Katrina's Crisis Management Lessons
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Holmes Report

Katrina's Crisis Management Lessons

Watching the scenes from New Orleans on CNN this week, I began to understand what the employees of a major corporation must feel like when their leaders fail them, when the response to a major crisis is hopelessly inept and inadequate.

Paul Holmes

Watching the scenes from New Orleans on CNN this week, I began to understand what the employees of a major corporation must feel like when their leaders fail them, when the response to a major crisis is hopelessly inept and inadequate, but the lawyers are urging the CEO and his cronies to insist that all is well.

Horror and frustration were natural responses to the images of devastation and anarchy, but more than anything else there was shame that that the government of the most powerful country in the world was putting together a relief effort that would have embarrassed a third world country, that it had abandoned thousands of its (not incidentally) poor and overwhelmingly black citizens.

The world watched in amazement. “The only difference between the chaos of New Orleans and a Third World disaster operation,” said BBC reporter Matt Shaw, “was that a foreign dictator would have responded better…. A genuinely heroic mayor orders a total evacuation of the city the day before Katrina arrives, knowing that for decades now, New Orleans has been living on borrowed time. The National Guard and federal emergency personnel stay tucked up at home.

Dutch broadcaster Frank Tiggelaar, meanwhile, compared the response in the U.S. to a similar crisis in the Netherlands a decade earlier.

“Watching events unfold in the New Orleans area I had flashbacks of the 1995 river Rhine and Meuse floods in Holland. Then, in just under two days, authorities staged a forced evacuation of almost half a million people and 2 million head of cattle, pigs etc. It was the most orderly mass-operation I have ever seen.

“I live near Holland’s main disaster hospital AMC, which can effectively triple its capacity from 1,200 to 4,000 patients in three hours by opening up its six-story underground disaster unit, and witnessed how hundreds of ambulances, army trucks and dozens of medi-copters brought in hospital patients, people from care homes and the disabled from the disaster areas.

“The material damage was incredible, but there were no casualties; there were three meals every day for every temporarily displaced man, woman and child; all cows were fed and milked, there was no looting. National public TV within days set up a disaster charity show which raised over 60 million guilders to pay for damages not covered by insurance.

“What I’m seeing on TV now is a third-world country with a government unwilling or incompetent to fulfill its tasks. I feel very, very sorry for the residents of the area.”

Many Americans had the same reaction.

New Orleans deputy police commander W.S. Riley launched a bitter attack on the federal response to the disaster. “We expected a lot more support from the federal government. We expected the government to respond within 24 hours…. The guard arrived 48 hours after the hurricane with 40 trucks. They drove their trucks in and went to sleep. For 72 hours this police department and the fire department and handful of citizens were alone rescuing people. We have people who died while the National Guard sat and played cards. I understand why we are not winning the war in Iraq if this is what we have.”

Colonel Terry Ebbert, director of homeland security for New Orleans, was one of the first to attack the Federal Emergency Management Agency for its response to the crisis, claiming the relief effort had been “carried on the backs of the little guys for four goddamn days. We are like little birds with our mouths open and you don’t have to be very smart to know where to drop the worm. It’s criminal within the confines of the United States that within one hour of the hurricane they weren’t force-feeding us. It’s like FEMA has never been to a hurricane.”

Bill Wattenburg, a consultant for the University of California Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and one of the designers of earlier food drop programs, said he had lobbied the administration and the military to immediately begin something similar in New Orleans. He said he was told that the military was prepared to begin, but that it was awaiting a request from FEMA.

As many pointed out, in Banda Aceh, in Indonesia, there were food drops two days after the tsunami struck. Five days after Hurricane Katrina, many in New Orleans were still waiting for their first relief supplies. Meanwhile, the American Red Cross indicated that it had been prevented from entering New Orleans by federal authorities.

“Access to New Orleans is controlled by the National Guard and local authorities and while we are in constant contact with them, we simply cannot enter New Orleans against their orders,” said the organization at its website. “The state Homeland Security Department had requested—and continues to request—that the American Red Cross not come back into New Orleans following the hurricane” because of fears that “our presence would keep people from evacuating and encourage others to come into the city.”

Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu issued a statement claiming “the U.S. Forest Service had water-tanker aircraft available to help douse the fires raging on our riverfront, but FEMA has yet to accept the aid. When Amtrak offered trains to evacuate significant numbers of victims—far more efficiently than buses — FEMA again dragged its feet. Offers of medicine, communications equipment and other desperately needed items continue to flow in, only to be ignored by the agency.”

Added Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, just south of New Orleans: “We had Wal-mart deliver three trucks of water. Trailer trucks of water. FEMA turned them back, said we didn’t need them. This was a week go. We had 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel on a coast guard vessel docked in my parish. The coast guard said come get the fuel right way. When we got there with our trucks, they got a word, FEMA says don’t give you the fuel. Yesterday, yesterday, FEMA comes in and cuts all our emergency communications lines. They cut them without notice. Our sheriff, Harry Lee, goes back in. he reconnects the line. He posts armed guards said no one is getting near these lines.” 

This was the worst disaster on American soil in living memory. Whether the ultimate death toll is higher than the toll of the 9/11 attacks is not yet clear, but no one would be shocked if there were thousands dead, and some in the region believe the total could go as high as 10,000. But in terms of the human misery inflicted, this was a catastrophe of a different order of magnitude, made worse by the fact that the extent of the tragedy was utterly unnecessary.

During an emotional appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, Broussard spoke for many Louisiana citizens. “We have been abandoned by our own country,” he told Tim Russert. “It’s not just Katrina that caused all these deaths in New Orleans. Bureaucracy has committed murder here in the greater New Orleans area, and bureaucracy has to stand trial before Congress now.”

Under the circumstances, it was no surprise that much of the criticism came not from Democrats “playing politics,” but by Republicans and their supporters.

