• home
  • watch online
  • interviews
  • analysis
  • 14 days
  • discussion
THE STORM [home page]
walter maestri

Dr. Walter Maestri is the emergency manager and homeland security coordinator for Jefferson Parish, an upscale New Orleans suburb. He oversaw the planning and response to Hurricane Katrina and served as a local connection between state and federal officials. In this interview, he talks about how they were forewarned about Katrina by the recovery exercise called Hurricane Pam that FEMA had gamed out with local and state emergency planners months earlier. Pam, says Maestri, was a "perfect model" of what happened with Katrina. After Pam, he tells FRONTLINE, FEMA made the commitment that federal help would arrive to local communties within 48 to 60 hours following such a disaster. With some anger at times, Maestri details FEMA's inadequate response during Katrina and what his community had to resort to when FEMA failed to show up. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 13, 2005.

... So this was a situation waiting to happen. It wasn't a matter of --

No, no, no. Everyone knew. Everyone knew that a Category 4 or 5 hurricane making landfall anywhere close to New Orleans, La., was going to bring a situation like we presently have. ...

Had you done what you could do locally to mitigate the disaster?

What we did and what is in place is that the policy of all the parishes that all are part of metropolitan New Orleans is [unifocal]. It's evacuation, total and complete evacuation in the case of a Category 3, 4 or 5 hurricane, as there's just no way for this community to deal with that if people stay put.

Is it realistic to expect that the local authorities can evacuate a city the size of New Orleans?

Well, we evacuated in Katrina. In Jefferson Parish, it's somewhere between 325,000 and 350,000 people. In Orleans Parish, it's something on the order of 200,000. Everyone knew that that is the most effective means of dealing with this. So we have launched major educational campaigns. We've done everything we could to share with our citizens just what the risk was -- produced videos, gave lectures, interviews on television stations, newspapers and so forth.

The point is that the response has to come from the individual and from the family. Government can do just so much, and government's major responsibility, at least as we see it in this situation, is to communicate the risk and to share with you and every other citizen this is what could happen.

Was the government of St. Bernard's county making the same efforts?

Absolutely. Everyone makes that. All of these counties -- in Louisiana, counties are parishes -- all of the parishes had the same message. They send the same message; they share the information. We in Jefferson, for instance -- we're a little more affluent than some of the other parishes -- we produced a major video using computer simulation, and it showed exactly what happened. We showed the flooding of Jefferson Parish.

Now, this time it was because of a break in the 17th Street Canal. It wasn't really the tidal surge topping levees because of the angle at which the storm approached the coast. But what happened was demonstrated to the citizens: We showed 5 to 6 feet of water in place.

How many of the people had their own means of evacuation?

Well, in my parish, almost all do.

Everything that happened in Pam, which was an exercise, happened in Katrina.  And that's what perplexes me  because FEMA also participated in that exercise.

So what do you do in a case like in St. Bernard's Parish, where people don't have the means of evacuation?

The program there was to do two things. It was true across all of the parishes. We instituted a program about a year and a half ago now called Brother's Keeper, and working through the network of churches in the metropolitan community, we set up a system where a buddy system was developed so that we matched those people who had space in their automobiles with those people who needed a ride. Basically working through the churches, those community organizations, we matched those two together. And so many of those folks who didn't have independent means of transportation were able to go with their friends, their neighbors and so forth and to evacuate the metropolitan area.

In addition, we make available as much as possible the Regional Transit buses and so forth to gather as many people as we can and move them out of the metropolitan area. ...

[Hurricane] Ivan [in 2004] was a kind of warning to the city that the big one was going to come. It could have been Ivan, but Ivan veered off. What lessons were learned from Ivan?

A complete new evacuation plan was developed because of the gridlock that resulted as we attempted to evacuate. ... What happens is that as you attempt to move 1.2 million people out of this area basically on two interstate systems, I-10 East or I-10 West to I-55 or I-59, because safety is north, you create significant gridlock. Now, in this case, in the old plan, we had contraflow in place, but contraflow for a relatively short distance.

