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The Steady Buildup to a City's Chaos

An Army truck of survivors makes room for one more evacuee. The floodwater was deemed a health hazard.
An Army truck of survivors makes room for one more evacuee. The floodwater was deemed a health hazard. (By Mario Tama -- Getty Images)

FEMA was still the lead disaster agency, as it had been since 1979, but was now just a piece of DHS. Instead of Cabinet-level status and a direct line to the president, its director -- Michael D. Brown, a lawyer and former Arabian horse association official -- was an undersecretary. Funding had been cut over the past four years for FEMA's disaster-relief mission, and experienced personnel had left in droves. While experts who closely tracked FEMA had publicly fretted about the agency's reduced status, their warnings had not received widespread public attention.

By Friday, FEMA's emergency headquarters for Katrina was already running; technically, the agency was at level one, its highest level of alert.

But as the headquarters staff came in, there was a strange sense of inaction, as if "nobody's turning the key to start the engine," said one team leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. For his group, Friday was a day to sit around wondering, "Why aren't we treating this as a bigger emergency? Why aren't we doing anything?"

That evening, shortly before Max Mayfield made his call to Walter Maestri, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) declared a state of emergency.

Saturday, Aug. 27

'This is not a test: This is the real deal.'

By morning, Katrina was already a Category 3 hurricane, and Mayfield was predicting it could make landfall near New Orleans as an even deadlier Category 4. On FEMA's daily noon videoconference, he looked around the U-shaped conference table in Washington and saw a lot of newcomers to the disaster world among the agency's political appointees. But he knew many of the professionals listening in from the Gulf states had been through his hurricane prep course. They knew this was no drill.

"The emergency guys, they know what a Cat 4 is," Mayfield recalled. And this had the potential to be a Category 5, only the fourth in U.S. history. "This one is different," Mayfield told the videoconference. "It's strong, but it's also much, much larger."

When talk turned to New Orleans, Mayfield mentioned the possibility of water overwhelming the levees; his center soon forecast a storm surge as high as 25 feet, far above the 17-foot clearance for most of the city's storm protection. "Clearly on Saturday, we knew it was going to be the Big One," recalled Jack Colley, Texas's veteran disaster man. "We were very convinced this was going to be a very catastrophic event."

The challenge was to get people out of harm's way. All day long, Louisiana officials announced voluntary evacuations, and Blanco implemented a "contra-flow" traffic plan to help as coastal residents reach higher grounds. Maestri said there was no point in ordering mandatory evacuations, because there was no way to force people to abandon their homes. "I can't go door to door," he explained. In Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour (R) told his wife he was worried about hurricane fatigue; after a series of false alarms along the Gulf Coast, the evacuation routine was starting to get old.

But local officials got the word out that this was no ordinary storm, and residents took them seriously, streaming out of town in the contra-flow lanes. Hurricane Pam's leaders had predicted a 65 percent evacuation rate, but Maestri reported 70 percent in Jefferson Parish, thanks in part to a church buddy program that provided rides for as many as 25,000 residents, and St. Bernard Parish reported 90 percent. "We had some hard-headed sons of bitches who wouldn't leave, but we made sure everyone knew this was the one," said emergency manager Larry Ingargiola.

Nearly a month into his five-week vacation near Crawford, Tex., the president first mentioned the storm in a meeting with aides that afternoon. It's possible, he told senior adviser Dan Bartlett, that he would have to scrap a planned event the following Thursday to talk about identity theft, and would add a trip to the Gulf Coast instead. When Blanco asked Bush to declare a federal emergency in Louisiana that day, Bush readily agreed.

The president was told the evacuation was proceeding as planned for New Orleans, according to a senior White House official, and that 11,000 National Guard troops would end up in a position to respond. But Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the Guard, said there were only about 5,100 members on duty in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama before landfall.

At 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, Mayor Ray Nagin and Blanco held a news conference to urge New Orleans residents to make arrangements to evacuate. "This is not a test," the mayor said. "This is the real deal."

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