Conservative columnist David Brooks, usually distinguished by his Panglossian optimism, has this to say: “Last week in New Orleans, by contrast, nobody took control. Authority was diffuse and action was ineffective. The rich escaped while the poor were abandoned. Leaders spun while looters rampaged…. The first rule of the social fabric—that in times of crisis you protect the vulnerable—was trampled. Leaving the poor in New Orleans was the moral equivalent of leaving the injured on the battlefield.”

Even the Washington Times, probably the most conservative newspaper in America (The Wall Street Journal is obviously a serious rival for the title) was strongly critical of the president’s lack of leadership, while the equally conservative New Hampshire Union Leader had this to say: “A better leader would have flown straight to the disaster zone and announced the immediate mobilization of every available resource to rescue the stranded, find and bury the dead, and keep the survivors fed, clothed, sheltered and free of disease.

The cool, confident, intuitive leadership Bush exhibited in his first term, particularly in the months immediately following September 11, 2001, has vanished. In its place is a diffident detachment unsuitable for the leader of a nation facing war, natural disaster and economic uncertainty.”

Clearly, the early verdict on the federal government’s crisis management efforts is negative. Already, some clear lessons—valuable lessons for corporate crisis managers—are emerging.

Lesson One: Be prepared

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once offered this dictum: “The unexpected happens. You had better prepare for it.” Just how unexpected Katrina was is open to question. That the government—at every level—should have been prepared for it is not. For more than a decade scientists, local politicians and the media had been warning that the next major hurricane to strike the New Orleans area could be the last.

By the mid 1990s, scientists at Louisiana State University and the University of New Orleans had perfected computer models showing exactly how a sea surge could overwhelm the city’s levee system, and had recommended a set of solutions. The Army Corps of Engineers, which built the levees, had proposed different projects.

In 1998Len Bahr, then the head of the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities, brought the various experts together and built consensus around a single plan: Coast 2050. It would have cost an estimated $14 billion, so Louisiana turned to the federal government. “But Congress had other priorities,” recalls Mark Fischetti of Scientific America. “The magic moment of consensus was lost.”

In 2001, the Federal Emergency Management Agency warned that a major hurricane striking New Orleans was one of the three most likely major disasters—along with a terrorist attack and an earthquake in San Francisco—for which the United States should be preparing.

And in 2002, the New Orleans Times-Picayune won numerous awards for John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein’s five-part series, which began with a headline that spelled out the risk that became reality last week: “It’s only a matter of time before south Louisiana takes a direct hit from a major hurricane. Billions have been spent to protect us, but we grow more vulnerable every day.”

The second installment in the series began with a stark prediction: “It’s a matter of when, not if. Eventually a major hurricane will hit New Orleans head on, instead of being just a close call. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again.”

In an eerily prescient article, McQuaid and Schleifstein reported: “The projected death and destruction [of a major hurricane strike on New Orleans] eclipse almost any other natural disaster that people paid to think about catastrophes can dream up.

“As the floodwaters invade and submerge neighborhoods, the wind will be blowing at speeds of at least 155 mph, accompanied by shorter gusts of as much as 200 mph, meteorologists say, enough to overturn cars, uproot trees and toss people around like dollhouse toys. The wind will blow out windows and explode many homes, even those built to the existing 110-mph building-code standards. People seeking refuge from the floodwaters in high-rise buildings won’t be very safe, recent research indicates, because wind speed in a hurricane gets greater with height….

“Amid this maelstrom, the estimated 200,000 or more people left behind in an evacuation will be struggling to survive. Some will be housed at the Superdome, the designated shelter in New Orleans for people too sick or infirm to leave the city. Others will end up in last-minute emergency refuges that will offer minimal safety. But many will simply be on their own, in homes or looking for high ground.

“Thousands will drown while trapped in homes or cars by rising water. Others will be washed away or crushed by debris. Survivors will end up trapped on roofs, in buildings or on high ground surrounded by water, with no means of escape and little food or fresh water, perhaps for several days….

“A variety of creatures—rats, mice and nutria, poisonous snakes and alligators, fire ants, mosquitoes and abandoned cats and dogs—will be searching for the same dry accommodations that people are using. Contaminated food or water used for bathing, drinking and cooking could cause illnesses including salmonella, botulism, typhoid and hepatitis. Outbreaks of mosquito-borne dengue fever and encephalitis are likely….

“With few homes left undamaged, Red Cross and FEMA officials will have to find property for long-term temporary housing for a possible one million refugees…. New Orleans would face the future with most of its housing stock and historic structures destroyed. Hotels, office buildings and infrastructure would be heavily damaged. Tens of thousands of people would be dead and many survivors homeless and shell-shocked. Rebuilding would be a formidable challenge even with a generous federal aid package.”

Since the, the Times-Picayune has published at least nine stories reporting that a combination of tax cuts, the war in Iraq and the demands of homeland security had led the Bush administration to repeatedly reject urgent requests from the Army Corps of Engineers and Louisiana’s congressional delegation for more money to safeguard New Orleans.

And if the government had plenty of time to prepare for the hurricane that would one day strike New Orleans, it also received ample warning about this specific storm.

At 5pm on the Friday before Hurricane Katrina swept through Louisiana and the rest of the Gulf, the National Weather Service was warning that New Orleans was in the zone of “highest strike probability” and that Katrina was expected to make landfall as a category four hurricane. In other words, FEMA had more than two days warning that there was a “high probability” of a direct hit on a major American city by an unusually powerful hurricane.

If the Department of Homeland Security learned that there was a “high probability” of a massive terrorist attack on New York city—which in this case we can define as a better than 50-50 chance, rather than just a rumor of attack plans—how would it react? Presumably, if would begin mobilizing immediately, rather than waiting for the bomb to go off. Hopefully, hospitals would be evacuated, medical and food supplies would be made ready for the inevitable shortages, National Guard troops would be sent into the city in advance of the attack.

