On August 23, 2005, Hurricane Katrina formed as a tropical storm off the coast of the Bahamas. Over the next seven days, the tropical storm grew into a catastrophic hurricane that made landfall first in Florida and then along the Gulf Coast in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama, leaving a trail of heartbreaking devastation and human suffering. Katrina wreaked staggering physical destruction along its path, flooded the historic city of New Orleans, and set off the largest rescue and recovery effort in American history.

The Gulf Coast

A catastrophic hurricane striking southeast Louisiana has been considered a worst-case scenario that the region and many experts had known and feared for years. Much of southeast Louisiana is at or below sea level, and experience has shown Gulf Coast hurricanes to be deadly. At the turn of the 20th century, an unnamed Category 4 hurricane made landfall on September 8, 1900, in Galveston, Texas. With storm surges higher than 15 feet and winds stronger than 130 mph, more than 8,000 people perished-making it the deadliest disaster in American history.

School buses swamped by the waters following Hurricane Katrina. (Photo by Liz Roll, FEMA.)

Sixty-five years later, on September 9, 1965, Hurricane Betsy made its second landfall near Grand Isle, Louisiana, as a strong Category 3 storm. As an omen of things to come, Hurricane Betsy’s storm surge and high winds hit Lake Pontchartrain just north of New Orleans, overtopping levees and flooding the city. Breaching the Florida Avenue levee, flood waters consumed the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, drowning many in their attics as they tried to escape. In total, 75 people were killed and more than 160,000 homes were flooded.

Only four years later, Hurricane Camille, a Category 5 hurricane, struck the mouth of the Mississippi River on the night of August 17, 1969. Storm surges measuring more than 25 feet, combined with winds estimated close to 200 mph, caused an estimated 335 deaths, destroyed or damaged 22,008 homes, and injured thousands in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Virginia.

An interstate ramp filled with rescue workers, vehicles, and equipment cut off by the flood waters. (Photo by Jocelyn Augustino, FEMA.)

As the nation continues to fund relief and rebuilding efforts, there is no doubt Hurricane Katrina was the most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history. The overall destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina, a large and powerful hurricane that precipitated a catastrophic flood, vastly exceeded that of any other major disaster, such as the Chicago Fire of 1871, the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, and Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Hurricane Katrina’s devastating effects were felt before the storm even reached the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005. In the Gulf of Mexico, Hurricane Katrina battered the offshore energy infrastructure and forced the evacuation of more than 75 percent of the Gulf’s 819 manned oil platforms.

The Category 4 Hurricane Katrina again made landfall at daybreak on August 29, 2005. It hit land in eastern Louisiana just after 6 a.m., shifting enough to spare New Orleans somewhat. Winds were clocked at 145 mph as the storm made landfall, leaving more than one million people in three states without power and submerging highways. Hardest hit was Harrison County, Mississippi, which includes Gulfport and Biloxi. Days after the storm passed, most storm-related deaths were discovered in these areas. Preliminary damage estimates ranged from $9 to $16 billion. Current official estimates are more than $200 billion plus, making Katrina the most expensive hurricane ever. Katrina, its 115- to 130- mph winds, and the accompanying storm surge it created-as high as 27 feet along a stretch of the northern Gulf Coast from Mobile, Alabama, to New Orleans-impacted nearly 93,000 square miles of our nation, roughly an area the size of Great Britain.

Aerial view of swamped houses. (Photo by Liz Roll, FEMA.)

Hurricane Katrina contradicts one side of an important two-part trend. For at least a century, America’s most severe natural disasters have become steadily less deadly and more destructive of property (adjusted for inflation). Yet, Hurricane Katrina not only damaged far more property than any previous natural disaster, but it was also the deadliest natural disaster in the United States since Hurricane San Felipe in 1928.

When the winds and floods of Hurricane Katrina subsided, an estimated 1,330 people were dead as a result of the storm. The vast majority of the fatalities-an estimated 80 percent-came from the New Orleans metropolitan area; Mississippi suffered greatly as well, with 231 fatalities. Many of the dead were elderly or infirm. In Louisiana, approximately 71 percent of the victims were older than 60, and 47 percent of those were over 75. At least 68 were found in nursing homes, some of whom were allegedly abandoned by their caretakers. Of the total known fatalities, almost 200 unclaimed bodies remain at the Victim Identification Center in Carville, Louisiana. As awful as these horrifying statistics are, unfortunately, they are not the end of the story. As of February 17, 2006, 2,096 people from the Gulf Coast area were still reported missing.


The storm affected New Orleans for eight hours; flooding overwhelmed levees built to protect the city from the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, ultimately sending muddy water into city streets. Many homes were flooded to their rooflines.

The city, as much as 10 feet below sea level in spots, depended on a network of levees, canals, and pumps to keep it dry. The system was no match for Katrina’s 160-mph winds and storm surges estimated to be 28 feet high.

