BY PAUL GOODMAN
On receiving notification that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) needed groups of two responders from fire departments to assist with the Katrina disaster in the New Orleans area, the Georgetown (KY) Fire Department organized two two-member teams to respond. After we were informed that our two teams had been activated, we arranged to fly out on September 3, 2005.
On arrival at the registration and training center in Atlanta, Georgia, the four of us stood in line to register. After standing in line for a couple of hours, which was long and grueling, some of the centers for services we needed to complete before we could be deployed to New Orleans, such as getting our shots, a phone, and our credit card, were closing. We were told that we would have to come back in the morning to complete our registration. We returned the next day only to stand in line for a few more hours. We had to leave to go to our required training. We returned at lunch time to visit the departments we missed. Yes, we had to stand in line again.
The Jefferson Parish Emergency Services Task force helped to inform residents about how to obtain products and services, including tarps for the roof.
The training was held in large groups (200 plus) and was presented in a format that was hard to understand. It seemed like a waste of time. Some of the training included sexual harassment, incident command, FEMA (the organization), and ethics. These topics are usually covered by departmental training. The instructors tried to have group discussions; however, the group was too large and nothing was accomplished.
There was very little training on what we would actually be doing once we were deployed to our region. Most of the responders understood that we would be doing community relations (CR) but had no idea of what we would actually be doing.
Once the training was complete, a spokesperson from FEMA announced that one group of 50 teams of two (Louisiana 100) was needed. In the past, team leaders (FEMA) would come in with a list and announce the names of the people that would constitute a group. Breaking up the group proved to be chaotic. Everyone was arguing because they wanted to get out of Atlanta and help someone.
Once in groups, we were assigned a group number from 1 to 50 and were told to report at 0800 hours the next day. As requested, we reported the next day at 0800 hours and waited for our assignment. After sitting for more than an hour, we asked FEMA representatives when we were getting shipped out and where we were going. No one had any idea of what our mission was going to be. Our FEMA team leader came in and advised that we were going to be split up again. FEMA took the first 25 teams and told us that we would be deployed immediately; we were told that we were on a “special operation” and that is all we could be told. Our two groups from Georgetown were split up. We were told we would be deployed together. The other group stayed in Atlanta for two more days before being deployed.
When our flight arrived in New Orleans on September 5, we were bused to the Joint Field Office (JFO) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. When we arrived at the JFO, we met with a member of FEMA who was not ready for our arrival. He told us that he was working on getting transportation (rental cars) and was going to set up a hotel for us. After sitting in the main building for a couple of hours filling out another application, we were then bused to a steakhouse for dinner. When we reported back to the JFO, the FEMA representative told our group that he was able to secure only 12 cars and the hotel had no vacancies.
After more research, he found a total of 22 cars and put us up in a tent city near Port Allen. We were advised to report back in the morning. When we reported to the JFO in the morning, we learned that we would be doing CR work in the New Orleans area, specifically Jefferson Parish. One of our members asked exactly what CR entailed. He was told it would be going door to door passing out flyers to people who were supposed to be evacuated from the area.
With our 22 cars and cell phones, and with no flyers, our convoy left for Jefferson Parish. Arriving at the Parker Gymnasium in the early afternoon, we met with Dan Griffith (FEMA). At this point, three days into our assignment, we were still unassigned. We were told that we would not be working that day and should take a day to relax. We had not done a thing, except travel, during the past four days. We did not need a day to rest.
While standing outside talking, Kevin Cummins, Captain A. Riley (La Mesa, CA), and I noticed a boy with physical disabilities dragging brush to the street. As firefighters, we decided we had had enough sitting around, so we went to help clean up the yard with the young boy. Riley even mowed the entire lawn. Cummins and I used a rope and pulled broken limbs out of the tree that presented a hazard and dragged the remaining limbs to the street. This idea took off. It wasn’t long before our whole group took off in the two-block area and assisted residents in cleaning up their yards and removing debris off roofs (trees and limbs).
While walking the neighborhood, we contacted a few residents who stayed behind. We made sure that they had all the emergency numbers (CR). Everyone we came in contact with had already called and had started the process with FEMA. How did they know whom to call? We hadn’t passed the flyers out to them yet. The flyer-passing firefighters just arrived in town, and we didn’t even have any flyers to give them. We also came across a woman who used a wheelchair and had diabetes. We checked on her every day while we were in the area, making sure that she had ice for her insulin and food. We also arranged for the Red Cross to bring her a hot meal once a day. This is what we came for-to make a difference in a community that needed our help. It was such a great feeling to be able to finally get out and do something.