... In essence, the interstate out of New Orleans has three lanes on each side going in and going out. What we did was take those three lanes and turn them into six lanes for about a distance of 20 miles in each direction, which gave people a really good head start.

The problem in Ivan was that the evacuation routes led through Baton Rouge, through other metropolitan areas. For Baton Rouge [during Hurricane] Ivan, it was a regular workday, so all the traffic that normally gums up their expressway system and their interstate system on Monday morning as everybody's trying to get to work blocked the evacuating traffic and kicked the gridlock all the way back some 60 to 70 miles. And people were screaming bloody murder because it was taking 10, 12 hours to make a trip that usually takes an hour and a half to two. So after that happened in Ivan, we decided to launch a new evacuation program, and major changes were made.

Were there other lessons and changes made after Ivan?

I think the lesson was a negative one. Ivan reinforced in a lot of citizens' minds a feeling of being invincible, that it's not going to happen. People gave all sorts of theories -- because of the Mississippi River, New Orleans will never be impacted by a major hurricane. Those were the kinds of arguments. ... The common claim is [Hurricane] Betsy, which came in the 1960s. ... And every time I make a presentation, give a lecture, there's always someone in the audience who's the doubting Thomas who said, "Ah, I survived Betsy; I can survive anything."

[I say,] please look at the data. I invite you to come to my office and look at what I look at. I'll show you the models. I'll show you the slosh. I'll give you the whole scientific panoply of documents that we have, and then make up your mind. ...

You participated in the Hurricane Pam exercise. Did you learn anything?

Pam is the perfect model of what happened here. Everything that happened in Pam, which was purely fictional and an exercise, happened in Katrina. I think that's what perplexes me and other local officials, because the state and the federal government, FEMA, also participated in that exercise.

FEMA paid for it. It's their exercise; it's their document. And so we assumed that they knew what it said, what the conclusions were; that the commitments that were made after the scenario was played out would be kept.

What were those commitments?

We were basically told to be prepared locally, to support ourselves for 48 to 60 hours.

That's what FEMA told you?

Right. Right. And they signed [a commitment]. That was after the Pam exercise when everything was played out. In fact, in the FEMA exercise, Pam, the catastrophe was even greater, because Katrina is not the worst case scenario for New Orleans. It's close, but it's not. Fifty miles to the west, if the storm made landfall, that's the worst case scenario for New Orleans, because if New Orleans takes that right-front quadrant, as bad as this flooding is, you're going to see flooding on the order of 20 feet across the community, because the lake [Pontchartrain] will empty into the city, and the Gulf [of Mexico] will push up through Rigolets Pass on the West Bank, and the entire community will become totally inundated. That didn't happen this time, but that happened in the Pam scenario.

The exercise begins with the assumption or the statement by those who prepared it that 40,000 people have perished; 100,000 casualties are in the community. We're not going make anything like 40,000 fatalities in Katrina, so Pam, on paper, was worse than Katrina.

But everyone went through the same thing, and 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. And the problem here that developed in Katrina is that the locals accepted that. We believed it. So in my preparations and in all my colleagues' preparations, we prepared to sustain ourselves for approximately 48 to 60 hours. We had food; we had water. We knew we were going to have to shelter people and place those who did not leave. We began search and rescue missions using local resources and state resources, waiting for the federal cavalry to arrive, and believing that it would be here in 48 to 60 hours.

Why wasn't it?

I don't know.

Who do you talk to at FEMA?

We talk[ed] to Region VI [the FEMA region comprising Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Louisiana].

... 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.

And then you hear Brown saying that you hadn't made those requests. What went through your mind?

I can't tell you. You don't want to put that on tape right now. But I can tell you it was anger; it was betrayal. A calamity was going to be intensified. We were going to look at now devastation squared, and we were going to see human suffering that didn't have to happen if what had been committed occurred.

