Katrina Aftermath Report – Commentary on Disaster Relief

NOAA Satellite Image of Hurricane Katrina making landfall on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
NOAA Image of Hurricane Katrina

Editor’s Note: This is a commentary on my impressions of initial relief efforts and response by FEMA, the Red Cross, and National Guard. I wrote it about Saturday, September 17, 2005, but did not publish it at the time. It appears here on-line for the first time.

Some commentary on the response time by emergency crews after the storm passed.

I believe that on a local level (town and county), the crews were as prepared for this storm as they are for every storm that comes through. But I think they didn’t believe outside officials any more than I did, so weren’t as ready as they needed to be for a storm of this magnitude. When the storm came through, their initial response was slow and confused because they were simply overwhelmed.

I use as an example the southern (eastbound) I-10 bridge span across the Pascagoula River, remaining open for hours after a barge slammed into it and knocked a section out of alignment. I mentioned in a previous post that we drove across this bridge at about 8:30 PM the Monday evening of the storm, going to Grand Bay Alabama.

We discovered as we drove across it that a large barge crane had hit the bridge, knocking a section four feet off alignment with a small gap between sections. There were vehicles in front of us and behind us all using that bridge when we crossed.

The southern span was closed to traffic the next morning when we returned from Grand Bay, and I later learned there had been radio reports that Monday afternoon warning people about it. But we never heard those reports (as an excuse, I’ll say that we were too busy trying not to drown that day to be listening to road condition reports), and there was absolutely no warnings on the roadway itself that Monday evening. Had that bridge span collapsed, God only knows how many cars and trucks would have been lost into the Pascagoula River.

Although I did not know it at the time, the Highway 90 bridges between Ocean Springs and Biloxi and the Bay St. Louis Bridge were both totally destroyed during the storm. Also destroyed were some North-South bridges connecting I-10 to Highway 90, which form major regional transportation arteries. I judge the Pascagoula River was still about 5 to 8 feet above normal levels at 8:30 PM the Monday evening of the storm, which would mean the highway 90 bridge/causeway between Gautier and Pascagoula (which parallels the damaged I-10 span) would have still been partially submerged and impassable, as well as low-elevation roads all over the county.

Which means that essentially, little communities such as Pascagoula and Gautier were cut off from almost all sources of help via ground transport.

A NOAA survey performed several weeks after showed that at the peak storm surge, the Pascagoula River at the I-10 bridge was about 13 feet high, and the storm surge at the mouth of the river was about 20, which would confirm my belief that both these roads were submerged.

We have never seen this much road damage in previous storms, and I consider the lack of warning on the damaged I-10 span to be just one indicator of how overwhelmed emergency crews were in the wake of the storm. They simply couldn’t be everywhere, couldn`t GET everywhere, they needed to be.

This doesn’t excuse Federal Emergency Response providers for being so slow to respond.

The first time I saw a National Guardsman was the Thursday morning following the storm, September 1, while we making our morning commute from our “safe house” back to our homes for salvage and cleanup. That was also the first day we saw any Red Cross presence. Later that morning a Red Cross truck cruised the neighborhood where we were spending our evenings, distributing meal packs and water.

To put this into perspective: it took three days after the storm passed for National Guard and Red Cross to arrive at one of the least damaged outlying areas to distribute food and water. That first week after the weather was typical Mississippi summer – in the high 90’s every day. In that heat, people die from lack of water after a very short while. Over in New Orleans people DID die during the days after the storm from lack of water, food, and even minimal shelter. We were just a bit more fortunate here.

That night we learned that the National Guard had established a distribution point for ice, water, and food (MREs) at the local mall parking lot. Again, it took three days for the National Guard to establish a presence and start distributing emergency supplies in the LEAST damaged area along the Mississippi Coast. But we only knew about the distribution center established because a neighbor was out and about earning pocket money clearing trees.

This brings me to the issue of getting out information.

I want to stress that we had a nearly complete lack of information as to where emergency aid was available and what had occurred in other areas along the coast. It’s not that officials weren’t talking; it’s that those of us at ground zero had no ABILITY to listen.

My hurricane preparation kit includes a battery-powered radio, TV, and ample supply of spare batteries. But when my house flooded I lost all the spare batteries (I was lucky not to lose the radio also). So I could not use my radio during the day as stable electrical power wasn’t restored for a week afterwards. And then we were so busy trying to salvage our homes during the day, going in and out of the house and making lots of noise while tearing out carpeting and walls, I wouldn’t have had the ability to listen to radio much even if I had the batteries.

We had satellite TV and power at the place we stayed during the evenings, but we only received national TV stations, not local. So we were treated to hours (or at least as much as we could stomach) of coverage on New Orleans and politicians jumping up to microphones explaining how it wasn’t their fault they weren’t prepared for the storm. Worse yet was watching reporters constantly asking about the body count. Reporters, here’s a tip: If you want body counts go hang out in a morgue.

We were not receiving any information useful to us via broadcast media.

Compounding the lack of information was lack of transportation. Everyone in my neighborhood had been flooded, and almost everyone there lost every car left at their homes.

I had no transportation of my own – my one truck was lost in the flood and I did not know the status of my Rodeo – last seen in a Gulfport bodyshop being repaired after an accident earlier that month. If it was not for the other families my wife and I stayed with and shared cars with, we would have needed to walk 3 1/2 miles each way from my ruined house to the distribution point for supplies.

I’m not trying to make excuses. But I’m here to tell folks that the most effective way officials could get out disaster relief information was by cruising the neighborhoods and telling people in person. By showing up in person to communicate relief information emergency workers could have also assessed and coordinated transportation and shelter needs.

This is actually easier than it sounds simply because most people who evacuated did not start to return until mid-week. And for many who did return then, when they saw their homes (everyone in my neighborhood was flooded) they left again for several more days. So there really weren’t that many people who needed to be contacted, just a matter of area to cover. Not an impossible task – during normal times the local cops cruise my neighborhood at least once each evening just to check on the teenagers.

I did see National Guard trucks distributing food and water in my neighborhood, but the first one was the Sunday following the storm, one week after.

Had we not been so lucky as to be with friends that first week, we would have had a very difficult time indeed.

Related Posts

Storm Day…Hurricane Katrina Report Part III – A : Preparing for an approaching storm.
Katrina Aftermath – PTSD and Welfare Queens : My commentary on complaints that hurricane Katrina survivors were gaming the system.
Katrina Aftermath from the Front Lines – How To Help : What people can do to provide disaster relief supplies for hurricane Katrina survivors.

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