Some of our personnel had made contacts with the U.S. marshals with whom we were housed and asked them what was going on in the area and what some of the people’s needs were. One of the marshals mentioned that we probably should not wear anything that tied us to FEMA. The fear was that someone might take his frustration out on us. A few groups went out with the marshals in the evening on their down time to see firsthand. The groups made several contacts with people still in the area of Jefferson Parish and New Orleans. They handed out meals ready to eat (MREs), food, water, and the FEMA number. The U.S. marshals requested that we let a paramedic and an EMT go with each of their groups to help talk the residents who stayed behind into getting out of the area and getting the help they need. This concept worked so well that it continued throughout our deployment. The paramedic and EMT would take their own vehicle and load up on water and food for those they could not talk into leaving the area.
ESTABLISH COMMAND SYSTEM AND ELECT OFFICERS
On day four, still unassigned, our group of members had a meeting. Many members were ready to leave. As a group, we decided that we needed to form our own incident command system and that we needed a spokesperson for the group. We needed someone to find out what was going on, what we were going to be doing, and when we were going to do it. We elected the following officers: Captain Andrew Riley (incident commander), Chief Dave Bennett (Operations), and Jerry Gooden (Logistics); I was elected to handle accountability and assignments.
Chief Dave Bennett and Joe Peel of the Tonganoxie (KS) Fire Department assist a resident in loading mold-laden furniture to be brought to the dump. (Photos by author.)
The whole time we had been deployed there was no type of accountability for our group, so we decided to keep track of our own accountability. Even though we had formed our own ICS, we still had a few who decided that they had enough and left for home. Two of the firefighters who left did, however, return to give the new system a chance.
Riley met with Griffith and suggested some things our group could be doing as first responders. Some of the suggestions were to help the U.S. Marshals-National Guard Special Operations provide medical assistance at aid stations, assist in setting up food and water distribution centers, and assist the Nine Mile fire station. The firefighters at this station had not had a day off since the hurricane, and most of them had not had a chance to see the damage done to their own homes. Some of them had nothing left to call “home.”
Griffith met with his superior, Lee Champaign, the State FEMA representative, to discuss our capabilities. The result was the creation of the Jefferson Parish Emergency Task Force.
THE JEFFERSON PARISH EMERGENCY TASK FORCE
Our newly formed group set out on our mission on September 7. We paired into groups, paramedic and EMT. The groups were assigned to an area and a group with whom they would be working. Our personnel were instructed to check in throughout the day for accountability reasons; however, this was ineffective because of communication problems (cell phone towers were not operational). While regrouping in the evening, we asked each team to briefly describe its assigned task. Some groups that traveled with the National Guard Special Operations rode in Army trucks, LAVs and Hemets. They traveled in areas in which regular vehicles could not travel because of water and mud. Surprisingly enough, there were people still in the area who had not had any contact with anyone in days, since the disaster started. We also found that up until now people were hiding from the other groups such as the marshals, the National Guard, Immigration Customs Enforcement, and other police agencies. While talking to the people, we found that they felt threatened by these organizations because of the weapons law enforcement groups carried. Others thought that the water would go down in a couple of days and that everything would return to normal. These people had no idea of what had happened to their community.
Task force members, transported in military vehicles because of the high water levels, searching for residents who might still be in the area. They traveled with heavily armed law enforcement personnel for safety.
The first day out, our teams made approximately 50 successful contacts. They were able to talk 50 residents into getting the attention they needed, whether it was medical or safe housing. When our members made contact with the people, they passed on the information FEMA has asked us to hand out. We had copied and printed the flyers ourselves at the Jefferson Parish Dispatch Center. As the days passed, our personnel started going door to door with the National Guard and other law enforcement agencies trying to locate people who still may have been in hiding. These operations continued until Sunday, September 11, when the governor and the mayor stopped the National Guard from going door to door.
The personnel assigned to this operation were reassigned; their new assignment was to go to an area that needed help setting up food and water distribution centers and medical aid centers and deliver ice into neighborhoods with local fire departments. The ICS staff went to towns in Jefferson Parish and met with town officials to get their immediate needs for their community and then report the information back to FEMA.
Lafitte, Louisiana, a small town in the bayou, seemed to be forgotten. I met with Mayor Kerner along with a representative from FEMA to find out the needs of this community. The town was in desperate need of food, water, ice, and medical supplies. We were able to have all the supplies requested by the next day. Our personnel assisted in setting up the aid station and food distribution center.
