How Katrina Saved Lives

Michael Chertoff, former Homeland Security director, marks the fourth anniversary of the New Orleans devastation by looking at the lessons learned that are already preventing future tragedies.

08.28.09 12:26 AM ET

Four years ago, Hurricane Katrina, the 11th named storm of the 2005 hurricane season, hurtled ashore along the coastal towns of western Mississippi. The hurricane, and its aftermath, was a tragic but pivotal event in our nation’s history. For those of us who led the federal government, it catalyzed an urgent effort to overhaul our nation’s disaster-response capacity. That system has now profoundly changed for the better.

Katrina was one of the strongest storms to hit the coast of the United States during the last 100 years. The wind and water impact at ground zero in Mississippi flattened shore homes, reducing them to matchsticks; boats were tossed dozens of yards inland, coming to rest improbably in backyards and astride roadways. The breadth of the storm was vast: It affected an area almost as large as Great Britain.

The test posed by Gustav was every bit as real as that posed by Katrina—only with a better result.

Although the storm was not a direct hit on New Orleans, it initially caused levee overtopping and breaching, and major flooding below sea-level areas of the Ninth Ward. But the greater damage—the truly catastrophic disaster for the city—occurred when the waters of Lake Pontchartrain, located north of New Orleans, flowed into the 17th Street Canal, which bisects a significant portion of the city. As the volume of lake water jammed into the canal with force, the hydraulic pressure caused an old, weakened section of the canal wall to crumble. The consequence was to drain the canal water, fed by the lake, into those portions of the city that were below sea-level. This created the second disaster: the great flood of New Orleans.

The rising flood caught thousands of city residents unprepared. Those who did not—or could not—evacuate in advance of the hurricane found themselves stranded, often in the upper reaches of their houses. In a heroic—and underappreciated—effort, the United States Coast Guard rescued more than 30,000 people, often maneuvering rescue helicopters through a treacherous urban landscape dotted with obstacles such as light and telephone poles. Rescue teams from Louisiana and other states saved thousands more. Despite this historic search-and-rescue effort, there was still significant anxiety and distress suffered by those awaiting help. Also unprecedented was the mass evacuation of about 1.5 million people who left the area in advance, or who were rescued and transported around the country. In the end, even though the actual loss of life did not reach as many as the tens of thousands that some had projected, the 1,464 deaths in Louisiana alone were a tragedy, and we mourn each and every one of them.

After the first weeks of the emergency passed, those of us responsible for dealing with the aftermath of Katrina at all levels of government and in the private sector faced a range of challenges: the housing, medical, and economic needs of the evacuees; the plans to rebuild the regions; and the need to strengthen the infrastructure to minimize the risk of future levee failures. But no set of questions was more important for me than understanding the points of failure that occurred during Katrina so that we could work to eliminate them—or minimize them—for future natural disasters.

What were they?

First, the infrastructure of the City of New Orleans and the region as a whole was unnecessarily vulnerable. No one can stop a hurricane. But for those who live in a hurricane-prone region, that vulnerability must be reduced. This begins on the coast itself; however, years of flawed engineering decisions coupled with erosion have damaged the wetlands, which form a natural shock absorber against hurricanes, wind, and water. They must be rehabilitated. Buildings erected along the shore must meet strenuous building codes; the structures in Mississippi that survived the massive storm surge stood only because they were solidly constructed. National flood-insurance rates need to reflect risk so that individuals and businesses are incentivized to consider alternatives to building in flood-prone areas.

One particularly tragic pre-Katrina engineering decision was especially damaging. For years, many had urged construction of floodgates at the mouth of the 17th Street Canal. Had these been available to be lowered during Katrina, the surge into the canal would have been blocked, and the major flooding of the city would have been prevented. Aesthetic and environmental objections stopped the project before 2005, with the perversely ironic result that the canal flooded at huge human, environmental, and aesthetic cost. Fortunately, that floodgates have now been built.

Second, there was no well-thought-out and practiced evacuation plan for New Orleans. The problem lay at every level: individuals who took pride in “riding it out”; state and local officials who did not have a program to use or obtain mass transportation to expedite the exit of those without automobiles; a federal government which for years assumed that evacuation was a local problem and had no backup plan. A particular difficulty arose with those who were elderly, disabled, or medically compromised. For many of these, the decision about when and how to evacuate was left in the hands of individual hospitals or nursing homes, whose response was often ineffective. The pre-Katrina assumption that evacuation is left to private decisions and local government does not meet the needs of a true catastrophe in a densely populated area.

After Katrina, we changed this. From 2006 to 2008, federal, state, and city emergency officials, including military officers, put together comprehensive evacuation and emergency plans for the Gulf Coast (and other parts of the country). In Louisiana, and elsewhere, these plans were the basis of training and exercising. A detailed census of medically compromised or otherwise “special needs” citizens was conducted so that government officials could be sure everyone who needs to move to safety is accounted for. Specific plans were developed for communicating with and reaching the disabled. Even a plan for pet evacuation was developed.

Third, the failure of communications left everyone unsure of the ground truth. The natural and physical obstacles to the response in Katrina were magnified by the perception that the city was in full disorder and that nobody was willing to take charge. To be sure, rumors of mass violence were exaggerated. But true or not, the general belief that New Orleans had degenerated into near anarchy seriously affected the ability to carry out rescue operations. All levels of government were either incapable or slow in marshaling the law-enforcement and military resources necessary to reassure the public that authority was in full control of the city, and undertaking rescues. Concern about the scope of legal authorities among the various levels of government also impaired the response.

This is the most important lesson of Katrina. Part of the fix is obvious: A robust, interoperable communications system is key to the command and control over any response. After Katrina, the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA put together mobile teams that could be inserted into disaster zones with full communications packages. The federal and state governments acquired mobile satellite-enabled communications vehicles that are indispensible. But beyond the tools of communication, there must be a clear understanding of the lines of authority, and incident management, to assure unity of effort. Developing this capability, through a federal and state National Response Framework, has been the work of the last four years.

So, have we fixed things? Have the points of failure of Katrina been remedied? Well, we have been tested. In 2008, approximately three years after Katrina, Hurricane Gustav formed as a massive Category 4 hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico aimed directly at southeastern Louisiana, including New Orleans.

How did we do?

New Orleans lowered the newly constructed floodgates at the 17th Street Canal so that it would not rupture because of a swell of water from Lake Pontchartrain. Evacuation orders were issued early by state and local authorities. Preplanned mass-transportation routes were initiated. The disabled were contacted and assisted. Medical special-needs patients were evacuated. When some medical facilities made a last-minute decision to remove patients, prepared plans to coordinate with National Guard and federal military assets were triggered. In the end, almost two million people were evacuated from the coastline—the largest evacuation in U.S. history.

This time, federal, state, and local authorities had clear physical and operational lines of communication. Federal teams with survivable radio gear were positioned at the likely point of impact. Significant National Guard assets were in the city, visible and reassuring that no disorder would be tolerated.

The test posed by Gustav was every bit as real as that posed by Katrina—only with a better result. The good news is that we did learn from Katrina and that we are better able to manage such extreme emergencies. The cautionary note is that we need to continue to improve our planning and preparation, not only in the Gulf but also throughout this nation.

Michael Chertoff was the second secretary of Homeland Security. He previously served as the assistant attorney general for the criminal division at the Department of Justice. As assistant attorney general, he oversaw the investigation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He also formed the Enron Task Force. He is currently senior of counsel for Covington & Burling LLP's Washington, DC office and a member of the white-collar defense and investigations practice group.