Katrina Timeline: Unexecuted Plans Just days before Hurricane Katrina hit, officials from state, local and federal agencies were hearing that this could very likely be the big one -- the one they knew could devastate the city. But National Guard troops still waited for an official plan and a chain of command to be established.
NPR logo

Katrina Timeline: Unexecuted Plans

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/4839666/4839667" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Katrina Timeline: Unexecuted Plans

Katrina Timeline: Unexecuted Plans

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/4839666/4839667" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Hurricane Katrina may have claimed its first political victim. Today Michael Brown, who heads the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was relieved of his command of the ongoing relief effort. Brown is one of several local, state and federal officials who have been heavily criticized for the sluggish response to the catastrophe.

BLOCK: Three days before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, public officials knew that the potential for a disaster was great. For years, emergency agencies had been planning how to respond before and after precisely this kind of emergency.

SIEGEL: What we now know is that by almost every standard, many of those plans fell apart in the aftermath of Katrina. Over the next half-hour, we're going to hear from officials who drafted those plans, from those responsible for executing those plans and from those who depended on those plans for relief. We will hear that despite warnings of a worst-case scenario, bureaucratic wrangling prevented soldiers from getting to the scene. We'll hear how the plan for emergency communications left police helpless and in the dark. And we'll hear how truckloads of emergency supplies ended up hundreds of miles from where they were needed. NPR's Laura Sullivan and Daniel Zwerdling have our report.


Thursday morning, August 25th. It's four days before Katrina hits. The way newscasters are covering it, people in New Orleans don't have much to worry about.

(Soundbite of NPR broadcast)

Unidentified Newscaster #1: As tropical storm Katrina brews closer to Ft. Lauderdale on Florida's southeast coast, state and local officials are urging residents to stay calm and use common sense. From NPR...

ZWERDLING: Now it's Friday, one day later. It's 1 PM, and Walter Maestri gets a troubling call. Maestri runs the Emergency Management Center in Jefferson Parish. The parish surrounds New Orleans on three sides. It has a bigger population than the city. And when Maestri answers the phone, he's talking to the man who runs the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida.

Mr. WALTER MAESTRI (Emergency Management Center, Jefferson Parish): Max Mayfield. And Max said to me, `Walter, I just want to alert you that a couple of the models are heading this thing right to New Orleans, and I think this thing is going to seriously intensify. You need to be ready.' At that time, the track was going up the west coast of Florida, so I said to Max, `Are you kidding me?' And he said, `No, Walt, this is real.

ZWERDLING: Maestri says he immediately rounds up his staff, and they gather in their war room surrounded by maps. Their building looks like a concrete fortress.

Mr. MAESTRI: I shared with them what Max shared with me. `Now if you're watching television, listening to the newscasts, you're not going to see the storm coming at us. It is not forecast to do that right now. You're not going to see the intensity that he's talking about, so I don't want to scare you, but I need you to know that I got the phone call, and he's not one of those people who runs around, shouting, `Wolf, wolf, wolf!'

ZWERDLING: Meanwhile, a scientist named Joe Suhayda is staring at his home computer 75 miles away in Baton Rouge. Suhayda ran a research center until a few years ago at Louisiana State University. Back in the 1990s, he and his staff developed the first computer models that showed how a Category 4 or 5 hurricane could destroy New Orleans. But on this particular Friday, Suhayda is tracking Katrina on the Web. He says he's watching his models come to life, and he feels sick.

Mr. JOE SUHAYDA (Scientist): Because all the conditions necessary to bring the flooding into the city were, at that point in time, being met. I mean, it was just as though it was following a script.

ZWERDLING: Walter Maestri says government officials have studied that script for years. They've held conferences where they've discussed how all New Orleans could be flooded, and up to 40,000 people could die. They've written hundreds of pages of manuals that spell out which local and state and federal agencies will do what when the monster storm hits. They keep running hurricane exercises to practice.