We had also checked on a few complaints of black mold conditions. One gentleman with black mold in his living area and furniture was unable to remove the items infested with the deadly mold because he had had two hip replacements and had trouble lifting and walking. We told him we would be back the next morning with a few other people to help him move the mold-infested furniture. Moving the furniture and taking it to the dump took about two hours, but it was well worth it to help someone in need.
Our crew then went to the town hall to assist in establishing a food distribution center and medical aid station. Riley and I drove around after removing the furniture. We were flagged down by a woman who had been in her trailer (which had fallen off its foundation) for days without food, water, or electricity. Within minutes, we had an adequate supply of food and water delivered to her residence and worked on getting her some safe housing. When we had reported her to the city as needing assistance, the mayor’s office told us that they had been looking for her. Her family and friends had been calling inquiring about her, but they were not sure of the location of her residence because of miscommunication with the callers.
Before we could leave Lafitte for the day, Mayor Kerner asked if we could check on an elderly woman. He said some tree limbs were blocking her garage and vehicle. As it was close to the end of our day and we were headed that way, we did not hesitate to fulfill his request. One thing led to another, and we ended up cutting three or four trees and dragging the brush to the street. Customer service strikes again.
We did, however, have a slight situation with the last good deeds. Some volunteer firefighters not with our original group joined us the second week. They were unclear of their mission and were awaiting further instructions. We asked them if they would like to join us for the day while they were waiting for confirmation of their mission. They were a great asset in helping to remove the furniture with the mold from the house, cleaning up the brush in the yard, and setting up a food distribution center in the town hall. But, it seems that they were not as willing to help as they said they were. Before we got back to base camp, their group leader made a phone call to Lee Champagne, Louisiana FEMA director, complaining about moving brush and loading furniture on a trailer. This phone call had filtered down to our FEMA boss (Griffith). Champagne told Griffith he was extremely displeased with us for removing the brush and furniture and that we should not have been doing these tasks. But Griffith understood the firefighters with whom he had been working for the past week and a half and knew that whatever we did was done for a reason. He knew that we were there to assist the people of Louisiana.
Groups not working in food distribution or first-aid stations were assigned to CR work. These personnel were assigned to canvass specific areas within Jefferson Parish and pass out the FEMA flyers, which were finally delivered. On September 14, all of our crews were reassigned to CR and canvassed all of Jefferson Parish. The CR operation continued until September 16, when 100 percent of Jefferson Parish had been canvassed and provided with the flyers. Our group was released on September 17, once it was determined that our mission was complete. FEMA was shipping in replacements as we were leaving. We heard that they had some on standby.
Our group, however, did come up with some suggestions that might make the operation more successful. Each state could have four teams of two on standby that could be deployed with the task force on the request of the state or federal government. Having a task force on standby ready to go would be a great asset. This team would already have had the training, a FEMA credit card, communication, maps, and be ready for an assigned mission. Having the teams on standby would also save time and money. People would get the assistance they need quickly.
The training has to be more centralized and must allow us to practice what was taught. For example, the training on ICS was a good refresher, but most firefighters have had ICS training (NIMS 700) in the past year. If you are going to teach a system, implement it. There seemed to be no structure to the deployment of personnel. No one knew who was in charge, and no one knew what the mission was. When we were sent to a location, someone there should have known that we were coming. As for equipment suggestions, we recommend computers; map software; maps; camera; GPS; satellite phones; vehicles no smaller than four-wheel drive SUVs to carry food, water, and other supplies; tire repair kits; and BLS kits for EMTs and ALS kits for paramedics.
This operation got off to a rocky start, but despite the aggravation and confusion, it was a mission worth signing up for. I cannot speak for every firefighter deployed to Atlanta, but I can say our group did what it came to do-help. We did find that we were not as flexible as we thought we were, “FEMA Flexibility.” It took a group of firefighters to step back and give our scene a good size-up. When in doubt, stand back and take a look at what you have, and then make a decision. Our command staff had some good resources, 39 of the best firefighters in the country. With everyone’s input and suggestions, we made it work.
Andrew Riley, Jerry Gooden, Dave Bennett, and the 39 members of Jefferson Parish Emergency Services Task Force contributed to this article.
PAUL GOODMAN is a captain in the Georgetown (KY) Fire Department, where he has served for 12 years.