None of that happened in New Orleans.

Lesson two: Imagine the worst

Ian Mitroff’s latest book, Why Some Companies Emerge Stronger and Better From a Crisis, contains a warning about the way many corporations—and, presumably, federal agencies—prepare for crisis.

Because the nature of crisis is changing, Mitroff says, some of the traditional tools of crisis preparation are no longer sufficient. He is particularly critical of risk management, the process by which companies calculate the probabilities and consequences of various crises and direct their preparedness planning accordingly.

Traditional risk management, he says, guides companies to prepare for crises that have both a high probability and a high potential cost. But in today’s world, the most damaging crises—and Katrina is clearly a case in point—would be considered low probability, and therefore would not show up on the risk management radar. (There’s an element of Sun Tzu here. The Chinese philosopher counseled generals to prepare for what the enemy could do, not for what they thought he world do.)

“Obviously, terrorist attacks directed against skyscrapers… were high-consequence crisis,” says Mitroff. “But at the time, they were judged to be of low probability, even though the intelligence and risk communities had for years suggested strongly that such events should be considered more likely…. Flying a plane into a building was considered so improbable as to not even be worth considering. And yet it was precisely such an event that needed to be considered because most people didn’t want to consider it.”

Denial must be overcome, but it is difficult to persuade managers to think the unthinkable. Several years ago, Mitroff says, he and his colleagues were conducting a crisis audit for an organization that worked with disadvantaged children around the world. The worst-case crisis scenario involved charges of pedophilia, but the organization’s leadership dismissed the possibility out of hand.

Michael Chertoff, head of the Department of Homeland Security, repeatedly told reporters that disaster relief experts had not planned such as worst-case scenario in New Orleans. There were plans for dealing with a hurricane, but not for the flooding that almost every expert expected to follow.

“There will be plenty of time to go back and say we should hypothesize evermore apocalyptic combinations of catastrophes,” said Chertoff, defending himself against charges that FEMA had failed to prepare for the worst. “Be that as it may, I’m telling you this is what the planners had in front of them. They were confronted with a second wave that they did not have built into the plan, but using the tools they had, we have to move forward and adapt.”

Mitroff says companies need ways to imagine and plan for every conceivable crisis scenario.

“America’s organizations and institutions,” he argues, “are in dire trouble on every conceivable front: physically, intellectually, morally, and spiritually. First their operations, plants, and infrastructure have been the objects of direct terrorist attacks and other serious criminal threats. Second, the intellectual foundations—that is the fundamental assumptions on which their crisis plans and procedures are built—have been seriously undermined, if not proven false, by recent events.

“Third, their moral compasses have been eroded by an unprecedented series of corporate scandals, such as Enron/Andersen, Martha Stewart, Tyco, and the like. And fourth, they have not only been oblivious of, but actually destructive with regard to, the spiritual needs of their employees and customers.”

Lesson three: Expect every decision you ever made to come under the microscope

If I’ve said this once, I’ve said it a thousand times, but we are all living in an age of transparency. What that means, in practical terms, is that every decision an organization makes should be made with the clear understanding that it could one day be media and public scrutiny. So when decisions are made, executives need to give careful consideration to how key stakeholders are likely to react when they read about them.

In this case, there are plenty of decisions that can—and should—be closely examined. And by the end of the week Rep. Christopher Shays, Republican, and Senator Joseph Lieberman, Democrat, both of Connecticut, have announced plans for a formal investigation. “The bottom line is the whole thing is pretty shocking,” said Shays, chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations. “This is Third World stuff, and you’d like to think that we’d get right on it.”

The media, meanwhile, are not waiting for an official inquiry. 

“It’s tacky to start playing the blame game before the dead are even counted,” wrote liberal columnist Molly Ivins. “It is not too soon, however, to make a point that needs to be hammered home again and again, and that is that government policies have real consequences in people’s lives…. It is a fact that the Clinton administration set some tough policies on wetlands, and it is a fact that the Bush administration repealed those policies—ordering federal agencies to stop protecting as many as 20 million acres of wetlands.”

Mark Fischetti, a contributing editor to Scientific American magazine, says that for more than a century the Army Corps, with the blessing of Congress, leveed the Mississippi River to prevent its annual floods, so that farms and industries could expand. But those same floods had dumped huge amounts of sediment and freshwater across the Mississippi Delta, rebuilding each year what gulf tides and storms had worn away and holding back infusions of saltwater that kill marsh vegetation.

Scientists estimate that every two miles of wetland between the Crescent City and the Gulf reduces a surge by half a foot. But those natural defenses, which once provided additional protection to New Orleans had been eroded. President Bush had initially promised “no net loss” of wetlands, a policy launched by his father’s administration and bolstered by President Clinton. But he reversed his approach in 2003 under pressure from developers.

The Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency then announced they could no longer protect wetlands unless they were somehow related to interstate commerce. Four leading environmental groups conducted a joint study, concluding in 2004 that without wetlands protection New Orleans could be devastated by even an ordinary hurricane. The chairman of the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality dismissed the study as “highly questionable.”

Now The New York Times asks in an editorial: “Why were developers permitted to destroy wetlands and barrier islands that could have held back the hurricane’s surge? Why was Congress, before it wandered off to vacation, engaged in slashing the budget for correcting some of the gaping holes in the area’s flood protection?”

But a whole series of budget decisions will come in for particularly intense scrutiny. Federal flood control spending for southeastern Louisiana has been slashed from $69 million in 2001 to $36.5 million in 2005, according to budget documents. Federal hurricane protection for the Lake Pontchartrain vicinity in the Army Corps of Engineers’ budget dropped from $14.25 million in 2002 to $5.7 million this year. Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu had requested $27 million this year, but there was little hope that she would get it.

