Hurricane Katrina and 9-11

Jeff Stern, a former firefighter with wide experience in emergency management and now a Ph.D. candidate at Virginia Tech’s Center for Public Administration and Policy, remembers the chaos in New Orleans following the Katrina disaster:

At the time I was working with an incident management team in Arlington, Virginia, and we sent a team down to New Orleans. Katrina was not just a single incident even on the scale of the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. It’s a different thing to be in an area the size of Great Britain and in the biggest disaster in U.S. history, to be in a helicopter at 3,000 feet and breathe in the fumes from the petrochemical facilities that had been destroyed in the gulf, and see the scope of the damage. In most cases of crisis management, the casual or educated observer often has more information looking at CNN than the folks who are there trying to manage the incident. In this case, we were actually there and able to take in the scale of this damage. It was hard to grasp the scale, or how hard it was managing this, until you were there.

This was September, 2005, ten days or so after Katrina made landfall. Our first step was to be the organizing team for the command center for the New Orleans Police Department. My initial job because I was the fire guy on this team was to go and meet with the New York City incident management team. There were I’d say about 80 to100 New York firefighters. These folks in four years after 9-11 went from not having a clue about what incident management was to being asked to come down and help organize and coordinate the firefighting aspects. The NYFD was working with NOFD to organize the entire fire response. There was no 911 system in the area, it was down and when they would hear about a possible fire in the city they would dispatch fire units by portable radio from an ad hoc fire command post to a general area, tracking them using a paper-card system the way it was done 50 years ago.  This occurred for a couple of weeks until a new 911 call system was purchased, installed, dispatchers were trained, and the system was and back up and running. This whole time there would be a New York Fire Department chief sitting next to a very haggard New Orleans fire battalion chief who wasn’t wearing his uniform, probably because it had been destroyed or lost. Paying it forward, paying the debt. For those folks from the Virginia Tech community here, sadly, there will be opportunities to pay the lessons forward and take advantage of those lessons to help the healing process somewhere else.

If Katrina directly affected more people over a larger area, the consequences of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, qualify it to be considered the most significant critical incident in recent American history. Victor Herbert, ACIA’s executive director and a professor in the Department of Protection Management at John Jay College, recalled his first-hand view from the headquarters of the New York Fire Department during the event and its aftermath — and identified an important lesson to be learned:

I recall that it was a day in September. It was 1954, the first game of the World Series. The Cleveland Indians against the New York Giants in the Polo Grounds. Eighth inning, two outs, Vic Wertz at bat, two men on base. Don Liddle throws a 2-1 pitch, Wertz whacks it and it goes flying over the head of that young man in center field for the Giants with the nickname Say Hey Kid. Willie Mays. He never looks at the ball but takes off running as fast as he can looking only at the wall.  He hits the warning track, raises his glove without ever looking back and pow, makes the catch. The fans go berserk. The announcers are shouting, what luck! What a lucky catch! Except for one other player from that other New York team, the Yankees. A catcher by the name of Yogi Berra, noted for occasional colorful expression. He said, Luck? No, he said. Those who practice get lucky.

Everyone in this room has a 9-11 story. I was working at headquarters, at that time at 9 Metrotech in Brooklyn, and I had just moved into a new house. I wasn’t sure how to get to work yet because it really was the first day. I took the bus to the train at 6:30 in the morning and asked a businessman, how long will it take me to get to 9 Metrotech. And he said, I know exactly where that is. I work at the World Trade Center. I make this trip every day. On the train there is a beautiful little family. Korean, I think. There’s a father sitting with each of his hands on a violin case, and two little girls, I put them 8 and 10. The mother has this implement of torture in her hand called a hairbrush. But not a whine, not a whimper, not a complaint. We get to Grand Central Station, the Korean family turns uptown. I remember saying to myself, they’re on their way to Carnegie Hall, or Lincoln Center or Julliard. They’ll never forget this day. Little did I know.

I got to HQ. I was working on a project, it was of the utmost importance, I’m sure of it, and I had a question for a deputy commissioner. Just as I think I’m about to get an answer, his pager goes off, he picks it up and says, “plane crash world trade center.” Any given day at headquarters there are 100 to 300 firefighters. Every single one of them wanted to go to the trade center. They were searching for vehicles, looking for protective clothing. Bunker gear that was exposed to hazardous material was collected in the medical division at headquarters and stored to be analyzed or whatever. And everyone knew in the basement there was a closet loaded with that stuff, locked. Someone unlocked it and all of a sudden there were firefighters running all over the place. 9-11. What a day. And then it was 9-12, and by 9-12 I don’t mean the next day. I mean days of 9-12. Maybe weeks.

The fire department traditionally is very reactionary. Over 150 years their basic attitude was what we do is good enough and we don’t have to change very much. After World Trade Center 1, FEMA came and asked what can we do for you, what do you need? The Police Department said we’ll take a dozen mobile command centers. Emergency management said we’ll take a half dozen. FDNY replied no, no, we’re good. We have our hoses, we have our ladders. We put the wet stuff on the red stuff, that’s what we do and we don’t need anything else. 9-11 came and everything changed. Now the service is remarkably different.

The most obvious change was the implementation of the national incident command system mandated by the Homeland Security office. FDNY set out to master that system and to make it a symbol, a sign of change. When New York sent 600 firefighters to Katrina,  in a matter of hours they quickly assumed leadership because of that training. What else? They do a lot more different kinds of training now. A lot more tabletop simulations and on-site scenario response. More preparation for the unthinkable.

In addition to practice you need knowledge. By now, we know how much information held by one agency or another remained unshared leading to needless loss of life on 9/11. But with or without information, practice is essential. I mentioned Yogi Berra, who told us that luck comes to those who practice. Henny Youngman said it better. Somebody asked him how to get to Carnegie Hall, and Youngman said: “Practice, practice, practice.” Every critical incident that we look at with an eye to preventing the next one, to being able to manage it, mitigate it, save lives, the best advice I can give is listen to Yogi and listen to Henny and practice and practice and practice.