Cross Section Topography of New Orleans

The eye of Hurricane Katrina passed just east of the city. Downtown New Orleans and the French Quarter appeared to be spared. Initially, the damage consisted of trees, branches, and power lines down and some minor flooding of one to two feet of water. Windows blew out in various buildings throughout the city. Two hospitals sustained damage, and hundreds of thousands of residents lost electricity. Calls to the New Orleans emergency operations center (EOC) came in rapid succession, but the fire department could not send firefighters into the storm. According to Deputy Fire Chief Joseph R. Matthews, also director of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, authorities could not put firefighters at risk during the storm. Initially, officials felt a levee may have succumbed, though residents felt it might have been a surge. In actuality, the National Weather Service reported at 8:14 a.m. on Monday, August 29, that the Industrial Canal levee had been compromised and was flooding the adjacent 9th Ward. That afternoon at 2:00 p.m., it was reported that the 17th Street canal had also been breached. Over an estimated 18-hour period, approximately 80 percent of the city flooded with six to 20 feet of water, necessitating one of the largest search and rescue operations in our nation’s history.

A helicopter drops sandbags into areas where the levee has broken. (Photo by Jocelyn Augustino, FEMA.)

Mayor Ray Nagin categorized the levee problem as “the second worst case scenario.” Streets that had been basically dry hours after the hurricane passed were several feet under water. Both city airports were reported to be under water. One of the levee breaches was two to three blocks long. Efforts to evacuate the thousands who did not evacuate before the storm were ongoing (the number of people who stayed behind was estimated at 70,000) but were becoming increasingly difficult; many residents were being removed from rooftops. Hundreds of critically ill patients had to be evacuated from two of the city’s hospitals.

Initially, 10,000 people in the Superdome (taken there by city officials since it was on high ground) faced horrible conditions as water and food began to run out and water rising around the complex threatened to disable the generators. Three to four feet of water surrounded the building, large sections of the roof had peeled away, it had no air- conditioning, and the toilets inside were overflowing. The numbers in the Superdome would eventually swell to nearly 23,000 by Wednesday. An additional 6,000 to 7,000 people were stranded outdoors on “the cloverleaf,” a downtown set of intersecting highways.

US&R workers fly over flooded neighborhoods. (Photo by Jocelyn Augustino, FEMA.)

Five days after the hurricane struck, amphibious vehicles and Humvees carrying thousands of National Guardsmen made their way through New Orleans. The Superdome was finally emptied, but thousands still remained in the New Orleans Convention Center, which had been opened by city officials because of the problems in the Superdome. Buses left the city loaded with evacuees headed to a variety of destinations, including the Houston Astrodome. It is estimated that the Louisiana National Guard rescued 25,000 people while the U.S. Coast Guard rescued approximately 33,000 people using watercraft and helicopters.

Few would dispute that what occurred in New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina was a “once-in-a-lifetime” event. Reconstruction after Katrina is likely to be the biggest recovery program in U.S. history, dwarfing 1992’s Hurricane Andrew (equivalent of $36.9 billion in 2005 dollars). It is estimated to be an intense three- to five-year recovery operation.


The path of destruction at the coastal areas spread over a distance of 200 miles from west of New Orleans to Pensacola, Florida. People, property, and infrastructure along the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida were directly hit.

A retaining wall has broken in a neighborhood flooded by Katrina. (Photo by Jocelyn Augustino, FEMA.)

Hurricane Katrina destroyed more than five million acres of agricultural land valued at about $5 billion. Millions of acres of forests were devastated. Dead timber creates enormous fire risk and has brought weeds, insects, and disease. Much of the timber affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita consisted of privately owned tracts of agricultural land. The Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, chaired by Rep. Greg Walder (OR), is examining what must be done in the coming weeks and months to help recovery of the timber and mitigate potential risks for wildfire and extensive insect infestation and disease.


Preparations took on great urgency on Friday, August 26, because of Hurricane Katrina’s continuing intensification and west-southwest track from Florida into the Gulf of Mexico. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour declared states of emergency for their respective states. Gulf Coast states and localities expanded their EOC staffing and operations schedules in anticipation of Hurricane Katrina. The Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi state EOCs soon were activated to their highest levels. State agencies began putting their response plans into action. The Louisiana State Police notified personnel assigned to the Traffic Control Center that they should report to the state EOC the following day, at 6:00 a.m. CDT, to prepare for emergency response operations. The Louisiana National Guard began mobilizing 2,000 personnel while the Joint Forces headquarters-Louisiana National Guard activated its Joint Operations Center (JOC) at Jackson Barracks in New Orleans to coordinate their emergency response operations. Governor Barbour issued an executive order that directed Major General Harold Cross, Adjutant General of the Mississippi National Guard, to prepare to use the Mississippi National Guard for disaster relief operations. The Mississippi National Guard alerted military police and engineers, activated 750 personnel, and activated its EOC in Jackson.

Sections of the eastern span of the I-10 causeway slid off their moorings and into the lake from high winds and water. (Photo by Win Henderson, FEMA.)