So in 2004, the Corps essentially stopped major work on the now-breached levee system that had protected New Orleans from flooding. It was the first such stoppage in 37 years, the Times-Picayune reported. The Corps also eliminated funds to pay for a study on how to protect the city from a category five storm, New Orleans City Business reported in June.

Says Fischetti: “Watching the TV images of the storm approaching the Mississippi Delta on Sunday, I was sick to my stomach. Not only because I knew the hell it could unleash—I wrote an article for Scientific American in 2001 that described the very situation that was unfolding—but because I knew that a large-scale engineering plan called Coast 2050, developed in 1998 by scientists, Army engineers, metropolitan planners and Louisiana officials, might have helped save the city, but had gone unrealized.”

The Department of Homeland Security’s budget for 2006 also includes cuts in disaster preparedness funds. The DHS agency in charge of liaison with local emergency-planning outfits—the Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness—has had its budget cut by more than $600 million, from $4.2 billion in 2004 to a proposed $3.6 billion in 2006.

The “pre-disaster mitigation fund and national flood mitigation fund,” which is a “competitive grant program to assist states and communities to reach a higher level of risk management and risk reduction through planning and mitigation actions taken before disasters occur,” was cut by around $49 million last year.

In the Energy Bill passed just a few weeks ago, there is a provision that grants $1 billion to states with offshore drilling platforms for coastal improvement work. The bulk of this money, $540 million, is earmarked for Louisiana. But the White House was vehemently opposed to the provision, and in a letter by Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman written July 15 insisted: “These provisions are inconsistent with the President’s 2006 Budget and would have a significant impact on the budget deficit.”

(Congress overruled the White House objection, and President Bush eventually signed the Energy Bill with the funding intact.)

Dealing with second-guessing can be challenging enough, but dealing with contemporaneous dissent that resurfaces when the worst-case scenario materializes is much more difficult. That’s why those internal memos, in which scientists questioned Merck should disclose the results of its clinical trials, are so damaging when presented to a jury. It’s why the first thing Eliot Spitzer does when he goes after a rogue financial services company is subpoena internal e-mails.

So comments like the one from Michael Parker, the former Republican Mississippi congressman who headed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from October 2001 until March 2002, when he was ousted after publicly criticizing the Bush administration’s proposal to cut the corps’ budget, are particularly damaging. “I’m not saying it wouldn’t still be flooded, but I do feel that if it had been totally funded, there would be less flooding than you have,” he told reporters.

When flooding from a massive rainstorm in May 1995 killed six people, Congress authorized the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, or SELA. Over the next 10 years, the Army Corps of Engineers, spent $430 million on shoring up levees and building pumping stations, but at least $250 million in crucial projects remained. And after 2003, the flow of federal dollars toward SELA dropped to a trickle. The Corps never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, combined with federal tax cuts, were responsible. At least nine articles in the Times-Picayune from 2004 and 2005 cite the cost of the Iraq war as a reason for the lack of hurricane and flood-control dollars.

A little more than a year before Katrina, Jefferson County emergency management chief Walter Maestri told the Times-Picayune: “It appears that the money has been moved in the president’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that’s the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can’t be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us.”

Lesson four: Short-term thinking can be fatal

Of course, most day-to-day decisions are made on the assumption that they will never be subject to the kind of intense scrutiny that follows a crisis.

Many chief executives manage quarter to quarter, holding off on investments—including crisis planning and preparedness—that may never be needed. Politics, meanwhile, has a four-year horizon. If Hurricane Katrina had arrived in 2009, the administration’s decision to slash flood prevention spending would have been someone else’s problem.

Says Ivins: “Had a storm the size of Katrina just had the grace to hold off for a while, it’s quite likely no one would even remember what the Bush administration did two months ago. The national press corps has the attention span of a gnat, and trying to get anyone in Washington to remember longer than a year ago is like asking them what happened in Iznik, Turkey, in AD 325.

“Just plain political bad luck that, in June, Bush took his little ax and chopped $71.2 million from the budget of the New Orleans Corps of Engineers, a 44 percent reduction.”

Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, told the Los Angeles Times that the government knew the New Orleans levees could never withstand a hurricane stronger than a category three. But rather than come up with the extra millions of dollars needed to make the city safer, officials believed that such a devastating storm was a small probability and that, with the level of protection that had been funded, “99.5 percent of the time this would work.” Unfortunately, Strock said, “we did not address the 0.5 percent.”

Vincent Gawronski, an assistant professor at Birmingham Southern College in Alabama who studies the political impact of natural disasters, explains the political dynamic at work. “Elected politicians are in office for a limited amount of time and with a limited amount of money, and they don’t really have a long-term vision for spending it. So you spend your pot of money where you feel you’re going to get the most political support so you can get reelected. It’s very difficult to think long-term.”

But short-term thinking always has a long-term cost. The millions that Louisiana requested for flood prevention are now dwarfed by the billions—perhaps even hundreds of billions—that will be required to rebuild the city, repair the damage and (obviously) do the work that should have been done in the first place.

This raises questions about Bush administration policies in other areas where politics has trumped scientific thinking as it appears to have done in this case. The cost of the Kyoto treaty to slow the pace of global warming—frequently cited by the administration as its reason for opposing the treaty—pale into insignificance next to the cost of continued climate change. It will be interesting to see whether the events of last week will serve as a warning.

(The connection between Katrina and climate change may be even more direct. German media were quick to point out that while climate change has not necessary increased the frequency of hurricanes, global warming has had an impact on their intensity. A recent article in Nature by MIT’s Kerry Emanuel reported that the average damage from North Atlantic hurricanes has almost doubled over the past 30 years, during which time the average temperature of the sea has risen by half a degree.)

Lesson five: If you are going to build your brand around a specific competence, you’d better deliver on that competence.

