Hurricane Katrina vs. the Government

On Monday, August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina made landfall just east of New Orleans, Louisiana. That day and the days immediately after the hurricane showed a multi-system failure. I believe it is generally assumed that government on all levels failed to adequately prepare or respond. This web page will chronicle that response. This will be under construction for a while. I have not hot linked most of the newspaper stories that I reference because most of them expire. The primary source is The New Orleans Times Picayune

No web page would be complete without a jab at the president. Here is mine.



24 August 2005 Tropical Storm Katrina is over the central Bahamas. A hurricane warning is issued for southeastern Florida

25 August 2005 Hurricane Katrina, now a category 1 hurricane, strikes Florida north of Miami. Eleven people in Florida die as a result of the storm

26 August 2005 Katrina passes over Florida and enters the Gulf of Mexico. It is now a category 2 hurricane. FEMA Director Michael Brown, in an email, writes to his press secretary, Sharon Worthy with this question: "Tie or not for tonight? Button-down blue shirt?" Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco declares a state of emergency.

27 August 2005 Katrina is now a category 3 and is heading toward Louisiana and Mississippi. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco sends a letter to President Bush (through the Regional FEMA Director in Denton, Texas) asking that he declare a state of emergency. President Bush declares a state of emergency in Louisiana; according to the press release from the White House: "FEMA is authorized to identify, mobilize, and provide at its discretion, equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency." In New Orleans, Mayor Ray Nagin declares a state of emergency and urges evacuation of everyone in low lying areas. He says that the Superdome will open as a shelter of last resort and asked that anyone planning to stay there bring their own food and drink for 3 or 4 days. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour also declares a state of emergency. Max Mayfield, Director of the National Hurricane Center, warns that Katrina will be at least a Category 4 (winds of 145 mph) and perhaps a Category 5 (winds of 155 mph or higher) when it makes landfall. Computer models at Louisiana State University predict that with winds of only 115 mph, levees protecting Kenner, Metairie, and New Orleans will be overtopped by a 10 to 12 foot storm surge. Freeways are jammed as people leave the area.

28 August 2005 Katrina is now a category 5 hurricane. Mayor Nagin orders a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans. For those unable to leave (estimated to be very high as 112,000 residents of New Orleans do not own cars according to the 2000 census), ten shelters are designated, including the Superdome. Buses are scheduled to take people to the Superdome if they cannot leave the city. Alabama Governor Bob Riley declares a state of emergency. Secretary Chertoff and Director Brown receive briefings from the Hurricane Center on the possibility that the levees will not hold. According to a local newspaper The Lafayette Daily Advertiser forecasters are already predicting that the levees in New Orleans will not hold. The Advertiser quotes Richard Pasch from the National Hurricane Center: "Some levees in the Greater New Orleans area could be overtopped."

29 August 2005 Katrina, now a category 4 hurricane, makes landfall shortly after 7 a.m. Two holes are ripped in the roof of the Superdome where about 10,000 people have taken refuge. At 8 a.m. Mayor Nagin tells the Today Show: "I've gotten reports this morning that there is already water coming over some of the levee systems. In the lower ninth ward, we've had one of our pumping stations to stop operating, so we will have significant flooding, it is just a matter of how much." At approximately 11 a.m. Michael Brown arrives in Baton Rouge at the State Office of Emergency Preparedness.

Meanwhile, in Pueblo El Mirage RV Resort and Country Club in El Mirage, Arizona, President Bush speaks about a conversation he had with Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff in a conversation you can read from the White House:

I spoke to Mike Chertoff today -- he's the head of the Department of Homeland Security. I knew people would want me to discuss this issue, so we got us an airplane on -- a telephone on Air Force One, so I called him. I said, "are you working with the governor? He said, you bet we are." That's the most effective way to do things, is to work with the state and local authorities. There are more resources that will be available, we'll have more folks on the border; there will be more detention space to make sure that those who are stopped trying to illegally enter our country are able to be detained. It's important for the people of this state to understand your voices are being here in Washington. D.C. And this Senator and this Congressman are working closely with the administration to make sure we got the resources necessary to do our responsibility, which is enforce this border. And we'll do so. And we'll do so.