Now it's Friday, around 2 PM. Maestri says he calls one of the key officials who's supposed to coordinate those plans. Jeff Smith is deputy director of the state's Department of Homeland Security and emergency planning. Maestri asks him, `Has Max Mayfield from the Hurricane Center warned you, too?'

Mr. MAESTRI: He said, yes, he had received the call. So I said, `Then you know what he's sharing?' And he says, `Yes, but the storm right now'--and I said, `Please, please. You've indicated you don't know Max. Let me tell you. When he calls you like that, he's telling you you need to be ready, be prepared.'

ZWERDLING: Max Mayfield is also warning officials in the nation's capital. He briefs FEMA headquarters in a teleconference, so he can see decision-makers on the screen.


While all this activity is taking place between hurricane emergency centers, at the Louisiana National Guard compound in New Orleans, Lieutenant Colonel Pete Schneider is wrapping up for the weekend.

Lieutenant Colonel PETE SCHNEIDER (Louisiana National Guard): Friday afternoon, it was kind of a--you know, kind of a Friday, kind of winding down. And then all of a sudden, on Saturday morning, the call went out, you know, this thing is in the Gulf. The call still went out to, `Hey, we got to keep an eye on it a little bit more now,' but it was still projected to go into the eastern Panhandle. You know, everybody was keeping an eye on it, but--and then Friday--and then Saturday afternoon was, `That's it, you know, it's not making the turn. It's time to roll.'

SULLIVAN: On Saturday, the Louisiana Guard calls up 4,000 troops, every Guardsman in the state. But almost half of its force is out of the state and out of the country. Three thousand Louisiana Guard troops are in Iraq, along with most of Louisiana's heavy equipment, including its watercraft, high-water vehicles and generators. Lieutenant Colonel Schneider says the troops fan out to staging areas across the state. According to the emergency plan, they're to wait there until the storm passes. Their job is to distribute supplies and maintain order. The plan anticipates there might be some looting and violence.

Lt. Col. SCHNEIDER: Part of our agreements we have are to pre-position National Guardsmen with NOPD and with all of the state police troops throughout the greater New Orleans area.

SULLIVAN: That same Saturday, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco says the storm will be so big that state and local governments won't be able to handle it. She asks President Bush to declare a state of emergency. Later that day, he does.

The next day, on Sunday, at 9:30 AM, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin issues the first ever mandatory evacuation in the city's history.

Mayor RAY NAGIN (New Orleans): Make sure that you check on your neighbors. It's very important, particularly the senior citizens, that we check on them to make sure that they're OK and that they're not too frightened, and that we assist them before we take off.

ZWERDLING: Meanwhile, next door in Jefferson Parish, Walter Maestri is sending fire trucks to the streets.

Mr. MAESTRI: And the fire department went through the neighborhoods, `Alert! Alert! For your information, you live in a low-lying area that is highly prone to flooding. And it is the recommendation of your parish government that you immediately evacuate.'

ZWERDLING: The state's deputy director of emergency planning, Jeff Smith, says almost one million people do leave.

Mr. JEFF SMITH (Deputy Director, Louisiana Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Planning): Everyone is kind of focusing on response at this point in time. I don't hear anybody talking about how successful that evacuation was. It probably saved hundreds of thousands of lives, and nobody wants to talk about that.

ZWERDLING: Still, he acknowledges maybe a hundred thousand residents stay behind. Local leaders know from the US census that 120,000 people in New Orleans don't have cars, so they've been telling them on radio, `Go to a specified school in your area, and we'll send buses to evacuate you.' But news reports say some buses don't show up. Also nursing homes don't evacuate all their patients the way the law requires. And some people don't want to leave.

(Soundbite of NPR broadcast)

Unidentified Newscaster #2: Hurricane Katrina, now a Category 5, is headed for New Orleans with expected landfall tomorrow morning. The storm's winds are at nearly...