As the storm strengthened, Louisiana and Mississippi state officials took steps to begin the evacuation of areas threatened by Hurricane Katrina throughout Friday evening and into Saturday morning. Early Saturday morning, Louisiana State Police Superintendent Colonel Henry Whitehorn and Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Johnny Bradberry recommended to Governor Blanco that she implement the state’s contra flow plan. Governor Blanco and her staff had determined that a major evacuation of coastal Louisiana and New Orleans would be required.

Residents of a local nursing home were taken by bus to a shelter outside of the impacted area. (Photos by Jocelyn Augustino, FEMA.)

Louisiana and Mississippi state agencies deployed personnel and prepositioned resources in the final two days before Hurricane Katrina’s second landfall. The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency also deployed six area coordinators to six Gulf Coast counties to serve as liaisons with their EOCs. Mississippi’s State Emergency Response Team (ERT) deployed to Camp Shelby while National Guard emergency rescue assets were deployed to three coastal counties. The Louisiana National Guard deployed liaison officers to the 13 southernmost parishes projected to suffer the greatest impact from the storm. Alabama officials began prepositioning supplies at staging areas and other locations throughout the state. Alabama National Guard troops were positioned in Mobile and Baldwin Counties in preparation for landfall, and Governor Bob Riley of Alabama, after being informed that Louisiana and Mississippi would suffer the brunt of the storm, offered Governors Blanco and Barbour whatever assistance his state could provide. The Texas Governor’s Division of Emergency Management deployed one regional liaison officer to Baton Rouge “to assist, coordinate, and monitor any requests for assistance that may develop as evacuations begin.”

Residents of a local nursing home were taken by bus to a shelter outside of the impacted area. (Photos by Jocelyn Augustino, FEMA.)

On the morning of August 27, 48 hours before Hurricane Katrina’s second landfall, FEMA headquarters commenced Level 1 operations, requiring full staffing on a round-the-clock, seven-day-a-week basis. FEMA was now at its highest alert. FEMA’s regional headquarters for Regions IV (Atlanta, Georgia) and VI (Denton, Texas) went to Level 1 activation at noon EDT and 11:00 a.m. CDT, respectively. At this point, all 15 National Response Plan (NRP) Emergency Support Functions (ESFs) had been activated as well. With the regional and national headquarters at full alert, FEMA held another daily video teleconference at 12:00 p.m. EDT. FEMA Region VI announced that its Mobile Emergency Response Support (MERS) detachment was en route to Camp Beauregard, Louisiana, to provide communications and operational and logistical support. It also announced that it had requested the deployment of the Denver MERS unit to Region VI headquarters in Denton to serve as a backup. In addition, Region VI had staged at Camp Beauregard 270,000 liters of water, 680,000 pounds of ice, 15,120 tarps, and 328,320 Meals Ready to Eat (MRE). By 5:00 p.m. EDT, the quantity of water stored at Camp Beauregard had doubled to 540,000 liters. More commodities were prestaged elsewhere in Region VI. The FEMA logistics representative reported that 102 trailers were uploaded with water and MREs at the FEMA Logistics Center in Ft. Worth, Texas. Also at noon that day, the ERT-N Blue Team was activated and deployed to Baton Rouge. The ERT-A Blue Team is one of the nation’s three standing ERT-N teams. One of three teams-code-named Red, White, and Blue-is on call every month. The ERT-N teams are the scalable principal interagency units that staff the JFO “for large-scale, high-impact events.” FEMA was working to prestage supplies in Region IV, too. At 1:15 p.m. EDT, FEMA issued its first mission assignment to USNORTHCOM “to provide NAS Meridian [Mississippi] as a FEMA operational staging base for pre-staging of FEMA supplies prior to landfall.” USNORTHCOM granted this request later that afternoon, releasing an executive order making Naval Air Station Meridian available to FEMA.

Victims of the hurricane were rescued by ground transportation. (Photo by Jocelyn Augustino, FEMA)


Victims of the hurricane.(Photo by Jocelyn Augustino, FEMA)

Additionally, FEMA began activating the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS), Disaster Medical Assistance Teams (DMATs), and Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) teams. The DMATs are mobile self-contained medical teams with equipment and medical professionals trained and certified to provide emergency medical care to disaster victims. These teams are comprised of professionals from around the country organized and deployed by FEMA to support disaster response activities. The US&R teams are similarly structured but are comprised of emergency responders, firefighters, and law enforcement personnel from around the country.

Victims of the hurricane were rescued by boat.(Photo by Jocelyn Augustino, FEMA)


Victims of the hurricane were rescued by plane.(Photo by Michael Rieger, FEMA)

Predeployed assets were placed throughout the region to encircle the forecasted impact area. The amount of space required to house the large volumes of commodities and people required large industrial and military staging areas-often filling entire runways with hundreds of trailers-accessible to heavy equipment and aircraft. The staging areas were dispersed outside the projected path of the storm to avoid destruction of critical commodities and to maximize the ability to deploy to affected areas in the wake of the hurricane. On Sunday, FEMA opened a federal logistics mobilization center at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, quickly placing a MERS team there with a mobile communication command vehicle. MERS assets were also deployed on-site into Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Texas, and other parts of Louisiana to support response operations. Other federally deployed teams in the region included seven US&R task forces and 33 National Disaster Medical System teams, including DMATs, Medical Strike Teams, a National Medical Response Team, Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams, and Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams. As of prelandfall on the next day, a total of 43,776 MREs and 90,000 liters of water had been staged at the Superdome. Throughout the region, there were prestaged more than 3.7 million liters of water, 4.6 million pounds of ice-with 13 million additional pounds of ice in cold storage ready to be deployed- and more than 1.86 million MREs. Another 2.1 million MREs were positioned in logistics centers outside the region ready to be distributed.