Not to be outdone, FEMA Director Michael Brown's press secretary writes: "You look fabulous;" Brown replies: "I got it at Nordstroms. ... Are you proud of me?" Later on the same day Brown writes to her: "If you'll look at my lovely FEMA attire, you'll really vomit. I am a fashion god." These emails were revealed in a congressional inquiry. You can download them from CNN. This is a 26 page PDF file and you need Adobe Acrobat to down it. About 5 hours after Katrina makes landfall, Brown seeks approval from Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff to dispatch 1,000 Homeland Security Employees to the region. They are given two days to reach the area and are instructed by Brown to "convey a postive image" about the government's response for victims (among their other duties). A large section of the 17th Street Canal levee gives way in the morning in Bucktown; water spills into surrounding neighborhoods. Water covers approximately 20% of the city and is still rising at nightfall.

By late afternoon President Bush is at the James L. Brulte Senior Center in Rancho Cucamonga, California. Lest we think he isn't aware of Katrina, he says this:

[W]e're praying for the folks that have been affected by this Hurricane Katrina. We're in constant contact with the local officials down there. The storm is moving through, and we're now able to assess damage, or beginning to assess damage. And I want the people to know in the affected areas that the federal government and the state government and the local governments will work side-by-side to do all we can to help get your lives back in order. This was a terrible storm. It's a storm that hit with a lot of ferocity. It's a storm now that is moving through, and now it's the time for governments to help people get their feet on the ground. For those of you who prayed for the folks in that area, I want to thank you for your prayers. For those of you who are concerned about whether or not we're prepared to help, don't be. We are. We're in place. We've got equipment in place, supplies in place. And once the -- once we're able to assess the damage, we'll be able to move in and help those good folks in the affected areas
At 8 p.m. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco speaks with President Bush and asks for "everything you've got." Bush is reassuring but goes to bed without acting on the request.

30 August 2005 At 5 a.m. (Pacific Time) the President is briefed on the situation; on the advice of senior advisors he maintains his vacation schedule. Later he promises swift federal relief for New Orleans and surrounding areas. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin states: "FEMA said give us a list of your needs. And let me tell you, we're giving them a hell of a list." At 9 a.m. (Pacific Time) President Bush is speaking at the Naval Air Station, North Island (Coronado, California). You can read the text of the speech on the White House page. Here is an excerpt:

This morning our hearts and prayers are with our fellow citizens along the Gulf Coast who have suffered so much from Hurricane Katrina. These are trying times for the people of these communities. We know that many are anxious to return to their homes. It's not possible at this moment. Right now our priority is on saving lives, and we are still in the midst of search and rescue operations. I urge everyone in the affected areas to continue to follow instructions from state and local authorities. The federal, state and local governments are working side-by-side to do all we can to help people get back on their feet, and we have got a lot of work to do. Our teams and equipment are in place and we're beginning to move in the help that people need. Americans who wish to help can call 1-800-HELPNOW, or log on to, or get in touch with the Salvation Army. The good folks in Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama and other affected areas are going to need the help and compassion and prayers of our fellow citizens.
Those in the Superdome are told to wait for buses that will evacuate them from the city but there are no buses available. In the afternoon Governor Blanco takes a tour of the Superdome and is shocked by the desperation there. By nightfall (in a dark city) there are an estimated 150 people, or more, on rooftops. City officials may open the Convention Center for an estimated 50,000 who are now homeless. According to Mayor Nagin, doctors and nurses at Charity Hospital are ventilating patients manually. Meanwhile, Secretary Cherthoff gets word that the levees have breached.

