I and Katrina:
With all the “press” coverage of the 5 year anniversary, thought I would publish a few thoughts on what it was like then and how things have changed.
When Katrina came ashore I, and my family was busy preparing for what was going to be a rather significant tropical event here in Northern Alabama. As the storm moved on past us with only minor damage to rainfall amounts up to 5 inches and wind gusts up to 50 miles per hour, I started trying to contact friends, relatives, and people whom I had a professional relationship who worked and lived on the gulf coast, all the while monitoring the horror that Katrina was delivering to the entire state of and Louis ana via both the usual news channels and whatever links that were remaining available via the internet.
Regardless of what was/is been said about FEMA, they realized very early on that they did NOT have the resources to deal with a storm of this magnitude very early in the process. Shortly after landfall on the 29th, and before the levees were destroyed, FEMA sent a request for additional manpower to all federal agencies. On Thursday the 1st I was on my way to Orlando Florida for a scheduled 2 days of orientation prior to deployment. After I identified my Information Technology Skill set and made the FEMA officials aware of my past experience dealing with major disasters, I lived and worked in the San Francisco Bay area during the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, I was directed to report to the Katrina Disaster Headquarters in Baton Rouge as soon as possible. A significant percentage of people who were going through the orientation at the same time ended up manning the phones banks in PA.
After a 12 hour drive on Interstate 10, and bypassing New Orleans on Interstate 12 I arrived at the FEMA Headquarters at the Convention Center, for what I expected would be a 4 week mission, to total chaos. This was Sept 3rd and the evacuation of both the Superdome and the NO convention center was still ongoing which was being managed by FEMA in Baton Rouge. FEMA was still in the process of doing damage assessments from all over the gulf-coast. While this was going on there was a staff of over 30 people who were attempting to provide computer/telephone services for 3000 people, this number would eventually grow to 6500, who were already operating in the convention center. I spent 2 days running cables, connecting PC’s and printers, repairing same, training users, and whatever else was needed to support convention center operations.
On Monday the 5th I was volunteered to provide support for a warehouse/staging area in Metairie LA. The “Driver” was taking several people to different location(s) in and around New Orleans,including the Superdome, Convention Center. So I had the opportunity to see both places the day after the evacuations were complete. Something that will remain with me forever!
Late the afternoon of the 5th I finally arrived at the warehouse what greeted me will forever stick in my mind. On several pallet es near the office section, was the entire office automation system and in the offices were folding chairs and tables still folded… In the warehouse proper were hundreds of pallets with “stuff”, and there was 3 or 4 forklifts moving these pallets around the storage area . The guy, who was in charge, said to me “how long is it going to take before I can find out what I have in this warehouse?”
This was to be my home for 10 days. I not only got the computer hardware installed, developed a simple tracking program, and entered a lot of the data into the system so that the guy in charge could find out what he had in the warehouse. Would guess, been five years since I saw the actual numbers, that there was over 100 tons of disposable diapers and an equal amount of baby formula. Not once during those 10 days, perhaps under stably so, did I see anything ever leave the warehouse but even on my last day there still was infant supplies still coming in.
On the morning of the 14th, I received a phone call from Baton Rouge requesting that, if I was available, they needed someone to setup and support one of the one of the FEMA support centers in New Orleans. Had a great total of 30 minutes to collect my belongings and say goodbye to the group that I had been working with. I arrived at LB Landry High School in the Gretna section of New Orleans to see any number of people attempting to make the high school not only a FEMA support center but living quarters for the 50 or 60 volunteers who were going to assist the people interfacing with disaster recovery programs. Although my primary job was connecting the 30 laptop computers with the satellite truck that FEMA had provided for internet connectivity, was also involved in a great deal of effort in training the volunteers who were going to use FEMA systems to start providing relief for the several hundreds of people who FEMA expected to start showing up the 16th. FEMA was right, there was 225 people who showed up on the 16th to start the processing for various relief programs on the 16th. But FEMA was terribly wrong on the 17th when, it was estimated that there was 1500 people who showed up outside the high school to sign up for disaster assistance.
Later found out that FEMA attempted to set up 25 different sites throughout the New Orleans “area” all on the 16th, which basically caused a meltdown of the FEMA Computer systems which didn’t recover significantly for at least 7 or 8 days, if ever. We all did what we could and in some cases went the extra mile to help the fine people of New Orleans at least get some hope back. By the 23rd things were going as smooth as possible, when I message came in from FEMA in Baton Rouge that hurricane Rita was going to be an issue and that we probably ought to consider evacuation. I am not surprised that NONE of the volunteers even suggested that we should leave, although the FEMA employees who were operating the sat elite truck pulled out for about 12 hours which, although caused some issues didn’t significantly impact the support effort being put forth by the people trying to help the people of New Orleans. It is my understanding that the person in charge of FEMA operations at my location was later transferred to another FEMA function because of the fact that only the FEMA employees evacuated.
On the 26th, another call came from the IT managers in Baton Rouge indicating that my services were needed elsewhere and if I would mind relocating back to Baton Rouge. I felt that this support center could probably operate without any on-site IT support so I moved back to Baton Rouge. My job there was to provide “emergency” support to the various service centers, including: Delivering supplies, repair parts, people or ????, Installing expansion capability, Temporary coverage for the 100’s of warehouses that FEMA had stored material, and would on occasion, ride shotgun for the damage assessment teams throughout the parish’s south and west of New Orleans. Felt that I was making enough of a difference that on the 28th of September I “volunteered” for another 2 weeks.
The Last two weeks were, relatively “easy” was only working 12 hour days, and would usually have 1 day a week where would only work 6 hours or so, and my wife had joined me at a motel within 10 miles of Baton Rouge. By the middle of October I believed that the difference I was making probably was decreasing significantly. So, although I was asked to volunteer for another 2 weeks I declined and returned to a somewhat normal life.
Made several friends, both volunteers, and residents of New Orleans/Louisana who I will maintain contact with for the foreseeable future. I have continued my regular visits to various parts of the gulf including Mobile, Biloxi, Gulfport , New Orleans, Houma, and Morgan City amongst other places.
As recently as the spring of 2010, I made a visit to New Orleans to visit with friends and see the progress made. Yes the lower 9th Ward still has a long way to go, but even there the progress made has been impressive. Other parts of New Orleans one would hardly know that such a major disaster had ever occurred. Homes near the levees of Lake Pontchartrain have been completely rebuilt. I don’t recall seeing any lots with the only thing showing was a concrete slab which definitely was NOT the case in 2007 when I first returned to New Orleans… Have watched the news casts from Venice regarding the BP oil spill and there is a place that has made a dramatic comeback from Katrina. Of course these people have always had to comeback from one disaster or another, probably since the beginning of time. Will be interesting, at least to me how fast they are able to recover from the Oil Spill disaster.
I have continued to be impressed with the massive amounts of recovery that these and other communities have made. Even mother nature has done a remarkable job of restoring, granted with some significant amount of help from us, a lot of the environment. As time progresses, most of the issues that were identified by the reaction or lack thereof of FEMA and others have been somewhat addressed, although the BP disaster clearly pointed out that there is still a ways to go with addressing allocation of resources to recover from any disaster, whether man-made or otherwise.
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