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NEWS | Aug. 21, 2015

Examining lessons from Hurricane Katrina 10 years later

By Bill Boehm National Guard Bureau

ARLINGTON, Va. - Hurricane Katrina, energized over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico in late August 2005, warranted an unprecedented response by the National Guard.

Even as it dissipated upon landfall, the cyclone would transform into a natural disaster not seen in modern American history.

The scope and ferocity of the storm, which moved in a northwesterly direction after it initially passed through southern Florida, generated great anxiety among Gulf coast dwellers before it reached landfall on August 29, 2005.

Once the central eye of Katrina passed southeast Louisiana and then Mississippi’s coastline that morning, it caused communications problems, compounded through widespread electrical power failures, blocked roadways, damaged bridges and fallen cellular phone towers.

This diminished interagency communication, hampering logistics and equipment distribution.

Still, adjustments and constant adaptation allowed National Guard forces to prioritize missions in order to save thousands of lives and lessen human suffering over many weeks, in a geographical area regularly consisting of over 2.5 million people.

Given the difficulty of the task, the National Guard, as one force, used its breadth of specialized skills to aid in the rescue, relief and recovery of the hundreds of thousands of people affected by Hurricane Katrina.

The bulk of activity took place over the space of a month and a half from late August through mid-October 2005. Incoming personnel worked closely with both the Louisiana and Mississippi forces. Although other units stayed on the ground in Louisiana and Mississippi afterward, the majority of relief missions wound down after Oct. 15, 2005.

By this time, nonetheless, about 20,000 Soldiers and Airmen remained in the affected region. Some personnel activated worked in Alabama as well, although most of the Guard members worked in the other two states.

From the perspective of 10 years, the examination of this event invites many questions. Chief among these is, “what did the National Guard do?” Once it became apparent that multiple states would become involved in all facets of this operation, the nature of this effort becomes apparent.

Neighboring states and territories, as well as distant ones, offered Soldiers and Airmen, equipment and skill sets. This emphasized the concept of teamwork among the many National Guard missions, and exemplified the adaptability and flexibility of the Guard.

Louisiana and Mississippi incorporated these units within a task force structure designated to focus on larger critical missions, such as logistics, debris removal, food and water distribution, as well as search and rescue or temporary evacuations. The affected states’ leadership also assigned individual specialized units to concentrate on smaller assignments, such as biohazard treatment due to the polluted floodwaters and other perils.

Alleviating distress caused by the storm

Managing the movement and distribution of basic provisions, such as ice, water, food and personal hygiene items proved critical after hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes or businesses. Therefore, the action of National Guard units from Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan and New Hampshire proved vital just within Louisiana. Units from Ohio and Kentucky did similar work in Mississippi.

The flooding in Louisiana, as well as the lack of electrical power to fuel water purification facilities, put the potable water supply at great risk. To counter this potential public health nuisance, National Guard water purification teams from Michigan, Iowa, Kentucky and Pennsylvania lent their expertise in Louisiana; in Mississippi, units from South Carolina, Texas and Virginia contributed their efforts.

Logistical response

The areas in Louisiana affected by flooding and levee failures in greater New Orleans took place in a relatively compact area, contrasted to those in Mississippi, which took place throughout a much larger region. In both jurisdictions, the post-storm conditions made auto and truck travel a necessity. The associated logistical problems required swift responses by auto and truck travel. National Guard units within engineer-based task forces, as well as individual state units, aided in solving these problems.

Both Army and Air National Guard units, including those from Virginia, Illinois, Connecticut and Georgia, ensured that heavy equipment could evacuate stranded people, deliver provisions, clear debris and establish necessary security perimeters. Kentucky also provided refueling services to Mississippi. This also included high-clearance vehicles that could navigate flooded areas, particularly in the greater New Orleans area; the South Carolina National Guard was one of the states that provided Louisiana with this asset.

Cellular phone and electrical service failed over wide stretches of the area. National Guard units provided Interim Satellite Communication Incident Site Communications Sets (ISISCS). The West Virginia Air National Guard, in addition to sister units in Colorado, Pennsylvania and Texas, provided badly needed power. Army National Guard units from Missouri and Washington also assisted with this specialized equipment.

To properly process and integrate the multiple efforts ongoing in Louisiana and Mississippi, the Reception, Staging, Onward Movement and Integration (RSOI) proved vital. Nebraska, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania National Guard Soldiers aided Louisiana as it ensured that troops moved forward upon arrival to the Pelican State.

As an extension of the (RSOI) function, Virginia, Missouri, and Maine ably assisted with debris removal throughout the state of Louisiana, quartering at different locations, while Alabama, Georgia, Iowa and Maryland Guard units did similar work throughout Mississippi.

Search & rescue and evacuation

Approximately 80% of the city of New Orleans became flooded after catastrophic levee failures quickly inundated the areas located below sea level. The rapid speed of flooding necessitated hundreds of search-and-rescue missions performed by National Guard personnel. Oklahoma sent some of the first Army and Air Guard rotor and fixed-wing units, closely followed by those from Texas, Wisconsin and Georgia. As floodwaters rose high and forced residents to their rooftops, several stranded New Orleans residents scrawled messages that alerted passing pilots and their crews.

Though floodwaters did not cause the damage in Mississippi as in Louisiana, fewer rescue missions of this type took place. However, the 102nd Rescue Wing, New York Air National Guard, proved well-suited to base operations in Jackson, Mississippi, and also performed several rescues in Louisiana.

Zodiac boats aided in ground-based rescues after flooding thwarted auto traffic in parts of New Orleans and its outlying region. Five state National Guards from Kentucky, California, Alaska, New York and Alabama used these rugged vessels to rescue stranded residents in Louisiana, while Florida provided this equipment for Mississippi.