Many state and local public safety agencies suffered extensive damage to their facilities and equipment. The Grand Isle (LA) Fire Department suffered “total destruction.” Fire departments in the Mississippi cities of Biloxi and Gulfport experienced similar fates, while Slidell, Louisiana, had to close more than half its stations. The Pascagoula (MS) Police Department lost one-third of its vehicles.

More rescues. (Photo by Jocelyn Augustino, FEMA;)

The complete devastation of the communications infrastructure left responders without a reliable network for coordinating emergency response operations. Flooding blocked access to the police and fire dispatch centers in New Orleans; neither 911 service nor public safety radio communications functioned sufficiently. State and local emergency responders throughout the affected region struggled to perform urgent response missions, including emergency medical services, firefighting, law enforcement, search and rescue, and support to shelters. Emergency responders operated in an environment involving extreme heat, chemicals, contaminated mud, downed power lines, and standing water.

More rescues. (Photo by Jocelyn Augustino, FEMA;)

By September 5, rescue efforts were well underway in New Orleans, with rescuers going door to door. Rescuers found death and stubbornness. Those who weren’t dead were reluctant to leave. Rescuers were confronted with gunfire during early rescue efforts but, nonetheless, 10,000 people were evacuated by boat. Some rescuers chose to force those who remained to leave. By now, rescuers were anticipating the inevitable change to a recovery mission.

More rescues. (Photo by Win Henderson, FEMA;)

First-in rescuers found people standing on black rooftops baking in the sunshine while waiting for rescue boats. Many would-be rescuers could not reach victims awaiting rescue. A row of desperately needed ambulances, for example, was lined up on the interstate, but water blocked their path.

More rescues. (Photo by Jocelyn Augustino, FEMA;)

Survivors described a “terrifying” and “chaotic” scene: cars floating in the water that had to be pushed away so victims could swim in the flood waters; hundreds of inmates from a flooded prison standing on a highway; fights and fires breaking out; corpses lying out in the open; and rescue helicopters and law enforcement officers being shot at. Rescuers were greeted with scenes that depicted victims’ desperation. A man in a high-rise senior citizens apartment complex waved his empty oxygen tank out a window. Rescue boats circling a Day’s Inn were greeted by sheets on the balconies with messages such as “SOS” and “We need food and water.”

FEMA US&R rescuers searched homes for survivors. (Photo by Bob McMillan, FEMA)

A boat floated through the entrance of a senior complex and pulled up to the stairs, where awaiting elderly residents stepped gingerly onto tables and into the boats.

FEMA US&R rescuers searched homes for survivors. (Photo by Marvin Nauman, FEMA)

From the air, it appeared as though islands of rooftops were steeping in swirling water that was as dark as tea.

FEMA US&R rescuers searched homes for survivors. The tidal surge reached into the second story of most homes. (Photo by Bob McMillan, FEMA)

Families were torn apart; children were separated from parents. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children announced a hot line and a Web site dedicated to reuniting family members separated by the storm. Residents were evacuated to the Louisiana Superdome and the Astrodome in Houston.

FEMA US&R rescuers searched homes for survivors. The tidal surge reached into the second story of most homes. (Photo by Mark Wolfe, FEMA.)

In the Superdome, home of New Orleans Saints football team, a 77,000-seat, steel-framework stadium, the power went out, turning the building into a hot and muggy mess. Part of the roof blew off. Initially, an estimated 8,000 to 9,000 refugees, poor and frail, were in the Superdome. Water leaked in through the roof, elevators, and stairwells. When the power failed, emergency generators kicked in but gave only reduced lighting, not air-conditioning. Condensation made some floors wet and slippery.

More than 250,000 Louisiana evacuees were now living in Texas. Others were as far away as Utah, West Virginia, and Iowa.

The hot weather; mosquitoes; and standing water holding human waste, corpses, and other contaminants fostered fear of diseases such as West Nile virus, hepatitis A, salmonella, and E. coli bacteria infections.

In St. Gabriel, Louisiana, northwest of New Orleans, a 125,000-square-foot warehouse was transformed into a morgue that could hold more than 1,000 bodies. Medical examiners said they expected great difficulty in identifying victims because many birth and dental records were destroyed and victims had been in the water too long.


There was desperation on the city’s ravaged streets.

Before the storm, on-duty personnel in New Orleans were moved from fire stations to more secure buildings in their primary response districts. Apparatus were moved to higher ground, including the upper floors of parking garages.