There’s a very good reason why no major airline has ever chosen to position itself as the safest in the skies. Because when one of that airline’s planes finally drops out of the air, all its boasting is going to come back to haunt it.

The Bush brand was sold to America almost exclusively in its ability to protect U.S. citizens from harm. “I wake up every day thinking about how best to protect America,” the president told Americans during the first presidential debate. Much of the Republican campaign was designed to raise questions about whether John Kerry was equipped to defend America during perilous times. And while the focus at the time was on the terrorist threat, many Americans presumably believed that the president was implying that the homeland security was competent to deal with any emergency.

“I think it puts into question all of the Homeland Security and Northern Command planning for the last four years,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “Because if we can’t respond faster than this to an event we saw coming across the Gulf for days, then why do we think we’re prepared to respond to a nuclear or biological attack?”

The stories that emerged from FEMA in the wake of the crisis suggested an organization in deep disarray.

FEMA was born in 1979, the offspring of a number of federal agencies that had been functioning in an independent and uncoordinated manner to protect the country against natural disasters and nuclear holocaust. In the wake of Hurricane Andrew, which hit Florida in 1992, President Clinton appointed James Lee Witt—a professional emergency management—to be director of the agency. Witt, says Holdeman, reoriented FEMA from civil defense preparations to a focus on natural disaster preparedness and disaster mitigation. FEMA was elevated to a Cabinet-level agency.

But “the advent of the Bush administration in January 2001 signaled the beginning of the end for FEMA,” says Holdeman. “The newly appointed leadership of the agency showed little interest in its work or in the missions pursued by the departed Witt. Soon FEMA was being absorbed into the ‘homeland security borg.’

“FEMA employees have been directed not to become involved in disaster preparedness functions, since a new directorate (yet to be established) will have that mission.”

Testifying before Congress in 2001, Joseph Allbaugh—the former director of FEMA under President Bush—said he was concerned that federal disaster assistance had become “an oversized entitlement program” and made it clear that the new administration wanted to curtail FEMA’s mission. His goal, he said, was to “restore the predominant role of state and local response to most disasters.”

With Allbaugh at the helm of FEMA, the Bush administration, with the backing of a Republican Congress, reversed the emphasis on preventing flooding, cutting the formula for such federal grants by half.

The appointment of Mike Brown to head FEMA is seen by many within the agency as a sign of the agency’s diminished importance. Former FEMA chief of staff Jane Bullock, a 22-year veteran of the agency noted that neither Chertoff nor Brown had any disaster experience before they were appointed to their jobs. Brown’s last job—from which he war fired—was as judges and stewards commissioner at the  International Arabian Horse Association. (He was, however, an old college buddy of Allbaugh’s.)

According to Eric Holdeman, director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management, FEMA has been “systematically downgraded and all but dismantled by the Department of Homeland Security.

“Apparently homeland security now consists almost entirely of protection against terrorist acts. How else to explain why the Federal Emergency Management Agency will no longer be responsible for disaster preparedness? Given our country’s long record of natural disasters, how much sense does this make?”

In fact, a senior FEMA official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Washington Post: “If you brought up natural disasters, you were accused of being a pre-9/11 thinker.”

 “What you’re seeing is revealing weaknesses in the state, local and federal levels,” said Eric Tolbert, who until February was FEMA’s disaster response chief. “All three levels have been weakened. They’ve been weakened by diversion into terrorism.”

So by Wednesday, the obvious questions about America’s readiness for another terrorist attack were being asked. Tim Natali, director of the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia and an expert in counterterrorism, wanted to know: “How is it possible that with the fourth anniversary of 9/11 almost upon us, the federal government doesn’t have in hand the capability to prepare for and then manage a large urban disaster, natural or man-made?

“In terms of the challenge to government, there is little difference between a terrorist attack that wounds many people and renders a significant portion of a city uninhabitable, and the fallout this week from the failure of one of New Orleans’ major levees. Indeed, a terrorist could have chosen a levee for his target. Or a dirty-bomb attack in New Orleans could have caused the same sort of forced evacuation we are seeing and the widespread sickness that is likely to follow….

“The response to Katrina thus far indicates two flaws in the Bush administration’s thinking about homeland security. The federal government hasn’t learned how to plan for a tragedy that demands putting a city on sustained life-support, as opposed to a one-moment-in-time attack that requires recovering the dead and injured from debris and then quickly rebuilding. And DHS appears unwilling to plan for the early use of the U.S. military to cope with a civilian tragedy.”

And by the end of the week, there were questions about the administration’s overall performance on homeland security. “We are engaged in a massive effort under difficult circumstances to save lives and stabilize this crisis so that we may begin to restore our communities,” said Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Louisiana Democrat. “We must also be about the job of asking tough questions, my fellow Americans—questions about the health of our infrastructure and emergency response capabilities.”

“This is what the department was supposed to be all about,” said Clark Kent Ervin, former inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security. “Instead, it obviously raises very serious, troubling questions about whether the government would be prepared if this were a terrorist attack. It’s a devastating indictment of this department’s performance four years after 9/11.”

Fred Kaplan at Slate asked: “How ready is DHS for the disaster that its officials have been focused on the last two and a half years? If New Orleans’ levees had been broken not by a hurricane but by terrorists’ bombs, the nightmares we see now—the lack of planning and therefore of food, water, transportation, shelter, and public order—would be no different. And yet the Department of Homeland Security had scant little to deal with it, either on hand or ready for quick mobilization, and nothing in the 2006 budget suggests it will be any readier next year, whether for a hurricane or another 9/11.”

And Representative Mark Foley, Republican of Florida, called for FEMA to once again be separated from the Department of Homeland Security. “FEMA should not be hindered by a top-heavy bureaucracy when they are needed to act swiftly to save lives,” said Foley, making an assertion that seemed to beg an even bigger question: whether Americans want that “top-heavy bureaucracy” to be our first line of defense against a terrorist attack.