31 August 2005 Early this morning Governor Blanco tries to call President Bush; she is eventually connected with his Homeland Security adviser Fran Townsend. Later she is able to speak to President Bush and asks him for help. There are approximately 3,000 people in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center--it had been discussed as a possible evacuation center but had not been designated as one. At 10 a.m. a spokesperson for Texas Govorner Rick Perry announces that the Houston Astrodome will be opened for refugees bussed from the Superdome. At 5 p.m. President Bush addresses the nation on Katrina and the recovery. Here are a few excerpts:

Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Dennis Hastert states: "It makes no sense to spend billions of dollars to rebuild a city that's seven feet under sea level...It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed." He later clarified that he was "not advocating that the city be abandoned or relocated."

In a press release, Secretary Chertoff announces: "We are extremely pleased with the response that every element of the federal government, all of our federal partners, have made to this terrible tragedy. We've had full participation from the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Defense, Department of Transportation, Department of Energy, all of the units of the federal government. We will work tirelessly to ensure that state and local authorities benefit from the full mobilization of our capabilities and receive every needed assistance."

In an email (from his Blackberry) to Michael Brown, Marty Bahamonde wrote: "Sir, I know that you the situation is past critical. Here [are] some things you might not know. Hotels are kicking people out, thousands gathering in the streets with no food or water. Hundreds still being rescued from homes. The dying patients at the DMAT [Disaster Medical Assistance Team] tent being medivac. Estimates are many will die within hours. Evacuation in process. Plans developing for [Super]dome evacuation but hotel situation adding to problem. We are out of food and running out of water at the [Super]dome, plans in works to address the critical need." Four minutes later Brown sent this reply: "Thanks for the update. Anything specific I need to do or tweak?" Later that afternoon Sharon Worthy was scheduling a TV interview for Brown and asked for more time for dinner because the Baton Rouge restaurants were getting busy (By the way, please note below that Michael Brown, in a heroic act, did not take an MRE from someone who needed it). To his credit, Bahamonde emailed to friends: "just tell [Worthy] that I just ate an MRE . . . along with 30,000 other close friends so I understand her concern."

Bethany Home, a care facility near Esplanade and Broad Streets, held 30 patients who were unable to leave New Orleans before the storm. Their supply of drinking water was nearly gone and two patients had already died. They hung a banner that said: "HELP. THIS IS A HEALTH-CARE FACILITY. NEED MEDECINE. NO FOOD." By evening NPR reporter Greg Allen reports: "It's about as bad as you'd expect, when there's no power, no water, roads are impassable. It's very hard to get around. It's gone from bad to worse here and conditions are totally uninhabitable." He also describes that while the approximately 16,000 people in the Superdome have food and water they do not have working toilets.

There is a further complication with the Superdome: there are plans to evacuate the people to another city (primarily the Astrodome in Houston) but the flooding has reached the Superdome and the water level is threatening to flood the generators that are providing power.

1 September 2005 President Bush is interviewed on Good Morning America by Diane Sawyer and says: "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." Later in the day President Bush agrees to have the federal government pick up the whole tab for rescue and recovery efforts along the Gulf Coast. This decision came at the request of the governors of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The federal rules that require states and localities to pay for 25% of the post-disaster debris removal and emergency response have been waived.

On the National Public Radio afternoon program All Things Considered host Robert Seigel interviewed Michael Chertoff. As part of the interview Siegel asked him about the people who were stranded in the Convention Center; it was clear that Chertoff had no idea anyone was there. Here is part of the interview [emphasis mine]:

SIEGEL: Let me ask you about images that many Americans are seeing today and hearing about. They are from the convention center in New Orleans. A CNN reporter has described thousands of people, he says, many of them--you see them in the pictures, mothers with babies--in the streets, no food, corpses and human waste. Our reporter John Burnett has seen the same things. How many days before your operation finds these people, brings them at least food, water, medical supplies, if not gets them out of there?

Sec. CHERTOFF: Well, first let me tell you there have been deliveries of food, water and medical supplies to the Superdome, and that's happened almost from the very beginning.

