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THE STORM [home page]
The Lessons of Hurricane Katrina

While much is still being investigated nearly three months after Katrina lashed through the Gulf Coast, government officials and experts on preparedness and national security say they've already learned some lessons from the catastrophe. They say it's a wake-up call for other disasters ahead. Will we be ready?

Commenting here are: Warren Rudman, co-chair, National Security Commission; Tom Ridge, secretary, Department of Homeland Security (2002-2005); Michael Brown, FEMA director (2003-2005); Richard Clarke, National Security Council (1992-2003); Richard Falkenrath, Homeland Security adviser (2001-2005); and Leo Bosner, FEMA National Response and Coordination Center. These excerpts are drawn from their full interviews with FRONTLINE.


Co-chair, U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century (1999)

Warren Rudman

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…What did Katrina tell us about what's not working in our system of preparedness?

If you have a major disaster involving hundreds of thousands, or in this case millions of people, whether it be a natural disaster or an act of terrorism, the first 72 hours are going to be totally chaotic no matter what you plan to do. If there were a major earthquake in Los Angeles, with bridges and highways and railroads and airports all shut down and huge buildings collapsing, I don't care how much planning you do, the first 72 hours is going to be chaotic.

And in Katrina, when you have a half million residences made either non-inhabitable or destroyed on the entire Gulf Coast, and you have that number of people affected, there's no way you're going to get a quick response.

For the American people to think that if something like this happens again, that somehow we're going to get everything done nicely in the first two or three days, it just doesn't happen. That's why we call them disasters.

But somebody's going to listen to that and say, "Oh, he doesn't think there was any bad performance on the part of the federal government or local or state government."

I think all of them could have done somewhat better. The two things that could have been better is number one, to get major military force into the community almost immediately to make sure that there was law and order. Number two, we had enough helicopters to airlift food into the centers of population and those places. We could have done that better. But beyond that, in the first couple of days, not a lot more. …

And let me just make one other point that we made in our commission report [Editor's Note: The U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, popularly known as the Hart-Rudman Commission, was a bipartisan Defense Department-chartered project that delivered in January 2001 its final report (PDF) on how to strengthen America's security.] The president's very right about one thing: When you have a disaster of that scale, whether it be natural or a terrorist attack, there's only one part of our entire government, state or local, that is equipped to handle it, and that's the U.S. military. They have the command; they have the people; they have the discipline; they have the equipment; they have the transport; they have the communications. They have what it takes.

No civilian agency, including FEMA, can by itself handle this kind of a mess. They just don't have it. The 82nd Airborne can do it, and the 101st Airborne can do it. FEMA can't do it, not in the first few days. Impossible.


Secretary, Department of Homeland Security (2002-2005)

Tom Ridge

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… I don't believe you need to be in any way involved in emergency preparation or response to see that there was a significant disconnect between the federal, state and the local government. I can't tell you, as we're having this conversation, as to why it occurred, but it is very, very clear that it did occur. … But it's pretty clear that they weren't singing off the same song sheet, even in terms of preparedness. And why it happened, who knows? But we have to make sure that it never happens again. That's the first lesson.

The second lesson is, the whole notion of evacuating cities is very, very difficult. It is limited access to and from these urban communities. It's people running out of gas. It's just a real challenge. … The department has never thought that that would be the number one way to deal with most terrorist events, because we recognize the difficulty of evacuating, particularly with little notice.

A third lesson -- so many policemen didn't report for duty. But there may be an honest, legitimate, human reason for it. They were worried about their families. And as a spouse and a parent, their first inclination professionally may have been to go, but I still have to worry about my spouse and my kid. So … they showed us in a very dramatic way -- there has to be some level of confirming with them that their families are OK. …

And clearly there's another element where we're finding, after the fact, that people who had responsibility for others in nursing homes and the like, for whatever reason, seemed to have abdicated that responsibility. …


FEMA director (2003-2005)

Michael Brown

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… 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.

What can you say now to the people who lost husbands, wives, children in those floods? How do you explain to them what went wrong?

Well, this is very difficult to say. In disasters, people die, and it's not necessarily the fault of anyone. Levees break. The fact the levees broke and flooded people's homes, that is not Michael Brown's fault. And I am not going to accept responsibility for people who have died in the disaster. My heart goes out to them. My heart breaks for them.