Let me back you up to 2004. The budgets for emergency management and for the Army Corps of Engineers were being cut. ... Was the level of funding that came back from Washington inappropriate?

Well, the point that we made, those of us who are in this community and in the surrounding coastal communities, is that we deal with terrorists every year, and we know those terrorists are coming. Those terrorists' names are Andrew and Camille and Audrey and Katrina and so forth, and they're coming, and we know it. And we know that one or two or five or six or whatever are going to be major acts of natural terrorism. And so while we need to gear up to deal with human terrorists, we can't forget the natural terrorists that are part and parcel of our daily lives.

Max Mayfield, the director of the National Hurricane Center, and those of us who had sort of a national stage on which to speak -- I had the opportunity to address the National Academy of Sciences, and I made the point most vociferously in the presentation and the article that followed it that we could not and should not avoid funding for these natural catastrophes, ... recognizing that we had to begin a major national effort to deal with terrorism, but not at the expense of what you just saw occur.

Where is the money going to come from is what people are going to say.

Well, I think the issue we made at that time -- and it's an interesting argument -- is pay me now or pay me later. You're going to pay now; the estimates are more than $160 billion to rebuild this community. If you had pre-positioned all of the resources that needed to be here, if you had raised the levees or begun that process or looked at some of these other out-of-the-box ideas, it wouldn't have cost $160 billion, and we wouldn't have lost as much as we have. Several parishes here are gone. I was in St. Bernard Parish yesterday. There's nothing left. ...

So you sat by and had to face these shrinking budgets in the face of more money to fight terrorism, and during this period of time, what are you saying? Who are you talking to in Washington, in the state level?

Anybody who would listen. Anybody who would listen. ...

Did you have specific conversations? Ever talk to any of the officials in Washington and FEMA?

I spoke to Secretary Brown himself. I was on a panel with him in Florida two years ago, and this is when all of this was being launched, and the major grants. ... I basically reminded him that while we all on the local level recognized the necessity to provide funds to gear up to deal with acts of international and national terrorism that we could not forget that we also had to have funding and resources, and FEMA itself had to remain strong to deal with the natural disasters that we know are going to come.

Were you satisfied with his assurances?

No. He said, "We're going to balance that appropriately." When that kind of a comment is made, you begin to look. I manage both budgets [for emergency management and homeland security], and so I start to look for some sort of a balance. It didn't happen. In fact, grants that had already been made for mitigation projects were in fact suspended because the money to fund awarded grants had to be diverted to these other necessities.

And you had no authority to take your budget money against terrorism and apply it to helping prepare for a hurricane.

We're not given that latitude. ...

Even before 9/11, there were changes at FEMA. What was happening?

Well, certainly former Secretary [James Lee] Witt brought FEMA to the forefront. He was a very strong personality. He promoted programs for communities to become safe, and [he advocated prevention]. ...

I think that perhaps is part of the problem that occurred here, because of what was happening then in the '90s. Into the end of the '90s, we believed that those commitments that were made would be held up; they would follow through. ...

When [former Bush campaign manager and FEMA Director Joe] Allbaugh came in and took over, there was talk right then already of downsizing FEMA.

Absolutely. But interestingly enough, Director Allbaugh, right after he became the director of FEMA, called together leaders in emergency preparedness and management and basically said that he had directed FEMA to identify those areas most prone to destructive natural events. He invited us [to] the National Hurricane Conference that was held in Washington, D.C., to meet with him, and he shared with us the report that he had asked his underlings to prepare as to the greatest potential natural disasters -- you know, an earthquake on the San Andreas Fault in California; a land-falling hurricane in New Orleans, La. And he said, "We're going to focus on these natural disasters which have been identified as costing tremendous amounts of money and potentially sources of tremendous loss of life."

That is what led to the Pam exercise. It's the first time in history that FEMA did what's called a recovery exercise. Most of the FEMA exercises that we participate in are pre-landfall exercises -- what are you going to do before the storm comes?