SIEGEL: But this is the convention center. These are people who are not allowed inside the Superdome.

Sec. CHERTOFF: Well, but, you know, there have been--we have brought this to the Superdome. There are stations in which we have put water and food and medical supplies. The limiting factor here has not been that we don't have enough supplies. The factor is that we really had a double catastrophe. We not only had a hurricane; we had a second catastrophe, which was a flood. That flood made parts of the city very difficult to get through. If you can't get through the city, you can't deliver supplies. So we have, in fact, using heroic efforts, been getting food and water to distribution centers, to places where people can get them.

SIEGEL: But if those people who haven't gotten them--if they ask our reporter, `When am I going to see those supplies? When does it get to me?'--what's the answer? How many days until it reaches them?

Sec. CHERTOFF: I think the answer is that we are as much as humanly possible--given the fact that we still have feet of water that have not drained out of the city yet, we are moving those foods and supplies as quickly as possible. People need to get to areas that are designated for them to stage for purposes of evacuation. We're contending with the force of Mother Nature and...

SIEGEL: But--and what is your sense? I'm trying--I mean, by the weekend do you expect that everybody in New Orleans will have some kind of food and water delivered by this operation?

Sec. CHERTOFF: I would expect that--unless people are trapped in isolated places that we can't get to, I would expect that everybody's going to have access to food and water and medical care. The key is to get people to staging areas. There are some people who are stranded but who are not in imminent danger. They are not people that we're going to necessarily rescue immediately. We're going to try to them, you know, food and water, so they can sustain themselves until we can pick them up.

SIEGEL: We are hearing from our reporter--and he's on another line right now--thousands of people at the convention center in New Orleans with no food, zero.

Sec. CHERTOFF: As I say, I'm telling you that we are getting food and water to areas where people are staging. And, you know, the one thing about an episode like this is if you talk to someone and you get a rumor or you get someone's anecdotal version of something, I think it's dangerous to extrapolate it all over the place. The limitation here on getting food and water to people is the condition on the ground. And as soon as we can physically move through the ground with these assets, we're going to do that. So...

SIEGEL: But, Mr. Secretary, when you say that there is--we shouldn't listen to rumors, these are things coming from reporters who have not only covered many, many other hurricanes; they've covered wars and refugee camps. These aren't rumors. They're seeing thousands of people there.

Sec. CHERTOFF: Well, I would be--actually I have not heard a report of thousands of people in the convention center who don't have food and water. I can tell you that I know specifically the Superdome, which was the designated staging area for a large number of evacuees, does have food and water. I know we have teams putting food and water out at other designated evacuation areas. So, you know, this isn't--and we've got plenty of food and water if we can get it out to people. And that is the effort we're undertaking.
There are a number of problems with this interview. Aside from the fact that the Director of Homeland Security still doesn't know there are people huddled in the Convention Center, he keeps saying they should get to staging areas even after he was told that they were turned away from the Superdome.

Evacuations are proceeding at the Superdome (most going by bus to the Astrodome in Houston) and Governor Blanco announces that the number of people left there is approximately 2,400.

2 September 2005 President Bush, while touring Mobile, says to FEMA Director Michael Brown: "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." President Bush later tours the Gulf and calls the results of the recovery "not acceptable."

4 September 2005 Sharon Worthy, press secretary for Michael Brown, sends this urgent email at 10:17 a.m. "Please roll up the sleeves of your shirt...all shirts. Even the President rolled his sleeves to just below the elbow. In this crisis and on TV you just need to look more hard working...ROLL UP THE SLEEVES!" [emphasis mine] The Superdome is now fully evacuated.

5 September 2005: While touring the Houston Astrodome, Former First Lady Barbara Bush says this:

Almost everyone I've talked to says, 'We're going to move to Houston.' What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this, this is working very well for them.

