08.28.10

The Call Never Came

In an exclusive excerpt from his forthcoming memoir, former FEMA head Michael D. Brown explains how he was prepared for the hurricane to strike—and why the call for help from the city never came.

Advance excerpt from Deadly Indifference: The Perfect (Political) Storm, Hurricane Katrina, the Bush White House, and Beyond. To be published in Spring 2011 by Taylor Trade Publishing, a division of the Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means without written permission of the publisher.

August 24, 2005: The weather system was called Tropical Depression 12, a term used by meteorologists to identify the strength of an as yet minor storm. For me, it was a short-lived name. The wind picked up, the rain gained in intensity, and Mother Nature gave birth to Tropical Storm Katrina as it raced to the Central Bahamas. Then, as it continued toward the southeastern Florida coast, Tropical Storm Katrina became Hurricane Katrina and our July 2004 exercise—a simulation of a hurricane targeting New Orleans—morphed into an expected but unwanted reality.

I gathered the people necessary to implement whatever rescue and relief would be needed, some in the same office, most scattered around the country though connected through videoconferencing. New Orleans would become our ultimate concern, of course. It was the city that had always been in the greatest danger. But there was no predicting with certainty that New Orleans would bear the brunt of the storm. What we knew for certain was that Florida would be struck first, a fact understood by Florida Governor Jeb Bush who was the first U.S. official to call on the federal government for immediate help.

That was why we expected the same call for assistance Jeb Bush had made. That was why we also expected a mandatory evacuation order within New Orleans.

Florida was an easy state with which to begin putting our preparations into effect. Longtime residents and relative newcomers who had the sense to listen to the instructions of old timers stockpiled flashlights, water, canned goods, boards, nails, duct tape, and whatever else they would need to secure their residences and businesses. They had learned which storms they could ride out and which would require evacuation. They knew time constraints, escape routes, and had the sense to leave their homes in time to reach safe areas when the more severe storms were approaching.

The governor’s office also had no illusions about what was taking place. Governor Bush, like his predecessors, regularly did disaster planning. There would be no panic. There would be no delays. We had already been through four hurricanes in the previous year, and while I could not imagine new problems arising, they would presumably be only minor variations of what they had already endured.

August 25, 2005: Hurricane Katrina reached a Category 1 status while we watched it move west at 80 miles per hour. We did not rush personnel into the areas we thought would receive the greatest damage. We did not send a convoy of trucks filled with emergency supplies racing across the nation. Instead we quietly waited. A natural disaster cannot be stopped, cannot be slowed, and cannot be diverted. It will strike where nature takes it. It will destroy what it destroys, and leave untouched what it fails to damage, and there is no human logic to identify why one building or city is flattened and another, facing the same force of wind and rain, is not. We were set to respond to any reality as we had in the recent past.

Florida Governor Jeb Bush understood all the FEMA and Homeland Security procedures, following the course of the hurricane until it struck the coast and he could declare a state of emergency. Then he requested immediate help from us, understanding that we would begin moving personnel and supplies toward the affected area, only entering each location as the storm moved past. This had nothing to do with the fact that he was the president’s brother or that he was of the same political party as the president. Disaster planning and disaster response were part of the thinking for every governor of the state because, given its location, it would always be in danger.

A Category 1 hurricane does not seem that bad. The wind force is often no greater than the impact of a two-car crash in which the vehicles involved strike one another head on at 40 miles an hour each. Many such accidents leave the vehicles wrecked, but the drivers unhurt, the airbags providing full protection.

Try to cross a street when the wind is striking you at 80 miles per hour and you will likely be knocked off your feet or thrown against a building. High-profile vehicles such as SUVs can become sails in the wind, the drivers unable to steer effectively. Mobile-home parks look like they were struck by bombs. Flying shards of glass become as deadly as knives thrown by a martial artist.

This still “minor” Hurricane Katrina struck Florida at 7 p.m. All responders were prepared yet there were still nine Floridians dead almost immediately. The next day would be worse. 

August 26, 2005: As we expected from our exercise involving Hurricane Pam, Hurricane Katrina’s wind speed momentarily dropped to 75 miles an hour by 9 a.m. The change was not as encouraging as it might seem. It was like a long-distance runner slowing briefly around the curve before increasing speed for an all out race to the finish, in this case Louisiana. And as our experts predicted, eight hours later, the storm had regained its momentum and become Category 2. Hurricane Katrina was now ripping along the gulf at 100 miles per hour.

Hurricane Katrina swept through Florida, traveled along the Gulf Coast, and continued picking up speed. Unless it shifted direction, it would strike New Orleans with a minimum speed of 115 miles per hour—Category 3. The mayor knew this. The governor knew this. The city’s first responders, along with first responders in those nearby communities that maintained mutual assistance pacts, all knew this. That was why we expected the same call for assistance Jeb Bush had made. That was why we also expected a mandatory evacuation order within New Orleans. Instead I felt we were confronted with denial, delay, and poor choices.

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Michael D. Brown was undersecretary of Homeland Security in the administration of President George W. Bush. A consultant and radio talk-show host, he lives in Boulder, Colorado. Ted Schwarz is the author of over 100 books, several of them bestsellers. He lives in Cleveland.