Pam was different. The storm has come. We begin from that premise, and we've got 40,000 people dead, and the community is under 16 feet of water. And you've got this happening; you've got that happening. Now what are you going to do? How are you going to recover? What do you do after the storm comes?

[So what did you do after the real storm came?]

As we went into the days after the storm, and we have people sheltered in last-chance refuges -- let me tell you what that is. Last-chance refuge is simply a building that we opened, and we really don't have food and water there, because we're saying to those citizens who have chosen to stay: "Look, guys, this is going to be big. And perhaps now, the last minutes and hours before the storm arrives, you don't have time to get out of here now. It would be much more dangerous for you to try, because your house is going to be better than an automobile, because in an automobile you really don't have much of a chance at all. So stay where you are. But if you're not sure now that your house can really take this, as you feel 130-mile-an-hour sustained winds and gusts over 160, we're going to open these structures and you can go there. And we'll come as soon as the storm's over and get you out of there. And hopefully you'll survive there."

So we did all of that. And when we went to get those people, at least at the beginning after Katrina passed, we thought we're pretty much out of the woods here. It was not the water that we thought it was going to be. Within five hours, I start to get reports from my staff members, who are out doing assessments, the water's rising. We're saying: "Wait a minute -- that can't happen. The storm is gone. It's up in Mississippi. What's the cause of this?"

And it's then that we realized that the levees had failed along the 17th Street Canal. ...

So hours are going by. You've got these people in these temporary shelters. Help is not coming. What are you doing?

Well, the first thing we do is to try to extend our own resources. We're trying to get food and water and so forth to these people. We recognize and realize that the 60-hour mark is going to pass, and the cavalry won't be here, because we're asking in every way we can: "Where are you? What's happened? When can we expect you to be here?"

Who are you calling?

We deal through the state of Louisiana to FEMA, and we're told it's all moving, and our response here locally is, "Well, that's great, but it ain't here." And we've got hungry people; we've got frustrated people; we've got angry people. You've got a real situation on your hands. And we can only do so much because we stocked for 60 hours.

What we did in actuality is, under Louisiana law, the parish presidents, the head of the counties, have the authority, then, to use private resources. In all honesty, we begin looting. We go to Sam's [Club] and Wal-Mart and Winn-Dixie and gather up food and water and start distributing it, because we had 60 hours' worth of resources that we had stored, but now we're out of it. ...

And all the time you're back in the --

And I'm back over here on the radio and on the telephone and on the satellite phone saying, in essence, "What the hell is going on? Where are you? Boys, let me tell you, this is real, real serious here." And of course, the Superdome, which the city used as its last-chance refuge, with 35,000 hungry, angry, frustrated people who have sat in stadium seats now for 60-plus hours -- these folks are getting very upset. ...

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."

Other people have said that one of the greatest failures here was the failure of leadership, a failure of anybody to emerge who could get in people's faces and get on TV or on the radio or on the streets and inspire the kind of civic sense that would have really brought this community together.

You know, I was trained as a psychologist, and I'm going to tell you, when people are hungry, when people are angry, when people feel that they have been betrayed, it's not leadership that they're looking for; it's water, it's bread, it's a resolution to the situations that they have experienced. And so whether it's [Jefferson Parish] President [Aaron] Broussard --

Could leadership have inspired some of those bus drivers to --

I don't think so. I think those people, because of what they were hearing was happening, were literally scared.

We lost an entire shopping center. Oakwood Shopping Center, the second largest mall in the greater New Orleans, was torched. Now, I understand the anger, but the looting that began after this is not bread and water; it's not soup and SPAM. People are now grabbing, breaking, taking and so forth. I can understand some of the fear of these folks. Our question is: Where are you? Where are you with the law enforcement agencies, with the troops or whatever it's going to take to assist in this?