7 September 2005 FEMA announces that it is providing $2,000 to each victim of the hurricane. One of the methods is a debit card with the MasterCard logo on it. FEMA spokesman Butch Kinerney states: "This is a tremendous undertaking to try to get debit cards out with $2,000 on them to thousands of people. We've got plenty on hand, and we've got some more on order to make sure that everybody who is in the shelter down there that needs a card gets a card." He also promised that people who don't have proper identification can get cards: "We're going to have to take people's words for it and then get back to them later and make sure that they've told us the truth," he said. They will be audited later, and, "if it comes back and we find out that you've defrauded us, then it's a federal crime. We'll file charges against them, absolutely."

9 September 2005: FEMA announces that it will stop distributing the promised $2,000 debit cards to families displaced by Katrina. On the face, this looked like a good idea. Unlike checks, debit cards are accepted virtually everywhere and the government can track where purchases were made in the hopes of improving its response to the next disaster. Alas, this is not to be. FEMA spokesman Butch Kinerney states: "It was successful, but it was never designed to be a big nationwide program.

Embattled FEMA Director Michael Brown is relieved of duties and is replaced by Vice Admiral Thad W. Allen. Brown, on his way back to Washington to coordinate efforts from there said: "I'm going to go home and walk my dog and hug my wife, and maybe get a good Mexican meal and a stiff margarita." Good that he has a home to return to. Homeland Security Director Chertoff supports Brown by saying that he had "done everything he possibly could to coordinate the federal response to this unprecedented challenge" and would retain his job with FEMA.

12 September 2005 Michael Brown resigns from FEMA. He is given a 30 day extension (ie, will stay on the payroll) by Michael Chertoff.

27 September 2005 Michael Brown testifies before a congressional panel and states: "My biggest mistake was not recognizing by Saturday that Louisiana was dysfunctional."

24 November 2005 Michael Brown announces he is starting a disaster preparedness consulting firm. He hopes to help clients avoid losing their jobs due to poor responses. Note to self: Don't invest in this firm.

Conclusions: It's a little overwhelming to think that I can adequately do this in a few paragraphs. No doubt entire books will be written on this. But here are a few things that have entered my mind on this:

  1. It appeared almost from the beginning that nobody was in charge. When I was in seminary one of our directors used to say that "if everyone is in charge, no one is in charge. As Katrina was bearing down on New Orleans there was no shortage of people who sent the message: "I'm in charge and everything is ready." President Kennedy used to comment that success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan.
  2. There was no preparation or thought given to people who were not able to leave the city. Mandatory evacuations are fine if you have a car and the money for a hotel room but if you couldn't drive or get a ride out of the city there was almost nothing you could do. The Superdome was supposed to be a last resort but it was the only resort for many of the citizens of the lower 9th ward.
  3. This is still hard to imagine, but agencies on all levels were not able to communicate with each other because the means of communication were disabled by Katrina. People who live in hurricane areas will tell you that high winds blow over cell phone towers and it's beyond stupid to expect them to work during and immediately after a hurricane. Plumbing and electricity are also compromised and it didn't take long for the Superdome and Convention Center to become dark sewers.
  4. After the events of September 11th President Bush rolled FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security (along with dozens of other agencies that don't belong there like the Centers for Disease Control). There is an old adage that if you are a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The Bush administration has become so fixated (paranoid) about terrorism that everything is seen through that lens. FEMA became yet one more agency looking for people with bombs instead of natural disasters as it was intended.
  5. In a related issue, the appointment of Michael Brown as director of FEMA showed a stunning lack of respect for the work FEMA does. Mr. Brown got his job when his boss and predecessor Joseph Allbaugh left government service. As far as I've been able to read there was no search for a new FEMA director. Brown was appointed even though his previous experience consisted of work with the International Arabian Horse Association. Patronage is the tradition of giving government jobs to friends and supporters and goes back to the presidency of Andrew Jackson. We all know it happens but in the past these patronage jobs did not cost lives.