But disasters are disasters, and people die in disasters. I mean, I've seen people take every precaution they could, and they still die because of a disaster. So I think it is blatantly unfair to try to say that because FEMA did or didn't do something, we caused the death of people.

Well, I can assure the American public that every person that works for FEMA was doing everything they could to save lives and sustain lives. …


National Security Council (1992-2003)

Richard Clarke

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… Is it possible to really evacuate a major metropolitan area in an orderly fashion?

No, it's not possible to evacuate a major metropolitan area in an orderly fashion, but you can do better than [we've done]. … What we see over and over again is the local authorities fail to order both sides of major highways to be used for evacuation. … It happened in Houston with Hurricane Rita -- that it takes the local authorities hours to realize that half of the highway is not being used. …

There are no plans in most cities for rushing gasoline to the stations along the evacuation routes, because cars in the backup will run out of gasoline. … But you can have gasoline trucks at the gas stations; you can have tow trucks stationed along the roads; you can have medical teams stationed along the roads. And you can turn all the traffic lights in one direction; you can turn all the lanes on interstates in one direction. All of that helps.

You can also plan to evacuate hospitals and nursing homes, and you can have ambulances that know when an evacuation is declared [that] that's their job. You can have buses that know when an evacuation order comes, if they're in the middle of their route, they go to the hospital and start moving people out on the buses. All of that can be done.

You can have an alert system, a siren system, a pager system so that instantly you can say, "We're evacuating the city," and people will know what to do. Police will know to stand and direct traffic in certain locations, to turn highways the other way. The only way that happens is by having a detailed plan and drilling it and exercising it with the real people who have to do the job. And no city in the United States is doing that.

… The federal officials say a lot of it is preparedness and pre-positioning; that is a job that falls to the local officials.

Well, both are true, but I think the difference between a normal disaster and a calamity is what we're dealing with here. State and local officials cannot deal with a calamity such as happened in New Orleans or such as would happen if a small nuclear device went off in any American city. …

So what does Katrina tell you about all the work that's been done in the last four years since 9/11 to get us ready for calamities?

All the planning in the world and all the money in the world doesn't do much good if you don't have people at the top who know how to make these decisions quickly, and are trained and expert in making them.

So it's a failure of leadership?

I think it's a failure of leadership at every level.

But given that in calamities, local and state officials are overwhelmed, does the onus of this fall more heavily on the federal government?

There comes a time when federal government has to say that state and local authorities cannot handle the situation, and we're sending in federal troops, and we're federalizing the local National Guard. That happened during riots in the 1960s where Lyndon Johnson federalized local National Guard units and sent in regular Army units over the objections of governors.

When it's clear that this is a magnitude greater than a normal hurricane, and it's clear that the capabilities of the state and local government will be destroyed by the attack or by the hurricane, then the federal government has to take charge. …


Homeland Security adviser (2001-2005)

Richard Falkenrath

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…Why didn't the government learn more from Hurricane Andrew [in 1992]?

… In part it's [because] these things don't happen very often. You know, they happen once a decade when you have a disaster this bad, this big. In part, it requires a rethinking of the basic federal compact, which is that the state and local agencies are responsible for disaster relief and management, and the federal government is just there to help as asked. And it's not very often that the state and local agencies are just completely supine and unable to respond at all and look to the federal government to take over entirely.

But that's the very scenario that people have been told to expect in a post-9/11 world.

Some people have been told that, and I'm very worried about it. And we are not ready to deal with that at this time. …


Watch Officer, FEMA National Response and Coordination Center

Leo Bosner

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… So what does a situation like Katrina require from somebody like Brown?

Somebody who can handle things beyond automatic pilot. …

I think Brown was just fine as long as things could go on automatic pilot. For the ordinary little floods, the ordinary hurricanes, we know what we're doing and can do the job. But when something would come along that's going to take a FEMA director who has the stature, let's say, to grab a hold of a state governor and big-city mayor and really bring them on board, and the stature to call the White House if need be and say, "Mr. President, I need to talk to the president in five minutes; we have to do something on this," he was just out of his depth. …

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posted nov. 22, 2005

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