, baloney.

NARRATOR: Over the last three years, the Department of Homeland Security has handed out $8.1 billion to the states. They've bought everything from bullhorns to hazmat suits to helicopters.

RICHARD CLARKE: There are no specific goals, no specific requirements, and no plan to get from here to there. As a result, we have cities that bought bulletproof vests for K-9 patrols, so that we have dogs with bulletproof vests. We have cities that bought air-conditioned garbage trucks with Homeland Security money without ever solving their communications problems.

RICHARD FALKENRATH, Homeland Security Adviser, '01-'04: The federal government has handed out a lot of money. In my personal opinion, it has handed out that money with far too few conditions on how the state and local agencies spend it. State and local agencies have the authority, under the Constitution, to spend money as they wish on things they want to buy.

SOLDIER: Attention, citizens of New Orleans! Be advised that the Superdome and Convention Center have been closed.

RICHARD FALKENRATH: That is the deal in the federal government system. That, unfortunately, is federalism.

NARRATOR: It wasn't until day six of the disaster that the federal government flexed its muscle: 7,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne and 1st Cavalry divisions, under the command of General Russel Honore, hit the ground. The situation began to improve.

[www.pbs.org: Explore a timeline of the disaster]

MICHAEL BROWN: I really believe the most serious mistake that I made was not just saying, "Look, we just can't get this done by ourselves, let's go ahead and get all these troops in here now. Let's don't get 500 troops to come in here and help with distribution. Let's get 10,000 troops in here and do something."

NARRATOR: The Louisiana National Guard had been overwhelmed. Not only was its headquarters flooded, but 35 percent of its soldiers were on duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: [September 15, 2005] Americans have every right to expect a more effective response in a time of emergency.

NARRATOR: Two weeks after Katrina, President Bush addressed the nation from New Orleans.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: It is now clear that a challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces, the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment's notice.

NARRATOR: In his speech, he called for all federal, state and local agencies to review their performance.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina.

NARRATOR: Military planners are now considering setting up a permanent rapid reaction unit designed to respond to domestic disasters. The price tag has not yet been determined.

Meanwhile, plans have been drawn up to further reduce FEMA. In June 2005, two months before Katrina, Director Michael Brown sat down to write a memo to the number two official at Homeland Security.

"This is to express serious concerns about the direction this is taking emergency management in this nation," Brown wrote. "The proposed organizational structure is doomed to fail ... I don't want to see us fail this president or the nation."

JANE BULLOCK, Chief of Staff, FEMA, 1995-'01: This latest reorganization that Secretary Chertoff has suggested, FEMA loses more stature. FEMA becomes an office. And not just that, it loses all of the preparedness functions. And FEMA becomes a very small response, recovery, mitigation organization.

NARRATOR: But on October 18, President Bush signed the order to take responsibility for preparedness out of FEMA.

As everyone struggles to answer questions about Katrina, the storm's lesson remains clear: the high cost of being unprepared.

RESIDENT: [home video] It came up pretty fast. We've been pretty ineffective [unintelligible] evacuation. Oh, look, there's somebody swimming around outside, going to get in my tree. Who's that? It's my neighbor, apparently. What the hell's he doing swimming down the block? I can't imagine what this guy's doing out. Well— [sighs]

[Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and the White House declined to be interviewed for this program.]



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ANNOUNCER: This report continues on our Web site, where you'll find FRONTLINE's extended interviews with local officials, FEMA officials and national security experts, a timeline of the warnings, the decisions leading up to the disaster and the failures in leadership, home videos of New Orleans residents narrating what happened when the water surged in, experts' analyses of the communications breakdowns, our ability to handle future catastrophic events and what went wrong at all levels of government. Watch the program again on line and join the discussion at PBS.org.


Next time on FRONTLINE

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ANNOUNCER: —alternative medicine.

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