Acts of Heroism Shine Through Homeland Security's Humiliation

By Stephen Barr
Friday, February 24, 2006

Wiseguys at the Department of Homeland Security whisper that the brass has decided to rate the performance of employees on a five-level system:

Role model, outstanding, exceeds expectations, average, and "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."

Jokes with a political barb are commonplace in federal offices when times are tough and morale is low. That appears to be the case at Homeland Security, which has been battered by a spate of reports portraying it as ineffective and slow in responding to Hurricane Katrina.

Yesterday, the White House issued its history of Katrina, but some of the most interesting findings in the 228-page report are in Appendix B -- "What Went Right."

It's on Page 129 that we learn that Coast Guard Petty Officer Jessica Guidroz returned to work after the hurricane passed through New Orleans. Guidroz led "a squadron of eight boats and crews in the evacuation of approximately 2,000 people from the campus of the University of New Orleans. Like many of the [Coast Guard] station crew, she lived nearby and lost all her personal possessions to the storm, yet put her duty first," the White House report says.

Petty Officer Moises Rivera-Carrion served as a rescue swimmer on Coast Guard helicopters. He was on duty for three days and confronted such hazards as downed power lines and contaminated floodwaters. "Rivera-Carrion tested the limits of his skill and endurance while rescuing 269 survivors trapped on rooftops and balconies throughout New Orleans and southwest Louisiana," the report says.

Much of the Coast Guard rescue effort hinged on the skills of Petty Officer Rodney L. Gordon . According to the report, he landed in the first aircraft to return to New Orleans, even though strong winds were tossing debris across the Coast Guard station.

Gordon "immediately began a series of complex electrical and mechanical repairs vital to sustaining what quickly grew into the largest air rescue operation in Coast Guard history," the report says. He cannibalized broken machinery to repair emergency generators and power lines, including lines to the Naval Air Station control tower that dispatched rescue sorties. Gordon "single-handedly performed a complex rewiring" of emergency generators at the base's aviation fuel distribution plant, a feat that permitted "hundreds of aircraft to continue lifesaving missions," the report says.

Overall, the White House report says, nearly 6,000 Coast Guard personnel played roles in the Katrina search and rescue missions. They retrieved more than 33,000 people along the Gulf Coast, including more than 12,000 by air.

The White House report points to other agencies that performed well, including the National Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service forecast office in Slidell, La., which transmitted "real-time hazard information" until it was shut down Aug. 28 by the severity of the storm.

One of the lessons that the White House drew from Katrina is the need for better training so that agencies deploy personnel effectively in a crisis. The report calls on all agencies to develop "battle rosters" of trained personnel who have been certified as having key skills and who can be sent quickly to catastrophic events. "At all levels of government, we must build a leadership corps that is fully educated, trained and exercised in our plans and doctrine. Training is not nearly as costly as the mistakes made in a crisis," the report says.

"Equally important, this corps must be populated by leaders who are prepared to exhibit innovation and take the initiative during extremely trying circumstances," the report says.

To help develop federal leaders, the White House directs the Department of Homeland Security to establish a National Homeland Security University, similar to the military's National Defense University.

If Homeland Security can cut through the red tape and reinvent itself -- a big "if," to be sure -- then the "Brownie" jokes should fade away. In the meantime, let's not forget that numerous Coast Guard, military and civil service personnel reacted to the Katrina catastrophe with clear heads and courage.

Talk Shows

Members of the National Interagency Fire Center will discuss wildland firefighting on "FEDtalk" at 11 a.m. today on and WFED radio (1050 AM).

Norm Enger , human resources line-of-business director at the Office of Personnel Management, will be the guest on "The IBM Business of Government Hour" at 9 a.m. tomorrow on WJFK radio (106.7 FM).

© 2006 The Washington Post Company