Many firefighters, on and off duty, were missing after the storm and the subsequent flooding. There was no real accountability system. At the height of violence, most fire department personnel had pulled out of the city and retreated to the suburbs of Algiers across the Mississippi River.

Police officers had to use bathrooms in the basement of Harrah’s Casino and went into stores to feed themselves. They also had to deal with personal losses. They didn’t know where their wives or children were or if they still had homes. Within a few days, two police officers took their lives with their own weapons, and dozens turned in their badges.

Mayor Ray Nagin ordered virtually the entire police force to abandon search and rescue efforts and to focus on brazen packs of thieves who were becoming increasingly hostile.

The National Guard arrived in New Orleans and mobilized to speed the evacuation of tens of thousands of people trapped. Guard members had water and food-and were armed with M-16 rifles, which were in clear view. They provided badly needed security for thousands of refugees at the city’s convention center.


Firefighters were among the storm’s victims, having lost their homes and having been separated from their families. Estimates of the numbers of firefighters affected included 80 percent in New Orleans; 50 percent in Biloxi, Mississippi; and 100 percent in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, according to The First Responders Relief Foundation.


Wiped-out emergency communications diminished relief efforts even further.

US&R workers set up a repeater to aid communications. (Photo by Jocelyn Augustino, FEMA.)

Just as after 9/11, there was a clamor for an improved emergency communications system. Cell phone service was spotty; long distance lines were busy. The Sprint Nextel long-distance switch in New Orleans failed after the storm hit. Some AT&T facilities were down; many were operating on backup power.


Most public hospitals were not functioning because of the storm, lacking utilities and having dwindling supplies. Staff at the Louisiana State University Heath Sciences Center in New Orleans, which oversees eight public hospitals in the city, predicted many patients would die if not moved from the grim hospital conditions within 24 hours. Some hospital staff members themselves were suffering from dehydration; they gave themselves intravenous fluids so they could continue working. An airport was turned partially into a large field hospital; 39 medical shelters with 10,000 beds and 4,000 personnel were being deployed. The U.S. Navy sent the hospital ship USNS Comfort into the Gulf region. At United Medical Rehab Hospital, 14 patients, 11 staff members, and their families awaited rescue; 25 babies in a makeshift neonatal intensive care unit at New Orleans’ Ochsner Clinic were airlifted to hospitals in Houston.


Slidell, Louisiana: Slidell was hit by a 25-foot storm surge that carried fierce winds. Three of the city’s seven fire stations were destroyed; one was not usable. The local fire department took over space in area hospitals. Dozens of firefighters in the 140-member fire department were displaced by the storm but kept on working.

The deployed firefighters cut trees that had blocked fire department access and delayed response. About 30 fires, which broke out sporadically throughout the day, occurred in the two weeks they were in the area. Some were left to burn. There were explosions at a riverfront chemical depot.

Responders encountered piles of garbage on the street; intense heat; signs that said, “You will be shot for looting”; and copperhead snakes in the ditches.

Mobile, Alabama: Flooding reached 11 feet. Throughout Alabama, exploding transformers flashed and crackled. Huge oak braches toppled on Mobile’s waterfront. A broken-apart oil-drilling platform slammed into a bridge. Muddy six-foot waves crashed into the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, flooding antebellum mansions.

Mississippi: Rescuers searched for the living but found mostly dead. The eye of the hurricane passed just to the west in this area of coastal Mississippi. Rescuers here searched debris but found mostly the dead. Some were found in collapsed buildings, others in flooded homes.

In Harrison County-which includes Gulfport and Biloxi, two of the hardest hit areas-Katrina did extensive damage, killing at least 50 people, injuring countless more, and clogging streets with fallen trees and power lines. It also collapsed buildings and destroyed homes. Three of its five hospitals were left without working emergency rooms. Several of the 50 dead were found in an apartment complex in Biloxi. The day after the storm, 5,000 people were in shelters. Eight schools, all being used as shelters, lost their roofs. Other damage included submerged roads, broken natural gas lines, a destroyed power grid, and discontinued water service.


The federal response to Hurricane Katrina came into question very early during the aftermath of the storm. The focus was on the federal response to New Orleans.

According to the New York Times, by September 1, ships, planes, helicopters, and convoys of supplies and rescue teams converged on the Gulf Coast. At the same time, the Pentagon said 30,000 National Guard and active-duty troops would be deployed by the weekend. The Army Corps of Engineers worked to plug breached levees in canals leading from Lake Pontchartrain. FEMA had deployed 39 disaster medical assistance teams from around the country and had mobilized 1,700 trailer trucks to carry in water, ice, meals, medical supplies, tents, and tarpaulins.

President Bush, who depicted Katrina as a “tidal wave of disaster,” termed the response “not acceptable.” FEMA’s Bill Lockey, coordinating officer in the Louisiana disaster area, said FEMA had been caught unprepared by the scope of the disaster. Roy Williams, Louis Armstrong International Airport director, blamed FEMA for its approach to evacuation. Williams said the airport could not cope with the several thousand evacuees delivered by helicopter. Commercial and cargo planes could not fly them out fast enough.

