BY CURT WELDON
Throughout my tenure in Congress, it has been my priority to visit national disaster zones, including Ground Zero of the World Trade Center (2001) and the sites of Hurricane Andrew in Florida (1992) and the Northridge Earthquake in San Diego, California (1994). As a former fire chief and mayor of a small town, I have experienced firsthand the effects disasters can have on a community and its first responders. In fact, back in 1975, while serving as fire chief in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, I was the first officer to arrive at what many still consider the largest fire in the Philadelphia metropolitan region’s history, the infamous Corinthos fire.
Facing an initial explosion that killed 29 people and a three-day fire that required a mutual-aid response of nearly 100 companies from Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and Maryland, the Corinthos taught me a lot about myself and my fellow firefighters who worked alongside me. I learned how important it is for people to support one another during times of disaster. That is the reason I continue to visit national disaster sites and pay particular attention to those on the frontlines of local recovery efforts-first responders.
So, just days after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast region, I announced that I would go to the region to personally assess the situation and deliver relief supplies to local first responders who were overwhelmed by the devastation. Immediately following my announcement, individuals, businesses, and organizations from across southeastern Pennsylvania offered their help and assistance. I couldn’t bring everything down, so I called the Louisiana Governor’s Office and the Office of the Louisiana State Police to see what they needed most. They told me they needed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), helicopter fuel, wireless communications equipment, medicine for diabetics, and generators. Monetary donations were also desperately needed.
The Friday morning after Hurricane Katrina had passed through the Gulf Coast, I departed for Louisiana in a plane filled with the relief supplies the local officials requested. On landing in Baton Rouge, I was met by Louisiana State Representative Steve Scalise and Congressman Rodney Alexander (LA-05), who joined me at the Louisiana State Emergency Operations Center for a briefing with Lt. Col. Joey Booth on the status of New Orleans. He stressed his concern over the lack of security in the city and told me about the enormous devastation and high casualty count. He was very adamant about the need for immediate disaster assistance from the federal government. Following our meeting, I met with Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu and senior leadership of the Governor’s office and the Louisiana National Guard. I presented Lt. Gov. Landrieu with a check for $100,000 from a Pennsylvania family. They thanked us for our assistance and were very supportive of our travel to New Orleans.
My first stop in New Orleans was downtown at City Hall to meet with Mayor Ray Nagin, but he could not be immediately located. I was greeted instead by New Orleans Police Officer Sgt. Paul Accardo. He was reeling from the trauma Hurricane Katrina had inflicted on him and his family. Tragically, I later found out that Sgt. Accardo committed suicide a few days after our encounter. While at City Hall, I met with a senior member of the New Orleans Fire Department (NOFD) and members of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD). The NOFD official told me that most of the fire stations suffered significant damage. In some cases, all or most of their equipment was severely flooded or simply washed away, but luckily the department had moved most of its equipment to higher ground. At that point, the NOFD was still in the process of doing roll call to assess the state of its firefighters. The NOPD briefed us on the status of crime and evacuations and helped clarify some of the misinformation peddled in initial media reports.
I received word that Mayor Nagin could be found at the Louisiana Superdome-the makeshift gathering place for tens of thousands left homeless by Hurricane Katrina. Under police escort, our group trudged through waist-high water to find him. During that walk from City Hall to the Superdome, we met people who had been evacuated from their homes. We saw some little children with their parents and many more children without their parents. When we arrived at the Superdome, I entered through the Hyatt Regency, which is connected to the stadium. The heavily guarded hotel was destroyed. It had no power, and most of the windows were blown out. Despite its devastation, the Hyatt was ground zero for rescue and relief operations in the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina. Our group traveled from floor to floor searching for the Mayor. He was nowhere in sight. When we reached the top of the Hyatt, we could see thousands of people below coming and going, but most were wandering around without purpose or direction. It was chaos.
As I headed down through the Hyatt, I ran into New Orleans City Councilmember Jackie Clarkson. She had been holed up in the Hyatt since the hurricane and told us she couldn’t even identify who was in charge in terms of the federal response. I asked her who the lead was for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); she did not know. Several others told us that officials from the federal government had left. Councilwoman Clarkson also told me that I was the first federally elected official to visit downtown New Orleans. I finally had an opportunity to speak with Mayor Nagin.
The Superdome was a scene of national embarrassment. Many residents of New Orleans headed to the Superdome for shelter and safety. What they got instead was disappointment and despair. The severely overcrowded stadium, which reeked of urine, was filled with people who had no idea of what to do next. Outside the stadium, buses were pulling up in droves. The problem was that they had nowhere to go. The New Orleans deputy police chief approached me and asked for my help. No one could tell me who was in charge of coordinating idle busloads of people. I asked everyone I saw if they could tell me who the point person for FEMA was, but again, no one knew. I dialed the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C., and demanded to speak with someone in charge at FEMA. That person was of no help either. Eventually, we were able to get these busloads of people moved to a location where they could get some food and a shower and feel human again.
Earlier this month, State Representative Scalise and several heads of the NOFD attended an event in my district with Acting FEMA Director R. David Paulison to honor the local men and women from southeastern Pennsylvania who assisted in the Gulf Coast relief effort. I also presented a check for $440,000 to first responders from the Gulf Coast region.
Hurricane Katrina devastated an entire region and exposed our true vulnerabilities as a nation. There is a lot of blame to be shared at all levels of government for the needless death and destruction that lay in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. What we must learn from this is the same thing I often refer to when I recall those terrible three days during the Corinthos fire in 1975: It is important that, as a nation, we support one another in times of disaster and that we work together to fix the problems to prevent disasters like Katrina from happening again.
CURT WELDON, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives representing Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District, is vice chairman of the House Armed Services and Homeland Security Committees. He is also the founder of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus and the national spokesperson for first responders.