Lesson six: At the end of the day, every crisis is about values

For the first three days of the crisis, one of the most striking aspects of the disaster went almost unremarked by the media. Until Jack Shafer wrote an article at Slate in which he pointed out what must already have been obvious to viewers: “I can’t say I saw everything that the TV newscasters pumped out about Katrina, but I viewed enough repeated segments to say with 90 percent confidence that broadcasters covering the New Orleans end of the disaster demurred from mentioning two topics that must have occurred to every sentient viewer: race and class.

“Nearly every rescued person, temporary resident of the Superdome, looter, or loiterer on the high ground of the freeway I saw on TV was African-American. And from the look of it, they weren’t wealthy residents of the Garden District. This storm appears to have hurt blacks more directly than whites, but the broadcasters scarcely mentioned that fact.”

But from that point on, race and class became a major aspect of the coverage.

“It’s a question that our country is going to have to look inside its soul and answer,” said Tim Russert of MSNBC. “The fact is, those who were well off were able to evacuate the city and those who were poor stayed behind. And those who are suffering and those who are dying are those very same poor people. It’s just unbelievable. I think liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, are just absolutely outraged and confused at the scenes we’re watching on TV. Why are we apparently incapable of rescuing people and in the process of witnessing an American city being lost?”

And at an emotional press conference of Friday, Rep. Elijah Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, told reporters: “To the President of the United States, I simply say that God cannot be pleased with our response…. We cannot allow it to be said that the difference between those who lived and those who died in this great storm and flood of 2005 was nothing more than poverty, age or skin color.”

Still, the Associated Press reported that at one point on Friday, the evacuation from the convention center was interrupted when school buses pulled up so about 700 guests and employees from the Hyatt Hotel could move to the head of the evacuation line. “How does this work? They [are] clean, they are dry, they get out ahead of us?” asked an angry Howard Blue, 22, who tried to get in line with the well-dressed hotel guests, but was blocked by the National Guard.

Perhaps the disaster will force Americans to reexamine their attitudes toward poverty, the emphasis on self-reliance to the exclusion of any sense of shared, community responsibility for the least fortunate in our society. Perhaps it will also cause people to challenge the prevailing wisdom on taxes and public spending.

In his book Don’t Think of an Elephant, George Lakoff suggests that Democrats reframe the discussion about taxes as one about investment in the future. “Our parents invested in the future, ours as well as theirs, through their taxes… and we are reaping the benefits… paying taxes is paying your dues, paying your membership fee in America. If you join a country club or a community center, you pay fees… You may not use the squash court, but you still have to pay your dues.”

There has never been a better time to make that argument.

But perhaps the biggest impact of the hurricane will be on support for the war in Iraq. Questions about whether the National Guard—many units of which are currently serving in Iraq—was stretched too thin were quick to emerge. In Louisiana and Mississippi, the states hit hardest by the hurricane, up to 40 percent of their National Guard troops are on active duty in Iraq.

The Guard itself was equally quick to insist that it could cope. “Even though National Guard forces have been heavily engaged in the global war on terrorism, nearly 124,000 troops were available for duty in the 17 states along the storm’s projected path,” the National Guard Bureau said in a statement. “That averages to 78 percent of those states’ total Guard strength. Tens of thousands could be drawn from the rest of the nation.”

But manpower was not the only issue. The Boston Globe reported that the Guard’s effort to bring aid and order to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast “is hamstrung by the fact that units across the country have, on average, half their usual amount of equipment.” That’s because helicopters, Humvees, trucks, and weapons have been dispatched to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“In the four years since 9/11 that we have been at war, equipment has been beaten up, blown up, or simply left behind,” said John Goheen of the National Guard Association of the United States. “States have had to borrow equipment and make do with a lot less equipment. We are short literally thousands of Humvees.”

Whatever the reality, people interviewed in New Orleans and beyond clearly drew a connection between the war and the leisurely response.

One lasting image from New Orleans was of a dead woman in a wheelchair outside the convention center, covered by only a blanket, while another body wrapped in a sheet lay on the ground beside her. “I don’t treat my dog like that,” said Daniel Edwards, one of those still waiting for the relief effort to begin. “I buried my dog.” And Edwards made the connection almost every one of the victims was making. “You can do everything for other countries but you can’t do nothing for your own people,” he said. “You can go overseas with the military but you can’t get them down here.”

“This is a national disgrace,” said Terry Ebbert, head of New Orleans’ emergency operations. “FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control. We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims but we can’t bail out the city of New Orleans.”

Lesson Seven: Don’t blame the victim; take responsibility

There’s been plenty of criticism of Union Carbide’s handling of the Bhopal disaster more than 20 years ago, but imagine the outcry if a senior executive of the company had suggested that the Indians who died or suffered horrible injuries were responsible for their own fate because they had chosen to live so close to a chemical plant.

“The critical thing was to get people out of there before the disaster,” Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff said on NBC’s Today program. “Some people chose not to obey that order. That was a mistake on their part.”

Chertoff was apparently mystified that the poorest of citizens of New Orleans, most of whom did not own a car and lacked any kind of support structure—family or friends or job—outside their immediate neighborhood, did not simply charter a luxury jet and head off to an expensive hotel in the midwest until the danger had passed.

Michael Brown, meanwhile, told CNN: “Unfortunately, that’s going to be attributable a lot to people who did not heed the advance warnings. I don’t make judgments about why people chose not to leave but, you know, there was a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans. And to find people still there is just heart-wrenching to me.”

But a “mandatory” evacuation meant little for many of the people who were left behind, without some means for them to leave the city.

