Pa, The Levee’s Broke

I’ve been doing a slow burn since reading this account in the Wall Street Journal taken from the recently published book Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security. Because I understand that in the US disaster response starts at the local level, then proceeds to the state level and finally to the federal level, I did not buy into much of the initial blaming that put all the responsibility on the federal government. But it was pretty obvious that the Federal system had problems too so I stopped listening to all the buck passing up and down to await a more balanced assessment. While this book is focused primarily on federal failure it has plenty of criticism of the state and local response too and it has some real answers about what went wrong .

The information that surprised me most was that there actually was an identifiable bottleneck – even a person with a name other than Brown or Bush to blame. If you listen to this interview of Wall Street Journal reporter and the book’s co-author, Robert Block, the central thesis becomes clear. The fundamental problem was that after 9/11 FEMA was absorbed by Homeland Security and the emphasis shifted away from natural disasters to preventing terrorist attacks . Block makes the point that while you want to prevent a nuclear attack, not clean up after it, you can’t stop a hurricane.

The key operational failure at the federal level identified in the book turns on how Homeland Security had defined the triggering event necessary to declare a major disaster. Logically enough it was the levees breaking. The failure occurred when all levels – local, state and federal, – couldn’t get the message that the levees had broken through to General Broderick, the official with responsibility for the decision. The levees had indeed broken and broken early, but Broderick saw his job as resisting a premature reaction and failed to aggressively seek the critical information he required. Instead he clung to the idea that the situation was basically under control.

Federal officials had a single test for determining whether to treat the storm as an average disaster or as the catastrophic doomsday scenario everyone had long feared: Had the levees been breached by Katrina’s storm surge, or had the water simply flooded over the top? Unfortunately, these were questions that state and local officials — and even FEMA’s senior staff — never fully understood they had to answer.

What is appalling is that they didn’t go after the critical information directly by sending someone in to look. And when they did they didn’t listen to him. Instead Broderick relied on an Army Corps of Engineers report that buried the information on a back page and stated it in jargon that obscured the facts. He also testified to the Senate that his only other ‘data point’ was a CNN telecast of revelers in the French quarter saying they had ‘dodged the bullet’. It reminds me of Stalin not believing that the Germans were going to attack when he had plenty of warning. So much warning that when the Germans overran the Soviet positions that found copies of the entire, book length, German battle plan translated into Russian.

Probably the most frustrating incident is that despite the paralysis at the local and state levels FEMA did have a man on the spot and he gave the critical report on Monday afternoon that should have triggered recognition that a major catastrophe was underway.

Marty Bahamonde, a FEMA spokesman who was the agency’s only official in New Orleans, stood at the door of an open Coast Guard helicopter as a blast of hot rotor wash spilled over him. He yelled to the pilot that he was from FEMA and needed to go up.

Mr. Bahamonde was seeking confirmation of a catastrophe, and he got it once he was airborne: The 17th Street Canal floodwall was in tatters, its concrete caps bent like tombstones in a country graveyard. Water was pouring into the city like Niagara; the breach was a quarter mile wide. “I knew I was looking at the worst-case scenario that everyone had feared,” he later said.

By the time Mr. Bahamonde returned to the Superdome, it was nearly 7 p.m. He called FEMA Chief Michael Brown in Baton Rouge and related what he had seen. “I’m calling the White House now,” Mr. Brown said.

Mr. Bahamonde’s report was flashed around FEMA and passed on to Mr. Broderick’s staff at HSOC. The information made it to the White House late that evening. Yet it would be nearly 15 hours before Mr. Chertoff formally invoked the National Response Plan, making the disaster a federal priority.

15 hours. Pictures showing the levee breaks were needed to break the mindset back in DC. Bahamonde had a digital camera but the book doesn’t say what happened to the pictures. A camera in his digital phone would have been nice – then he could have sent the pictures to Brown when he called him. Most teenagers seem to have them – why not FEMA officials? In addition FEMA regarded Bahamonde as excitable and not an entirely reliable observer. I’d like to know why they sent only one official and one they didn’t trust.

I want to finish off with a few broader points. First, the New Orleans police lost their radio communications very quickly which was critical because it deprived all levels of government of their primary source of trustworthy information. Lets face it government employees trust other government employees and the loss of the police radio communications cut off the flow of information at the root. It certainly left the Mayor clueless and while Governor Blanco knew the city was flooding she didn’t think the levees were broken so she didn’t get the key information through to FEMA either. Second, it sounds like a stretch when the book’s authors claim that Homeland Security should have taken into account that Louisiana and New Orleans are less capable than other places. It’s not. I’ve spent enough time in Louisiana to know that anyone in Broderick’s or Brown’s position needed to have gotten a team of FEMA observers they trusted into New Orleans who were fully briefed and knew what to look for. Nothing excuses Broderick failing to aggressively and proactively go after the information he needed to make his decision. Finally, even though Block discounts the proposed use of aerial surveillance cameras to feed the information back to Washington because he points out, rightly enough, that the information is needed locally, I think he misses the point. Homeland Security is the logical agency to have UAVs and helicopters to give accurate visual information about any disaster as soon as it is possible to fly over the affected area. Brock’s reservation only applies if Homeland Security fails to share the imagery. Instead of local, state and federal officials having a conference call to share ignorance and misinformation, they could all be looking at the facts and working out who was going to do what.


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