The federal disaster response machinery activated and mobilized on August 31.

On September 1, the federal government still did not seem to have a general idea about the situation, particularly in New Orleans. Central coordination did not appear to exist as of the end of that day.

The Department of Homeland Security faced its first major catastrophe since it was created. It failed to issue a critical disaster declaration until more than a day after the storm. The White House never appointed a coordinator to monitor disaster developments.

No official from New Orleans asked for urgent help when daylight hours might still have permitted a rescue effort. By that time, water had been pouring from the damaged 17th Street Canal for as long as 15 hours.


The following are findings of the U.S. House of Representatives Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina.

• The accuracy and timeliness of National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center forecasts prevented further loss of life.

• The Hurricane Pam exercise reflected recognition by all levels of government of the dangers of a Category 4 or 5 hurricane striking New Orleans.

• Implementation of lessons learned from Hurricane Pam was incomplete.

• Levees protecting New Orleans were not built for the most severe hurricanes.

• Responsibilities for levee operations and maintenance were diffused.

• The lack of a warning system for breaches and other factors delayed repairs to the levees.

• The ultimate cause of the levee failures is under investigation; results are to be determined.

• The failure of complete evacuations led to preventable deaths, great suffering, and further delays in relief.

• Evacuations of general populations went relatively well in all three states.

• Despite adequate warnings 56 hours before landfall, Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin delayed ordering a mandatory evacuation in New Orleans until 19 hours before landfall.

• The failure to order timely mandatory evacuations, Mayor Nagin’s decision to shelter but not evacuate the remaining population, and decisions of individuals led to an incomplete evacuation.

• The incomplete prelandfall evacuation led to deaths, thousands of dangerous rescues, and horrible conditions for those who remained.

• Federal, state, and local officials’ failure to anticipate the post-landfall conditions delayed post-landfall evacuation and support.

• Critical elements of the National Response Plan were executed late, ineffectively, or not at all.

• It does not appear the President received adequate advice and counsel from a senior disaster professional.

• Given the well-known consequences of a major hurricane striking New Orleans, the Secretary should have designated an Incident of National Significance no later than Saturday, two days prior to landfall, when the National Weather Service predicted New Orleans would be struck by a Category 4 or 5 hurricane and President Bush declared a federal emergency.

• The Secretary should have convened the Interagency Incident Management Group on Saturday, two days prior to landfall, or earlier, to analyze Katrina’s potential consequences and anticipate what the federal response would need to accomplish.

• The Secretary should have designated the Principal Federal Official (PFO) on Saturday, two days prior to landfall, from the roster of PFOs who had successfully completed the required training, unlike then-FEMA director Michael Brown. Considerable confusion was caused by the Secretary’s PFO decisions.

• A proactive federal response, or push system, is not a new concept, but it is rarely utilized.

• The Secretary should have invoked the Catastrophic Incident Annex to direct the federal response posture to fully switch from a reactive to proactive mode of operations.

• Absent the Secretary’s invocation of the Catastrophic Incident Annex, the federal response evolved into a push system over several days.

• The Homeland Security Operations Center failed to provide valuable situational information to the White House and key operational officials during the disaster.

• The White House failed to de-conflict varying damage assessments and discounted information that ultimately proved accurate.

• Federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), had varying degrees of unfamiliarity with their roles and responsibilities under the National Response Plan and National Incident Management System.

• Once activated, the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) enabled an unprecedented level of mutual-aid assistance to reach the disaster area in a timely and effective manner.

• Earlier presidential involvement might have resulted in a more effective response.

• DHS and the states were not prepared for this catastrophic event.

• While a majority of state and local preparedness grants are required to have a terrorism purpose, this does not preclude a dual-use application.

• Despite extensive preparedness initiatives, DHS was not prepared to respond to the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Katrina.

• DHS and FEMA lacked adequate trained and experienced staff for the Katrina response.

• The readiness of FEMA’s national emergency response teams was inadequate and reduced the effectiveness of the federal response.

• Massive communications damage and a failure to adequately plan for alternatives impaired response efforts, command and control, and situational awareness.

• Massive inoperability had the biggest effect on communications, limiting command and control; situational awareness; and federal, state, and local officials’ ability to address unsubstantiated media reports.

• Some local and state responders prepared for communications losses but still experienced problems, while others were caught unprepared.

• The National Communication System met many of the challenges posed by Hurricane Katrina, enabling critical communication during the response, but gaps in the system did result in delayed response and inadequate delivery of relief supplies.

• Command and control was impaired at all levels, delaying relief.

• Lack of communications and situational awareness paralyzed command and control.

• A lack of personnel, training, and funding also weakened command and control.

• The military played an invaluable role, but coordination was lacking.

• The National Response Plan’s Catastrophic Incident Annex as written would have delayed the active duty military response, even if it had been implemented.

• DOD/DHS coordination was not effective during Hurricane Katrina.

• DOD, FEMA, and the state of Louisiana had difficulty coordinating with each other, which slowed the response.

• National Guard and DOD response operations were comprehensive but perceived as slow.

• The Coast Guard’s response saved many lives, but coordination with other responders could improve.

• The Army Corps of Engineers provided critical resources to Katrina victims, but prelandfall contracts were not adequate.

• DOD has not yet incorporated or implemented lessons learned from joint exercises in military assistance to civil authorities that would have allowed for a more effective response to Katrina.

• The lack of integration of National Guard and active duty forces hampered the military response.

• Northern Command does not have adequate insight into state response capabilities or adequate interface with governors, which contributed to a lack of mutual understanding and trust during the Katrina response.

• Even DOD lacked situational awareness of postlandfall conditions, which contributed to a slower response.

• DOD lacked an information sharing protocol that would have enhanced joint situational awareness and communications among all military components.

• Joint Task Force Katrina command staff lacked joint training, which contributed to the lack of coordination among active duty components.

• Joint Task Force Katrina, the National Guard, Louisiana, and Mississippi lacked needed communications equipment and the interoperability required for seamless on-the-ground coordination.

• EMAC processing, prearranged state compacts, and Guard equipment packages need improvement.

• Equipment, personnel, and training shortfalls affected the National Guard response.

• Search and rescue operations were a tremendous success, but coordination and integration among the military services, the National Guard, the Coast Guard, and other rescue organizations was lacking.

• The collapse of local law enforcement and lack of effective public communications led to civil unrest and further delayed relief.

• A variety of conditions led to lawlessness and violence in hurricane-stricken areas.

• The New Orleans Police Department was ill-prepared for continuity of operations and lost almost all effectiveness.

• The lack of a government public communications strategy and media hype of violence exacerbated public concerns and further delayed relief.

• EMAC and military assistance were critical for restoring law and order.

• Federal law enforcement agencies were also critical to restoring law and order and coordinating activities.

• Medical care and evacuations suffered from a lack of advance preparations, inadequate communications, and difficulties in coordinating efforts.

• Deployment of medical personnel was reactive, not proactive.

• Poor planning and prepositioning of medical supplies and equipment led to delays and shortages.

• New Orleans was unprepared to provide evacuations and medical care for its special-needs population and dialysis patients, and Louisiana officials lacked a common definition of “special needs.”

• Most hospital and Veterans Affairs Medical Center emergency plans did not offer concrete guidance about if or when evacuations should take place.

• New Orleans hospitals, Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and medical first responders were not adequately prepared for a full evacuation of medical facilities.

• The government did not effectively coordinate private air transport capabilities for the evacuation of medical patients.

• Hospital and Veterans Affairs Medical Center emergency plans did not adequately prepare for communication needs.

• Following Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Veterans Affairs Medical Center and hospitals’ inability to communicate impeded their ability to ask for help.

• Medical responders did not have adequate communications equipment or operability.

• Evacuation decisions for New Orleans nursing homes were subjective and, in one case, led to preventable deaths.

• Lack of electronic patient medical records contributed to difficulties and delays in medical treatment of evacuees.

• Top officials at the Department at Health and Human Services and the National Disaster Medical System do not share a common understanding of who controls the National Disaster Medical System under Emergency Support Function-8.

• Lack of coordination led to delays in recovering dead bodies.

• Deployment confusion, uncertainty about mission assignments, and government red tape delayed medical care.

• Long-standing weaknesses and the magnitude of the disaster overwhelmed FEMA’s ability to provide emergency shelter and temporary housing.

• Relocation plans did not adequately provide for shelter. Housing plans were haphazard and inadequate.

• State and local governments made inappropriate selections of shelters of last resort. The lack of a regional database of shelters contributed to an inefficient and ineffective evacuation and sheltering process.

• There was inappropriate delay in getting people out of shelters and into temporary housing-delays that officials should have foreseen due to manufacturing limitations.

• FEMA failed to take advantage of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s expertise in large-scale housing challenges.

• FEMA logistics and contracting systems did not support a targeted, massive, and sustained provision of commodities.

• FEMA management lacked situational awareness of existing requirements and resources in the supply chain. An overwhelmed logistics system made it challenging to get supplies, equipment, and personnel where and when needed.

• Procedures for requesting federal assistance raised numerous concerns.

• The failure at all levels to enter into advance contracts led to chaos and the potential for waste and fraud as acquisitions were made in haste.

• Before Katrina, FEMA suffered from a lack of sufficiently trained procurement professionals. DHS procurement continues to be decentralized and lacking a uniform approach, and its procurement office was understaffed given the volume and dollar value of work.

• Ambiguous statutory guidance regarding local contractor participation led to ongoing disputes over procuring debris removal and other services.

• Attracting emergency contractors and corporate support could prove challenging given the scrutiny that companies have endured.

• Contributions by charitable organizations assisted many in need, but the American Red Cross and others faced challenges because of the size of the mission, inadequate logistics capacity, and a disorganized shelter process.

Hurricane Pam

In July 2004, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) conducted the five-day hurricane simulation “Hurricane Pam.” The exercise used realistic weather and damage information developed by the National Weather Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Louisiana State University (LSU) Hurricane Center, and other state and federal agencies to help officials develop joint response plans for a catastrophic hurricane in Louisiana. The scenario focused on 13 parishes in southeast Louisiana. Representatives from outside the primary parishes participated as well because evacuation and sheltering would involve communities throughout the state and into Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas.


The Hurricane Pam exercise depicted a Category 3 hurricane with sustained winds of 120 mph, up to 20 inches of rain, and the evacuation of more than one million people from 13 parishes. The scenario had the hurricane directly hitting New Orleans. According to the exercise, the resultant storm surge toppled levees in the New Orleans area, and the storm destroyed 500,000 to 600,000 buildings. During the tabletop exercise, more than 250 emergency preparedness officials from more than 50 federal, state, and local agencies, as well as volunteer organizations, used the scenario to develop a recovery plan for the 13 New Orleans parishes. The exercise focused on managing the aftermath of the catastrophe and did not address initiatives that would diminish the magnitude of the catastrophe.

Officials focused on six objectives:

  • Develop an effective search and rescue plan to find survivors and move them to safety.
  • Identify short-term shelters for those who evacuated or were rescued in the storm’s aftermath.
  • Create housing options, including trailer or tent villages, for the thousands likely to be left homeless for months after the storm.
  • Remove floodwater from New Orleans, Metairie, and other bowl-like areas where levees would capture and hold storm surge, possibly for days or weeks.
  • Dispose of the thousands of tons of debris left behind by the storm, which would include the remains of homes and businesses; human and animal corpses, including bodies washed out of cemeteries; and a mix of toxic chemicals likely to escape from businesses, industries, trucks, and rail cars in the flooded areas.
  • Recreate school systems for public and private school students.

Action Plans

Following is a partial summary of action plans based on the exercise, according to FEMA:


• The debris team estimates that a storm like Hurricane Pam would result in 30 million cubic yards of debris and 237,000 cubic yards of household hazardous waste.

• The team identified existing landfills that have available storage space and locations of hazardous waste disposal sites. Priorities for debris removal were established.


• The interagency shelter group identified the need for about 1,000 shelters for a catastrophic disaster. The shelter team identified 784 shelters and developed plans for locating the remaining shelters.

• Shelters likely would remain open for 100 days. The group identified the resources necessary to support 1,000 shelters for 100 days. They planned for staff augmentation and how to include those being sheltered in shelter management.

• State resources are adequate to operate shelters for the first three to five days. The group planned how federal and other resources would replenish supplies at shelters.

Search and Rescue

• The search and rescue group developed a transportation plan for removing stranded residents from harm’s way.

• Planners identified lead and support agencies for search and rescue and established a command structure that would include four areas with up to 800 searchers.


• The medical care group reviewed and enhanced existing plans and determined how to implement quickly existing immunization plans for tetanus, influenza, and other diseases likely to be present after a major hurricane.

• The group determined how to resupply hospitals around the state that would face heavy patient loads.

• The medical action plan includes patient movement details and identifies probable locations, such as state university campuses, where individuals would receive care and then be transported to hospitals, special needs shelters, or regular shelters as necessary.


• The school group determined that 13,000 to 15,000 teachers and administrators would be needed to support affected schools. The group acknowledged the role of local school boards and developed strategies for local school officials to use.

• Staffing strategies include using displaced teachers, retired teachers, emergency certified teachers, and others eligible for emergency certification. Displaced paraprofessionals would also be recruited to fill essential school positions.

• The group discussed facility options for increasing student population at undamaged schools and prioritizing repairs to buildings with less damage to assist in normalizing operations.

• Place or develop temporary schools near the temporary housing communities built for hurricane victims.

A second Hurricane Pam exercise was planned for the summer of 2005 but did not take place because of a lack of funds.

A follow-up workshop on potential medical needs took place in Carville, Louisiana, in August 2005. Eighty state and federal emergency planning officials, including the team from the 2004 exercise, attended. The group submitted an updated plan for dealing with the dead and injured to FEMA’s headquarters on September 3, 2005.

The 1900 Galveston, Texas, Hurricane: “A Calamity of Appalling Dimensions”

On September 8-9, 1900, the city of Galveston, Texas, was “blotted out of existence” by an unnamed “tropical storm of frightful intensity and widely destructive extent,” according to Fire and Water (Sept. 15, 1900). [The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned, prepared by the White House (February 2006), calls the Galveston storm a “Category 4 Hurricane.”] The stronger than 130-mph winds and the storm’s accompanying tidal wave-storm surges were higher than 15 feet-were responsible for a minimum of 6,000 deaths; various reports estimate that casualties could have been as high as 10,000. “Millions upon millions worth of property” was destroyed.

The city was immediately cut off from the mainland; its connecting bridges were destroyed. “Neighboring railroads were virtually destroyed; telegraphic communication was shut off; and the damage to shipping, warehouses, grain elevators, dwellings, hospitals, churches, and property of every description was so great as possibly to cripple.” It was the “deadliest disaster in American history.”

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