Catina Miller, a 32-year-old grocery deli worker who lived in one of the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods in New Orleans told the Washington Post she would have liked to leave the city before the hurricane hit. “But where can you go if you don’t have a car?” she asked. “Not everyone can just pick up and take off.”

Jack Harrald, director of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., added that emergency planners had known for years that the poverty and lack of transportation in New Orleans would be a significant problem. “All issues were known,” he said

On Thursday, meanwhile, President Bush said during an interview on ABC’s Good Morning America that there should be a “zero tolerance” policy toward looting. As Reuters pointed out, “Bush drew no line between those looting stores for survival supplies like food and water and those stealing television sets that are of no use with electricity out in New Orleans.”

“If people need water and food, we’re going to do everything we can to get them water and food,” said the president.

The “blame the victim” strategy appeared to be part of a massive effort by the federal government to shift responsibility anywhere it could.

Toward the end of the week, the effort began to deflect criticism onto local authorities, with New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin—who painted a bulls-eye on his back with his outraged attack on the federal effort—the most popular target. But the Department of Homeland Security website made it clear where the actual responsibility resides.

“In the event of a terrorist attack, natural disaster or other large-scale emergency, the Department of Homeland Security will assume primary responsibility for ensuring that emergency response professionals are prepared for any situation. This will entail providing a coordinated, comprehensive federal response to any large-scale crisis and mounting a swift and effective recovery effort.”

Yet by the weekend, apologists for the administration were trying to shift blame to the Governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, claiming she had not declared a state of emergency early enough and had not invited federal authorities to take charge of the relief effort.

In reality, Blanco had declared a state of emergency on Thursday, even before it was clear that the hurricane was likely to strike directly in New Orleans. Moreover, a press release on the FEMA website makes it clear that “the President declared an emergency exists in the State of Louisiana and ordered Federal aid to supplement state and local response efforts in the parishes located in the path of Hurricane Katrina beginning on August 26, 2005.”

That was Friday, three days before the hurricane made landfall in Louisiana. At that point, it was clear to all involved who was responsible for the relief effort.

The release continues: “The President’s action authorizes the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency, to coordinate all disaster relief efforts which have the purpose of alleviating the hardship and suffering caused by the emergency on the local population, and to provide appropriate assistance for required emergency measures, authorized under Title V of the Stafford Act, to save lives, protect property and public health and safety, or to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe.”
 People can judge for themselves whether the Department of Homeland Security lived up to the “swift and effective” part of its mission, but there should be no question about where the buck stops.

Lesson eight: If you don’t know what you’re talking about, don’t say anything at all

The administration response began with President George W. Bush appearing on Good Morning America, giving an interview with Diane Sawyer in which he told her, “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees.”

The president obviously had not been tuned to CNN on the Saturday and Sunday before Katrina hit Louisiana: for almost 48 hours, the news network had been airing footage of experts predicting that the levees would be breached, and displaying graphic representations of how easily New Orleans—most of which is below sea level—could be submerged under water. Nor, it appears, had he paid any attention to the numerous scientific experts—including the Army Corps of Engineers—who predicted the same disaster scenario.

In fact, FEMA actually practiced for precisely this scenario just over a year ago, a simulation in which it gathered emergency response officials to see how they would respond to a fake storm named Pam. The exercise used realistic weather and damage information developed by the National Weather Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the LSU Hurricane Center and other state and federal agencies to help officials develop joint response plans for a catastrophic hurricane in Louisiana.

The next day, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff seemed almost more clueless. “We are extremely pleased with the response of every element of the federal government [and] all of our federal partners have made to this terrible tragedy,” said Chertoff during a news conference, as thousands of people in the Superdome and the New Orleans conference center waited in vain for food and water and security.

By the end of the week Chertoff, fielding difficult questions from reporters, was making the even more extraordinary claim that government officials did not expect both a powerful hurricane and a breach of levees that would flood the city of New Orleans. “That ‘perfect storm’ of a combination of catastrophes exceeded the foresight of the planners, and maybe anybody’s foresight,” he said.

Chertoff seemed to be suggesting that the hurricane and the flooding were two separate crises. It was like saying, “We knew there was going to be an earthquake, but nobody anticipated that it might cause buildings to collapse.”

But FE MA chief Michael Brown was perhaps the worst offender. He told CNN reporters he had not learned about the 15,000 to 20,000 people gathered at the New Orleans convention center until Thursday, by which time the network had been airing reports about their plight for the best part of the day. Similarly, the network had been airing footage of abandoned corpses outside the convention center for several hours when Brown told the network, “That’s not been reported to me, so I’m not going to comment. Until I actually get a report from my teams that say, ‘We have bodies located here or there,’ I’m just not going to speculate.”

Brown also told CNN that the evacuation of city hospitals was “going very well,” an assessment flatly contradicted by CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who reported: “It’s gruesome. I guess that is the best word for it. If you think about a hospital, for example, the morgue is in the basement, and the basement is completely flooded. So you can just imagine the scene down there.

“But when patients die in the hospital, there is no place to put them, so they’re in the stairwells. It is one of the most unbelievable situations I’ve seen as a doctor, certainly as a journalist as well. There is no electricity. There is no water. There’s over 200 patients still here remaining. ...We found our way in through a chopper and had to land at a landing strip and then take a boat.”

Added Dr. Matthew Bellew of Charity Hospital, “We still have 200 patients in this hospital, many of them needing care that they just can’t get. The conditions are such that it’s very dangerous for the patients. Just about all the patients in our services had fevers. Our toilets are overflowing. They are filled with stool and urine. And the smell, if you can imagine, is so bad, you know, many of us had gagging and some people even threw up. It’s pretty rough.”

Perhaps most staggering of all, Brown told reporters: “I’ve had no reports of unrest, if the connotation of the word unrest means that people are beginning to riot, or you know, they’re banging on walls and screaming and hollering or burning tires or whatever. I’ve had no reports of that.”