On the part of the lack of federal response, there's shame there. Is there shame in the performance of the policemen in New Orleans and the failure of the mayor to rally his forces to go into battle, essentially?

First of all, I don't know New Orleans' game plan. I've spoken to those folks, but I will tell you this: They, just as we were here, were basically angry themselves because of what had happened. 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 ...

As we left the last conference call and shut down to hunker down while the eye came across, I'm sure everyone -- certainly locally, and I think at the state level -- believed that it was going to happen. FEMA was right there in the Baton Rouge EOC. ...

We watched this storm as it meandered through the Atlantic and then up the Gulf Coast, came into the Gulf of Mexico for six days. We're all watching this. So, I mean, that's lots of time. There's nothing happening. It's a bright, sunshiny day outside. We can pre-position resources all over the place, bring it closer -- bring the water, bring the food, bring the MREs [Meals Ready to Eat].

And you weren't seeing them?


So you knew that FEMA wasn't responding?

No, we didn't see that because truthfully, we weren't looking for them. What we thought here and were told on the conference calls -- "That's all happened; everything that we committed to has taken place. ..." [The] FEMA [representative from Region VI] is on the conference call every time, and he's saying, "We hear you; we hear you; we know." ...

Do you think that patronage in politics crippled FEMA?

Well, I think all of us who work in the political arena, appointed or elected officials, recognize that in our system, patronage is going to be part of it. It's there, and it's a given. What you must do is control it, and control it to the point that you provide the resources, and you make sure that the resources are there at least to deal with catastrophe. For example, now you can't walk across the street without bumping into six FEMA officials. They're everywhere, and I welcome them there.

My question is, where the hell were you 17 days ago?

What did you think of FEMA being folded into the Department of Homeland Security?

I guess personally, I feared that. We certainly wrote letters asking that it not happen, contacted congressmen in our districts; we contacted our United States senators. At the time, I think all Americans were caught up in what we had witnessed in New York. We all felt that we had to respond to that, and that we had to do something different, because none of us wanted to ever again see airplanes being used as missiles. ...

But in hindsight, I think, though, the point is -- and I've spoken to a number of New York policemen who have come down here to help us now, and they make the point to us -- ... the difference between 9/11 and Katrina is that Katrina has affected all of the community, and 1.2 million people.

As horrible as 9/11 was, it only affected the people in the immediate area. The rest of Manhattan, the rest of New York and the outlying area was not directly affected.

Literally almost every citizen is touched by this. I don't know of anyone whose home, whose property, whose family has not been impacted. Even in this affluent parish, which is the typical bedroom community of any major metropolitan area, I've still got 200,000 citizens away from here, either in hotels, motels, with family and friends, or in shelters across the southeastern and southwestern United States. We're getting calls every day: "When can I come home?"

And we're rushing to try to restore essential services. We can't bring people back until literally they can go to the bathroom, and right now they can't because the sewage system isn't operating; [until] they can turn on a water spigot and trust the water's going to come and that it's safe to drink. ...

What resonates for you as the most meaningful conversation with the federal officials since this tragedy?

I've met the local parish FEMA coordinator, a very good man who is absolutely committed to the work that he does and who, once he first arrived, said: "I'm sorry it took so long. I'm really sorry." These are professionals in this agency, not political appointees, whose lives are basically dedicated to working in disasters and helping those who have been impacted.

But the other thing that is most impressive for me is this particular gentleman, who will not allow bureaucracy, red tape or anything else to get in the way of him providing the services that are necessary, and when he moves through the bureaucracy and gets to a point where he's being stymied, will literally call and say: "Listen, I can't move it past here. You now need to jump up and call the admiral who's here as the principal federal official, or, if you have that opportunity, to meet with the president of the United States, share with him this need."

home + introduction + watch online + interviews + analysis + 14 days
special video + discussion + teacher's guide + readings & links
producer's chat + tapes & transcript + press reaction + credits + privacy policy

posted nov. 22, 2005

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
background photo copyright ©2005 corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation