PBS Frontline: "The Storm"

Martin Smith
Martin Smith (WGBH)
Martin Smith
Co-Producer, Writer and Reporter
Wednesday, November 23, 2005; 11:00 AM

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Frontline investigates the chain of decisions that slowed federal response to the devastation in New Orleans. The film exposes how and why federal and local officials failed to protect thousands of Americans from a broadly predicted natural disaster and examines the state of America's disaster-response system, restructured in the wake of 9/11, on "The Storm" , which aired on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2005, at 9 P.M. ET on PBS (check local listings).

Co-producer, writer and reporter Martin Smith was online Wednesday, Nov. 22, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the PBS film "The Storm."

The Transcript Follows.


Martin Smith: Good morning.


Tucson, Ariz.: Were you personally surprised by the level of incompetence displayed by both Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco in their response - or lack thereof - to the disaster? Contrary to all the happy talk about rebuilding New Orleans, I think most residents got the just of their failed government and won't be returning anytime soon.

Martin Smith: I can't say I was personally surprised. I had different reactions. Certainly the Mayor failed to prepare for the storm. But after it hit, he and his government were casualties. Their lack of prep made them burdens therefore on the state. At the Governor's office, I think they were ill-equipped, both overwhelmed and lacking experience. Unfortunately, this is sure to happen again somewhere. Local and state officials will fail. Collectively we need to make sure the federal government has experienced professionals in charge of the next line of defense.


Chicago, Ill.: What role, if any, did Andy Card have in Katrina response given his prior experience in dealing with similar catastrophes under the first President Bush?

Martin Smith: We suspected that he had a lot to do with advising the President during Katrina. We made numerous attempts to schedule an interview with him. But we were turned down - so I was unable to query him. He was on vacation in Maine while the President was operating out of Texas those first 2-3 days. But, there's a lot we don't know. While some of Michael Brown's emails have been selectively released by DHS, no communications involving the White House or the upper echelons of DHS have been made public.


Costa Mesa, Calif.: How do you answer critics who will say this was biased against FEMA and the Administration?

Martin Smith: This program was made for a national audience and we made the decision to focus on FEMA and federal response. Clearly we all know there were many failures at the local level. But once state and local officials are overwhelmed, the only people we can turn to are outside the state. The feds.


Port Washington, NY: There was some incredible home video used in the film. Where did you find out?

Can you describe why you choose to book end the film with the home video of the man in the house?

Martin Smith: We placed ads in local papers a couple of months back requesting any home video. We wanted to get away from the familiar images that we all saw on CNN and the other networks that first week. We received several responses, two of them extraordinary tapes that are on the FRONTLINE Web site. www.frontline.org.

The man in the house is actually two different men. We placed them at the beginning and end because we couldn't figure out any better places for them.


Washington, D.C.: Frontline continues to excel, and this investigation was a classic example of that excellence.

My question: In doing some of my own research on the federal response to Katrina, I came across the Homeland Security Department's " National Response Plan ," which was approved in December of 2004. That plan says that in "catastrophic events," (Katrina's impact fit that definition) the federal government will be "proactive" and operate independently to save lives and protect property. In such a catastrophe, the response plan said that "Standard procedures regarding requests for assistance may be expedited or, under extreme circumstances, suspended in the immediate aftermath of an event of catastrophic magnitude" and that "Notification and full coordination with States will occur, but the coordination process must not delay or impede the rapid deployment and use of critical resources. States are urged to notify and coordinate with local governments regarding a proactive Federal response."

This plan does seem to provide a middle ground between a federal government takeover of the area and waiting for states to make "proper" requests - where the federal response will operate independently of any overwhelmed state efforts.

However, the NRP was not mentioned in your report. What happened to it? Did the federal government simply ignore it in the beginning, or was it not taken very seriously by the emergency response community? Was this a case of the federal government coming up with plans that it hadn't discussed with local and state authorities?

Again, wonderful documentary as always.

Martin Smith: Admiral James Loy, former deputy secretary of Homeland Security, was chief architect of the plan and we did discuss it at length with him during our interview. It would take another 5-7 minutes to delve into this aspect of the story and we simply didn't have enough room. But you are right to bring this up. The NR plan has not been in effect long and deserves more scrutiny. We focused instead on the Hurricane Pam report which was more pertinent to New Orleans.


Anonymous: What I did not see reported on your program was perhaps the most important detail involved in the investigation of the disaster. Did the state and local governments of Louisiana and New Orleans Take the proper steps in advance of the storm to protect their citizens? Knowing that a cat 5 storm was impending, and that the levies were only built for a cat 3, did they declare the risk in a proper way to their people? Did they make evacuations mandatory and provide transportation for the people of New Orleans.

Personally, I feel that the local authorities were passing the buck, Big Time, instead of taking responsibility for their own ineptitude, and failure to prepare.

Martin Smith: Our focus was on federal response in the aftermath, although we did point out on mistakes made prior to the storm. The Mayor not stocking shelters, not putting city and school buses on higher ground... and on the National Guard being positioned in the Lower Ninth Ward. We also highlighted the failure of state, local and federal emergency managers to complete the Pam exercise.


Washington, D.C.: Did Michael Brown ever state why he had planned on leaving FEMA to begin with? The piece implied that like the immediate former head of FEMA who resigned, he was unsatisfied with the future of FEMA and direction within DHS.

Martin Smith: I believe he saw lucrative opportunities in the private sector. Dozens of senior DHS officials had left earlier in Jan and Feb '05. While he was dissatisfied with the direction of FEMA, he was also looking to make more money.


McLean, Va.: Mr. Smith,

I found tonight's report about the hurricane disaster response very disappointing -- not the thoughtful, balanced investigative reporting I've come to expect from Frontline.

The program was obviously premised on your belief that the federal government failed (and the Bush administration in particular). That bias was clear throughout the interviews and even the focus of the discussion. What's more, it was clear that you were of the opinion that the federal government should play a more direct role in managing disaster relief at the state and local levels (even suggesting that FEMA should have been the one arranging for the bus evacuation of New Orleans).

You are certainly welcome to your opinion but the viewpoint that the federal government should micromanage states and cities is controversial at best.

While you did a good tracing the demise of FEMA under the Homeland Security Act, I felt that our personal bias treated many other key failures only anecdotally if they weren't attributable to Mr. Brown or the Bush Administration.

For example, mobilization of the National Guard was a direct responsibility of the Governor. The delay in their deployment which was critical to maintenance of law and order was not discussed or analyzed. (And the reference to some of them being deployed in Iraq seemed gratuitous and provocative. It almost seemed like another excuse for pointing the finger at the federal government. If it was, indeed, a factor, then it should have been discussed not just mentioned.) I seem to remember that it wasn't until two or three days into the chaos that Gov Blanco publicly announced that "...the National Guard had arrived...and I imagine they'll shoot if they have to...." I was struck by the fact that she never took direct responsibility for mobilizing them or ordering them to shoot if necessary.

And your program mentioned that the US military arrived after a certain number of days without any explanation for that delay either. The US military is always at the ready for such disasters, and, frankly the best to deal with them. But from what I remember in the early days, there was a refusal by the governor to cede any command authority to the federal government. The constitutional separation of powers was an important factor in how the federal government responded (or appeared not to respond), and your program didn't even touch on that.

And you were awfully easy on Mayor Nagin and City Emergency Manager, Maestri, too. Did Mr. Maestri really believe that because FEMA committed to sending help within 48 to 60 hours that he didn't have to have any plan of his own...?!

I'm not sure what we were supposed to glean from tonight's program. If it was to really get to the bottom of the failures, I'd say your program was a bit of a failure. (...sorry....)

Martin Smith: I don't believe that you would wish for the federal government to sit back and do nothing when people, thousands of American citizens, are suffering. There is no question that state and local officials got themselves in a tight spot. By not planning etc.... but there are many such disasters waiting to happen all around the country. Using Katrina as a test case, the question we had was what this administration (which prides itself on homeland security and preparedness) is able or willing to do when catastrophe strikes and locals (for whatever reason including incompetence and/or negligence) are overwhelmed. No one thinks we should not come to their aid. Or better yet, help them plan for the next disaster. If not, then you have to ask why we are spending so much Federal money on preparedness.

We want everyone held accountable.


Red Wing, Minn.: I was trying to find some meaning in the last home video clip -- the man filming his neighbor swimming outside his window and grasping for branches. It appeared that the man filming the episode was not stepping forward to help him. Was your intention to use that last clip as a metaphor for the larger, failed government response.. watching, but taking no action to help?