This was after CNN’s Chris Lawrence had reported from a New Orleans police station where he and a handful of brave officers who did not walk off the job had spent the night pinned down by sporadic gun fire is a scene straight out of Assault on Precinct 13. “From here and from talking to the police officers, they’re losing control of the city. We’re now standing on the roof of one of the police stations. The police officers came by and told us in very, very strong terms it wasn’t safe to be out on the street.”

Lesson nine: Symbolism matters…

The fact that President Bush was on vacation when Hurricane Katrina struck was unfortunate, but hardly much of a coincidence given his affection for downtime. It’s certainly legitimate to raise questions about whether he should have cut that vacation short on Saturday or Sunday, when it became apparent that a force four or five hurricane was headed for a more or less direct on New Orleans.

But when he spent Monday, after the hurricane had hit, on a fundraising tour of the American west, there were inevitable questions about whether he was taking the disaster seriously. Photographs of Bush clowning for the cameras, strumming a guitar backstage during a fundraising and commemorative event at Naval Base Coronado outside San Diego, on Tuesday were eerily reminiscent of the image of him reading a children’s book in a Florida classroom after the attack on the World Trade Center.

Jack Cafferty of CNN certainly took note, asking colleague Wolf Blitzer, “Where’s President Bush? Is he still on vacation?” When Blitzer said the president would be back in Washington the next day, Cafferty said drily, “Oh, that would be a good idea. He was out in San Diego I think at a naval air station giving a speech on Japan and the war in Iraq today. Based on his approval rating, based on the latest polls, my guess is getting back to work might not be a terrible idea.”

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer predicted the president “is going to be hurt” by the photo of him strumming the guitar—an almost perfect Nero-fiddles-while-Rome-burns moment. “When you have the worst disaster in American history, you’ve got to be attuned to expectations,” Krauthammer said on Fox News Channel on Wednesday. “The minute that he’d heard that the levees had given way and the flooding was beginning, he should have hopped on a plane, canceled his schedule and showed up in Washington.”

If Bush was slow to get back to business, Vice President Dick Cheney was absent all week, although his staff insisted he was not on vacation. “He’s working from Wyoming,” according to a spokeswoman.

And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in New York City, attending the musical Spamalot and buying shoes on Fifth Avenue, where she was reportedly confronted by an angry shopper who wanted to know: “How dare you shop for shoes while thousands are dying and homeless!” The shopper was apparently removed by Rice’s security detail.

Time magazine, meanwhile, reported that “many of Bush’s best PR minds, including media adviser Mark McKinnon, were in Greece at the wedding of White House communications director Nicolle Devenish.”

Lesson ten: But empty symbolism should never trump substance

When President Bush did eventually make it down to the disaster zone, his usually impeccable public relations skills appeared to have deserted him. Or perhaps the media was no longer in the mood to accept style over substance.

CNN seemed surprised by the way the president’s visit to the disaster zone unfolded. Said Daryn Kagen, “I gotta say that was rather an odd thing to be watching. The president finally making it to the Gulf Coast after five days, and then spending a big chunk of time, when he could be out seeing the devastation, getting a briefing that frankly he could have gotten back at the White House. A lot of that seemed like a political opportunity for the cameras and for the Republican governors of Mississippi and Alabama.”

Added Bill Schneider, “I’m not sure that’s what most Americans and certainly most people in the area wanted to hear, as if the president were being filled in, told what was going on, there was a lot of thanking a lot of congratulations. Look these are frantic desperate people who have lost everything, who are in a very desperate situation, what they want is someone to come there and say the government is in control, we have control of this situation, there’s a leader in charge here and we’re gonna make it work.”

Jack Cafferty even speculated that the president had held off on his visit to the disaster zone so that his presence there coincided with the first deliveries of food and water.

Worse, several stories suggested that the president’s visit actually impeded the relief efforts that were just getting going.

Rep. Charlie Melancon, Democrat of Louisiana, complained that for the entire duration of Bush’s visit, a ban on helicopter flights delayed the delivery of emergency supplies to residents of St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, just south of New Orleans, where victims were still waiting for food and water.

Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, who earlier in the week had been mocked for her repeated expressions of gratitude to the president and federal authorities, claimed the activity television viewers witnessed during Bush’s visit to the breached 17th Street levee was staged.

“Touring this critical site yesterday with the President, I saw what I believed to be a real and significant effort to get a handle on a major cause of this catastrophe,” Landrieu said in a statement. “Flying over this critical spot again this morning, less than 24 hours later, it became apparent that yesterday we witnessed a hastily prepared stage set for a Presidential photo opportunity; and the desperately needed resources we saw were this morning reduced to a single, lonely piece of equipment.

“The good and decent people of southeast Louisiana and the Gulf Coast—black and white, rich and poor, young and old—deserve far better from their national government.”

Similarly, Germany’s ZDF News reported that the open air food distribution point Bush visited in front of the cameras was torn down immediately after the president and his entourage of media people had left the site.


If there is good news for the President, it is that he will have plenty of time to redeem himself after his poor performance during the first week of this tragedy, because the recovery is likely to take not months or even years, but decades.

Hugh Kaufman, a senior policy analyst at the Environmental Protection Agency and designer of the Superfund legislation to clean up toxic waste, says New Orleans and the Gulf Coast face “an absolute catastrophic situation” that will take years to abate. Louisiana “was known for its very weak enforcement regulations,” Kaufman said, and there are a number of landfills and storage areas containing “thousands of tons” of hazardous material that could leak and spread.

“On top of that, you have dead bodies that are going to start to decompose, along with the material that was in industrial and household discharge, sewage, gasoline and waste oil from gas stations. You’ve got a witches’ brew of contaminated water.” An environmental survey to asses the safety of soil in formerly flooded areas could take six months.

Then the rebuilding can begin.


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