SULLIVAN: As people pour out of southern Louisiana, others say they are ready to come in. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson calls the governor of Louisiana to offer his National Guard troops. That's according to Richardson's spokesman, Paul Shipley.

Mr. PAUL SHIPLEY (Spokesman for New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson): We had offered our assistance and told Governor Blanco and her people that we'd be ready to help, and we had already put our National Guard on standby.

SULLIVAN: And on this Sunday, Lieutenant Colonel Pete Schneider at the Louisiana National Guard knows they need the extra help.

Lt. Col. SCHNEIDER: `We need everything you got, you know. We need the full support of the federal government for this hurricane.' And we still didn't have the final concept of what we were dealing with.

SULLIVAN: All weekend long, key officials coordinate their disaster plans in almost constant conference calls. There are staff members for more than 40 state and federal agencies camped in one room at the state's emergency planning center in Baton Rouge. FEMA's there. They're supposed to make sure that the food gets to hurricane survivors. The US Army Corps of Engineers is in the room. They're in charge of water and structural damage. The National Guard is at the center. They're supposed to provide the troops and trucks and boats to forge through the flood. And they're all on the line with local managers like Walter Maestri to confirm that they'll move in as soon as the hurricane passes by.

Mr. MAESTRI: All day Saturday and all day Sunday and all day Monday, until the winds got so high that the phone lines blew down, we were in constant contact. Every two to three hours, we were talking.

ZWERDLING: Monday, 7:10 AM, Hurricane Katrina hits Louisiana. Pete Schneider at the National Guard says they lose touch with the whole world.

Lt. Col. SCHNEIDER: We immediately lost cell phones, landlines. You know, the 911 system in the Greater New Orleans area went down.

ZWERDLING: An officer at the state police, Lawrence McLeary, hunkers down at the emergency operations center in Baton Rouge. He says they're frantically trying to get in touch with fellow officers out in the field, but there's no way to contact them. They don't know where anyone is or if they're alive.

Lieutenant LAWRENCE McLEARY (Louisiana State Police): We lost contact with our personnel there. We lost contact with our troop on the north shore, located in Mandeville. So we had--I mean, it was a pretty tense time, because we had no idea what was taking place in those areas.

SULLIVAN: Both the state and city emergency plans outline how to overcome communication problems. But according to the plans, officials appear to have assumed that at least one mode of communication would work. If the landlines fail, use cell phones. If the cell phones fail, an emergency land hot line would be set up. Neither took into account what actually happened.

On Monday, soon after Katrina hit, landlines are inoperable. Cell phone towers topple over. Some are underwater. And power isn't available to recharge handheld or ham radios. The few generators that could have recharged them are in Iraq or at command centers as far away as Baton Rouge. Officers in the field use their battery-powered radios to communicate short distances among themselves, but several hours later, the batteries are dead. State Police Lieutenant Lawrence McLeary.

Lt. McLEARY: People had to, you know, stay in groups and huddle in groups and operate and function as groups, because they didn't have communication with anyone else. And I don't know that people can even understand how dark the city got. I mean, no lights at all. It was just pitch black. There was nothing, no sound at all.

ZWERDLING: Katrina has passed the region hours ago, but by late Monday night, things are getting worse. Joe Suhayda, the hurricane researcher, is watching the local news in Baton Rouge. The anchor has a breaking story.

Mr. SUHAYDA: He said, `I've just been handed an announcement. There is a breach in the 17th Street Canal levee that's going to cause flooding for the next 18 hours. The water level will rise nine feet and flood 80 percent of the city.

ZWERDLING: Water begins pouring over and through the levees, into the city. It turns living rooms in nearby houses into lakes. Then it's like a tidal wave, and it chases residents up their stairs and onto their roofs. The scientist's worst-case scenario is coming true.

BLOCK: And our story about how years of planning for a major natural disaster fell apart in a matter of hours continues in a moment on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.