Risk-averse agencies slowed Katrina response, and important measures have yet to be implemented, expert contends

Hurricane Katrina drove home sobering lessons, some not yet fully absorbed.


Hurricane Katrina drove home sobering lessons, some not yet fully absorbed.

We’ve had a decade to reflect on lessons learned during Hurricane Katrina. Now with the storm season in its final weeks, I find myself mulling over some of the lessons not learned — the ones that still need to be absorbed and implemented.

One of them has to do with evacuation. Katrina was the city’s first “mandatory evacuation” — not that everyone was able to leave. And for all the problems, it was a very successful evacuation, the largest in American history. More than a million people fled the coastal zone. But what about the people who can’t leave or who are too frail for the ordeal?

Most who died during Katrina were elderly. We know about the people who died at Memorial Hospital. In preparation for Hurricane Gustav, three years after Katrina, it cost the government $100 million dollars to move about 9,000 such citizens. How many times can you continue to move this dependent population at $100 million per evacuation? It’s a great strain on resources — also on the elderly, some of whom will die any time you undertake such a maneuver.

We have to look critically and create an internal capacity to properly and safely shelter these citizens in or near the city. There is local capability. When you make that decision, you harden, identify and equip a multi-use facility. We should develop a capacity to shelter at least 20,000 people dealing with infirmities or old age. That’s the number pre-registered with the city last time I checked. You don’t take people just waving down buses on street corners!

The alternative makes no sense. We can’t attempt to empty southeast Louisiana every time a storm enters the Gulf. To execute evacuation for the people who don’t travel well, you need to start the process when hurricanes are 120 hours away from local landfall, when they are on the other side of Florida or the other side of Cuba. But with infirm and elderly people taken care of locally, the evacuation of able citizens by car or bus can be made only 50 hours out. That’s still two days before landfall, but it would reduce the total number and complexity of mandatory evacuations.

Such a program would be safer, cheaper and more effective. If we have another disaster the size of Katrina, our plans should ensure that the facility for the pre-registered infirm and elderly is linked to a plan for sheltering next to the river and includes transportation. This would allow for safe and orderly after-storm evacuation by waterborne vehicles —boats, barges and the like.

Our proximity to water suggests another response and recovery idea that has not been followed through. That would be to equip and deploy a ship — a currently mothballed RO-RO (roll-on/roll-off) vessel. A ship like that can be provisioned with food, fuel, rolling stock, water and the capacity to generate electricity and provide medical coverage and communications. Deployed in the Gulf at the beginning of hurricane season, the vessel could be ordered to follow the storm to its landfall, providing a mobile operating base.

There are a couple of things hurricanes have in common: They all come from the water and the only time they hurt anything is when they hit urban areas. If they hit King Ranch outside Corpus Christi, I guess you would have some cows in trouble, but you wouldn’t have a large population in trouble.

All of the urban areas located on the coast have a port facility. After the storm passes, everyone comes out of their foxhole and the first thing they see is the recovery ship — a huge boon to public morale in the chaotic aftermath of a disaster. They have instant communications, medical supplies, water, electrical power, food and fuel. The local Incident commander would have all those resources the moment  the ship arrives.

I do not understand why we resist studying this potential capability. We spend tens of millions of dollars trying to stage and pre-stage supplies in multiple places. You don’t need water and food anywhere except at the impacted area. The same concept of mobile logistics holds true with trains and other transportation. Why don’t we shrink the amount of supplies, but load them on something that can respond where they are actually needed? FEMA has not been willing to open up the discussion on any of those ideas, even though it is clear that we need to rethink our response.

I’ll close by mentioning another overarching concern.

It seems to me that we, as a nation, haven’t yet figured out the difference between organizations that are mission-driven and those that are compliance-driven. Mission-driven organizations can be given an assignment in two or three sentences and then can deploy millions of dollars of equipment and thousands of people. There is the Department of Defense, National Guard, law enforcement, fire, EMS. All of these are mission-driven organizations that don’t need thousands of pages of policies and procedures on how to carry out missions.