Martin Smith: Yes.


Kansas City, Mo.: I was most surprised at the incompetence on the Federal Level. The way FEMA's funding and ability to prepare for disasters was categorically cut and considered an "Entitlement Program". Shame on this administration for it's cavalier attitude towards the most basic services every citizen should expect. What is going to happen when the next earthquake strikes California?

Martin Smith: Maybe California will be better prepared. And maybe so much of the burden will not fall on the Federal government. On the other hand this can only be assured if Federal and State planners work together on a regular basis, drilling and exercising.

As of last month the preparedness function has been stripped out of FEMA. So those that plan will not be the same team that responds on D day. This is what Michael Brown and many other FEMA officials have warned against. Michael Chertoff did not talk to us for this broadcast so his rationale is not really clear.


Chicago, Ill.: The program mentioned that responsibility for disaster prevention efforts have shifted out of FEMA. Where does that responsibility currently fall? Is it still within the DHS?

Martin Smith: Yes. It is inside DHS but at the Directorate of Preparedness. See Michael Brown's memo to Michael Jackson, Deputy Secretary of HS. At www.frontline.org


Harrisburg, Pa.: Why were there no other Governors or Mayors interviewed for the program?

Martin Smith: We interviewed Governor Haley Barbour of Miss. but as our focus honed in on Louisiana and NO, we decided not to use it.


Atlanta, Ga.: Thank you for your hard work to bring this story to frontline so quickly!!!

In the feast/famine cycles that have gone through FEMA since its creation, did you find it particularly odd that the response to Andrew and the response to Katrina were so similar by Bush 41 and Bush 43 without any lessons being learned over the 13 years that had separated them?

Martin Smith: Yes. Very striking to us and that's why we covered it. It is especially interesting that the man Bush 41 sent to clean up, Andrew Card, is now Bush 43 chief of staff.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Smith,

Fantastic hour of television.

I read through your full interview with the Mayor, and noticed you touched on the racial aspect. Yet, I did not see that in Brown's interview or on the program. Why do you opt to leave that out?

Martin Smith: This is a huge area to explore and we felt we could not do it justice without giving over much of our time to it. There are clips in the film that hint at the racial component. On the other hand, note that officials mishandled Hurricane Andrew where most of the victims were white.


Alexandria, Va.: One of the striking moments of the excellent film was the almost rehearsed, "talking points" manner in which Michael Brown attempted to deflect blame onto the locals ("I failed because I didn't realize how incompetent the locals were," to paraphrase). That is also the tenor of a couple of the questions in this forum, no doubt reflecting perhaps unconsciously a concerted campaign on the part of the administration, via its talk radio allies, to deflect the blame.

Granted, Negin and Blanco were out of their depth. But the country at large does not expect much from the governor of Louisiana or the Mayor of New Orleans. They do expect something from a national administration which has spent more than $100 billion since 2001 on a Department of Homeland Security, and disposes of more than $1 trillion of national defense assets which can be mobilized. Moreover, while Negin and Blanco were overwhelmed, they did not show the callous frivolity of Michael ("I'm a fashion god") Brown. Had you given 30 seconds to his e-mails, it would have made your case irrefutable. Any comments?

Martin Smith: Those emails were looked at by us. But in the end because they were selectively released we did not consider them a necessarily fair representation of Brown's state of mind at the time. Until we see more, we withhold judgment. Where are the emails to Chertoff and emails from DHS to the White House and the Pentagon?


Baton Rouge, LA: On the show there was brief mention of a document, I believe from the LA National Guard or LA Homeland Security, showing a checklist of support requested from the feds. I can't find that list on the PBS Web site yet. Can you tell us more about its importance, and where to find it?

Martin Smith: This was a copy of a FEMA document detailing individual requests from state and local officials in Louisiana. It is 48 pages long and perhaps we might consider putting some of it on our web site.


Washington, D.C.: I thought it was a good program, I just wish it could've been longer and more in depth, taking, for example, some of the writing of Mike Tidwell's Bayou Farewell. I was listening recently to a program on public radio with an expert on cities and disasters and how so many of the US' major cities are built, arrogantly he said, on water. But if you look at the great cities of Europe and Asia, there the cities are more protected naturally. Just wondering what thoughts you had on disasters striking again in NOLA and NY and LA and SF, Miami, DC, etc Finally, I didn't know quite what to make of the final scene with the man filming his neighbor in the water and asking what he might be doing??? Was the man filming simply that callous?