After initial search and rescue operations subsided, Air National Guard evacuation flights aided in the eventual restoration of routine living as several agencies provided temporary quarters to New Orleans residents who lost their homes and possessions. Maryland, Delaware and Kentucky provided much of the airlift capabilities for both states.

Another noteworthy element of the overall operation that became a larger consideration because of the devastation of Katrina was pet evacuations. Many people would not leave unless their pets could leave as well. Though Wisconsin and Colorado took the lead in this sometimes-overlooked function, other states also contributed their efforts as well for the sake of continuing the evacuation process for Louisiana and Mississippi counties shaken by the aftermath of the hurricane.

Medical response

Both Army and Air National Guard personnel used their medical care units to treat a variety of injuries and other maladies. In Louisiana, National Guard units from Texas, Virginia, Arizona, the District of Columbia and Montana lent a wide variety of assistance within the damaged area. The District Guardians, in tandem with their colleagues from faraway Nevada, also provided medical aid to Mississippi.

Both Army and Air National Guard components coordinated with active component services in a joint capacity to assist those in need of medical attention. Seven states – West Virginia, Tennessee, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, Colorado and Arkansas – evacuated patients.

Among the Air Guard health care professionals, the Expeditionary Medical Support (EMEDS) teams proved their worth for the first time in a domestic disaster. It earlier worked in Operation Iraqi Freedom, with small clinic operations to carry forth immediate care necessities, this evolution of the mobile hospital used a full spectrum of professionals from Air Guard units in Oregon, Puerto Rico, Michigan and Texas to service Louisiana, while units from Kansas, Delaware and Alabama focused their attention toward Mississippi victims.

Other assignments

This article only mentions a selection of the several assignments taken by National Guard units from outside the traumatized Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi. Other specialized missions came from Civil Support Teams (CSTs), a National Guard force that worked with civil responders in the case of a large-scale disaster.

This included chemical and biohazard mitigation; i.e., ensuring that evacuees and military personnel would endure limited exposure to contaminated water from the flooding. Several states based this operation in Louisiana, including North Carolina, New Mexico, Nevada, Alaska, and Iowa; in Mississippi, units from Kansas, Indiana and West Virginia worked with local personnel to minimize exposure to harmful substances associated with the waterborne disaster.

Other undertakings encompassed traffic control; curfew checks; military police support to overwhelmed local police forces; protecting industrial infrastructure and staffing checkpoints to ensure that flooded areas would remain evacuated.

Additional duties assumed by various National Guard units underscored an air of tragedy. When it became necessary to search from house to house in New Orleans to ensure that the flooded areas were evacuated, personnel used Zodiac boats or walked through neighborhood to check on the welfare of those residents left behind. In some cases, these Soldiers or Airmen saved residents. In other circumstances, those being monitored were among the deceased.

In coordination with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Guard members identified these fatalities and left markings on the residences that identified their status. The spray-painted markings showed a body count within the inspected structure; the initials of the unit searching the dwelling; the date of the search and notations for other hazards, such as gas or water leaks. In some cases, a single slash of paint denoted that a “hasty search” took place.

Among the contingent undertaking this assignment were Soldiers from the 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the Oregon National Guard.

With much of southeast Louisiana below sea level, another grim duty was to identify caskets that sometimes became disinterred. Members of the Utah National Guard counted among those who worked to mitigate such damage caused by floodwaters, and initiate reburials.

A great deal of damage took place when gas lines ruptured in the aftermath of Katrina. To combat fires, the Air National Guard sent its Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems (MAFFS) from the 145th Airlift Wing, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, to the affected area to fight these potential blazes.

It also used rotor-wing aircraft from Army Guard units. Other airborne activities attempted to shore damaged levees through the placement of oversized sandbags, the chief cause of New Orleans’ deluge. Army National Guard rotor units from Georgia and Air units from Texas took an early lead in this assignment; despite difficult conditions, these drops helped lessen the flow of levee water onto low-elevation land.

Analysis

Despite overcoming numerous hardships, many initiatives failed to work seamlessly. One example of this took place as the 528th Engineer Battalion was stationed at the New Orleans Convention Center. Staged to move forward on engineering missions after the storm’s passage, the unit only expected to continue with its work at hand. Yet the congregating crowd at the Convention Center left it unequipped to deal with a totally unrelated issue. Mayor Ray Nagin made no announcement about the facility becoming a shelter, so when a large crowd continued to assemble in the subsequent days after the storm passed, a dangerous situation loomed. This lack of communication proved perilous in other situations as well, to say nothing of the damaged equipment that relayed phone and electrical service.

Other problems took place, such as having limited equipment for domestic assignments.

This thwarted effective communication over radio frequencies between Guard units and the active component through the beleaguered coast region. Assessment of this issue received great scrutiny as the National Guard reviewed the lessons learned about the Katrina disaster.

Other federal agencies and responders came under widespread criticism for the quality of the response, but further examination revealed that this unprecedented natural disaster response bore no resemblance to other Gulf hurricanes.

The size and scope of the damage, coupled with the levee failures in the greater New Orleans area, made this incident a significant milestone in American history.

Certainly, there were other errors made and lessons learned as a result of these kinds of incidents. However, the National Guard made use of existent disaster plans and executed them to the best of its abilities.

All 50 states, territories and the District of Columbia lent their skills, expertise, and ultimately, their toil, resolve, and plain hard work to alleviate the terrible conditions brought by Hurricane Katrina. This united effort set a new standard among all National Guard domestic responses.

It was, said Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, the Guard’s “finest hour.”