In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, you have to do three things – and those are mission-driven: Save lives, stabilize infrastructure and provide security.

Compliance organizations are comprised of different people with a different culture — a risk-avoidance culture. They don’t operate like mission-driven risk-management organizations. They don’t ever want to be held responsible, and they draft thousands of pages of policies and procedures, written by attorneys, to ensure that in the aftermath of a disaster they are not held responsible.

Let me explain the difference. On the Friday following Katrina, the commanding general of the 82nd Airborne found me and said, “I am not working for the National Guard. I’m not working for the governor. I am working for you. I’ve got thousands of airborne troops who are going to be on the ground in four hours. What do you want me to do with them?” And I said, “Split your troops up by eight. We are going to provide you escorts out to the eight police districts. Your airborne troops will operate in support of the captain in that district who will maintain all law enforcement responsibility.”

The commander turned around and said, “I got it. Ok, that’s how we are going to deploy. The mission is to save lives, protect property. Move out.”

That’s a mission-driven response: doing the right thing within the capacity that an agency has.

Now, the opposite of that was getting a phone call on Wednesday night two days after Katrina from a state trooper in LaPlace. He said he’d been on-scene for four hours with 200 buses. He was watching a safety inspector with a tread-depth gauge checking the tires on every vehicle before sending them into New Orleans. That’s a compliance-driven response! That’s the contract mentality — the mentality driven by risk avoidance.

It makes good sense in a non-emergency setting where safety can be the top priority. But in an emergency, with lives at stake, a risk manager should be able to override that mentality. A mission-driven organization knows how to manage risk rather than avoid it. You have to do that, because by definition a disaster involves risk. Lots of it.

Our success as a city — our vision — has got to be that New Orleans is the one place in America that can demonstrate that our government and citizens can manage storms. We can’t avoid them. Managing storms and protecting lives means taking care of those people least capable of taking care of themselves. We must have a better plan than simply putting them on buses and shipping them to nowhere.

New Orleans will not survive in a recognizable form unless we demonstrate to the world that we know how to manage storms.

Col. Ebbert, U.S. Marine Corps Retired, was New Orleans’ Director of Homeland Security during Hurricane Katrina. His firm, Ebbert & Associates, consults on all aspects of emergency preparedness and security for a global clientele. He expands on the ideas recapped above in the book Crime and Criminal Justice in Disaster, by Loyola professor emeritus Dee Wood Harper and Kelly Frailing, published by Carolina Academic Press.

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  • Homeland Security’s worst mistake, among many, was its failure to bring a truck equipped with an expandable cell tower into New Orleans on time. The truck was in Baton Rouge during Katrina, but wasn’t brought to New Orleans until 7 days later. Imagine how different everything would have been with cell service by August 30th? Christopher Cooper and Robert Block explained all this in their excellent book, “Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security” (Henry Holt, 2006)

  • Elizabeth Claiborne

    Cell service? Charging the phones how? The rest of the regions cell towers were so overwhelmed for weeks after you couldn’t make a call anyway, only brief texts. At the time, local officials were rueing the lack of satellite phones – military grade ware that uses a transponder far above the storm or it’s aftermath. One cell tower is useless – especially when the infrastructure it uses is dead underwater.

  • The issue here is the days immediately after the flood when cell service would have served the police and military. One cell tower devoted to the rescue units would have saved lives.

  • nickelndime

    I joke around a lot, but I am serious. Col. Ebbert says, “local capability.” Did he mean “local culpability” instead? Within the context, it appears that culpability was intended.

  • nickelndime

    EScuse me (and yes, just like a SNL skit, I am moving my neck from side to side), but I was in and around the 7th District NOPD five days after Katrina and I didn’t see NO cops over there. So, I don’t know what that group of airborne troops WAS doing, but I find it hard to believe that they could “operate in support of the captain,” much less find the captain! The captain, BTW, is now “the chief.” Go figure! Just remember where you are.