Martin Smith: last q. first, The man who made the video is interviewed on the web site. www.frontline.org. He says that he doesn't know what happened to the man.

One of the things that learned in making this program as that the North American continent endures more severe disasters than any other land mass on earth. I grew up here thinking the opposite was true... that the rest of the world was dangerous and that we were safe. The facts are that more hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, and floods occur here than anywhere on earth.


Baton Rouge, La.: Seeing the FEMA emails, with some of the talk about eating at restaurants and such, raises this question. During the first few days, do you have a sense of the time and attention, the focus, the major players ... the Pres, Chertoff, Brown, the governor and mayors ... were each giving to the response out of their schedules? I have assumed that the governor and mayor were devoted to nothing else, but that is really conjecture.

Martin Smith: We didn't set out to investigate the moment by moment reactions of the players. We were trying to drive the piece to address some larger issues and provide some historical perspective. So I can't really answer this...


Portland, OR: I know there is an active investigation on the subject. Did you look at the levees on canals that failed due to faulty construction? Who was reasonable for building and maintaining them and was it known that they were not build up to standards?

Martin Smith: This topic was taken up by NOVA in the hour preceding ours. go to www.nova.org.


Buzzard Point, Washington, DC: Interesting show, but how is it possible that in a one hour special regarding the federal response to Katrina, there was not one mention of the US Coast Guard?

- They were not flat-footed and were on scene rescuing people while hurricane strength winds were still in effect.

- Also, the USCG survived the move to DHS with no ill effects.

These two points would have interacted well with your thesis. Comments?

Martin Smith: You are correct, of course, that the Coast Guard performed valiantly, as did many State National Guard units that came to Louisiana. However, we were focused on the massive response that wasn't there. The number of people that needed help overwhelmed the CG, and the NG.

As to your point that the CG survived the move to DHS. This is also correct and in our interview with Warren Rudman he pointed this out. However, the Coast Guard is a much larger unit than FEMA. FEMA did less well because it is essentially a co-ordinating agency that needs independence to move fast.

FEMA is also the lead response agency. Thus we focused the spotlight there.


Munich, Germany: After completing this documentary, did you have the impression that disaster relief and evacuation of major cities are things that can be perfected, or is it more realistic to understand that while improvements can be achieved, there will always be shortcomings?

Martin Smith: As Senator Rudman said to us in his interview, there will always be problems. "That's why they are called disasters."


Washington, D.C.: One thing that strikes me as needing immediate attention is that I keep hearing that forms had to be submitted via computer. How does this make any sense at all? I think FEMA should be setting a plan in place that deals with disasters in a way that avoids relying on electricity, since 9 out 10 times, their victims will be.

Martin Smith: Agreed. It seems more planning is necessary. But, consider that many people had no phones......


Washington, D.C.: I viewed the entire PBS broadcast on Tuesday. I told co-workers about this broadcast. We are wondering if a re-broadcast is scheduled.

Martin Smith: Many local PBS stations will show "The Storm" again later this week. Check out their listings at www.pbs.org.

You can also watch the film online at www.frontline.org from next week.


Atlanta, Ga.: I understand that due to "time restrictions" you could not go into as much depth as you are able to on the frontline web site, Are the things that you whish you could expand upon that you feel need extra coverage/more emphasis?

While this episode dealt mostly with FEMA itself and its responses to Katrina and Andrew, Do you think there might be some connection to the response of the Executive Branch though FEMA (led by Both Bush 41 and 43) to the Democratic Governors of both LA (Blanco) and Florida (Chiles) As it seems the level of "services" and the complaints of "no service" seem to be the opposite (or at least greatly reduced) in MS which is led by a republican with close ties to the White house?

Martin Smith: We would have liked to look in more depth at the questions of federalism, the contracting culture that pervades DHS/FEMA and communications.


Martin Smith: Thank you to everyone for participating. We appreciate all the feedback. We invite you to join the discussion at www.frontline.org.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, with special thought to those on the Gulf Coast who find themselves homeless this holiday season.


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