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FEMA During Hurricane Katrina and Beyond

FEMA USAR teams go out in boats to help rescue residents stranded due to flooding from Hurricane Katrina, August 31st, 2005. (Photo: Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA)

Part of the Series

Leo Bosner was an employee of FEMA from 1979 until his retirement in 2008 and at the time of his retirement was President of the FEMA HQ employees' union, AFGE Local 4060. The views expressed here are Mr. Bosner's personal views only.

Friday afternoon, August 26, 2005, was a pleasantly warm summer day in Washington. It was my day off from duty as a Watch Officer at FEMA's National Response Coordination Center (NRCC) and my wife and I had gone to see a show of Japanese prints at an art gallery near Dupont Circle. We had just left the gallery and were discussing possible restaurants for a Friday night dinner when my FEMA pager buzzed. These were still my pre-cell phone days, so I borrowed my wife's phone to call in to the NRCC and see what was up.

My co-worker Matt picked up on the first ring. It seemed that an Atlantic storm had crossed south Florida and entered the Gulf of Mexico, where it could endanger Louisiana, Mississippi, and other states along the Gulf. The NRCC was being activated and I was to report in for night shift at 7 PM. The storm had been given a name: “Hurricane Katrina.”

I thanked Matt and told him I would be in at 7:00. I was not especially worried. We had gone through some tough lessons at FEMA over the years … Hurricane Hugo, Hurricane Andrew, the Northridge Earthquake, the Oklahoma City Bombing … and they all pointed in the same direction: For a good emergency response, you must maintain the basics: Realistic plans; adequate resources; trained staff; good communications; and, most of all, decisive, knowledgeable leaders at the top.

But as the Katrina tragedy played out in the coming days and weeks, I would come to realize just how badly my agency, FEMA, had been hollowed out in the preceding four years and how much we had lost in that short span of time.

I arrived at the NRCC a little before 7:00 that evening, received my briefing from the day shift and got myself a cup of coffee from the kitchen. The NRCC itself was nothing fancy … a couple of large, beige-colored rooms filled with desks, phones, computers and a few TV sets tuned in to various news stations. It had a pair of washrooms; a drinking fountain; and a small kitchen with a fridge, microwave and coffeemaker. The whole thing was located inside FEMA Headquarters in Washington in a typically bland-looking office building a couple of blocks from the National Air and Space Museum.

The NRCC might be described as FEMA Headquarters' “911 center.” It was staffed constantly, with 7-7 day shifts and 7-7 night shifts on duty every day (and night) of the year, monitoring news and weather for any actual or potential disasters, answering the phone 24/7 and keeping FEMA's leadership aware of anything that might require a FEMA response.

Normal NRCC staffing was just three people: a Watch Officer like myself, usually a long-time FEMA employee who knew the agency and understood what would be needed in a disaster; and two Watch Analysts, computer-savvy specialists who monitored news and weather outlets worldwide as well as reports from FEMA staff in the Regional Offices across the country to prepare situation reports for the higher-ups at FEMA and other federal agencies.

Daily and nightly, the NRCC sent out a lot of reports, many of them just short emails to update the bosses on anything ranging from spring flooding in New England to a chemical plant fire in the Midwest. But the “main event” was the daily National Situation Report, or NSR for short. In the coming days, the NSR would clearly document what FEMA had done – and not done – as Katrina approached the Gulf Coast. These reports, although public documents, would later be removed from public view by FEMA, so it is worth an aside to explain a bit about the NSR.

The NSR was a daily executive summary of potential or actual disasters that affected the US In essence, it was FEMA's morning briefing report regarding impending or ongoing disasters. The NSR would vary in length day to day, anywhere from about four to eight pages. It was written as much as possible in plain, non-jargon English, appearing a bit like an in-house newsletter. It generally led off with any hazardous weather warnings, then possibly a “headline” story about any impending or ongoing disaster and finally a summary of ongoing federal disaster operations in the field, if any.

The NSR was prepared overnight and sent out by email at 5:30 each morning to top officials at FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Defense Department, and other agencies throughout the government as well as to key organizations like the American Red Cross. Weekdays, weekends, Christmas morning … the report had to go out at 5:30 AM. If it didn't, the Watch Officer's phone would soon start to ring with callers from Homeland Security, the Defense Department, and other agencies asking: Where is the NSR?

The NSR was not classified as secret. It was and still is, a public document and was posted on the FEMA web site, accessible to anyone to see. If you click this web site today, you can read all of FEMA's daily NSRs going back to 2005 … all except for the Hurricane Katrina NSRs. They have been removed from the web site. (Being on the cautious side, I saved electronic copies of two critical Katrina NSRs before they could be destroyed and they can be reviewed at Truthout's web site here, and here.)

Producing the morning NSR was a major focus of any FEMA Watch Officer working the night shift and it was certainly on my mind as things got under way on that Friday night in August 2005. With Katrina entering the Gulf Coast, the NRCC had gone to a full activation. The two cavernous rooms that normally saw a skeleton staff of three now saw all of its chairs filled and desktop computers running as upwards of 100 staff began working day and night shifts at the NRCC.While many of these staff worked for FEMA, about half of them worked for other federal agencies or for the American Red Cross, in a simple but effective system that had come to fruition under Witt in the '90s.

The concept was this: In a major disaster, federal agencies across the Washington area would begin activating their disaster centers to manage their own particular roles in the response. The Department of Health and Human Services might activate its disaster center to alert and deploy doctors and nurses to a disaster-stricken area if needed. The Transportation Department might activate its center to find out which disaster-damaged roads and bridges were in urgent need of repair. The Defense Department would certainly activate its center to be prepared to respond to requests for military aircraft to bring needed supplies into a disaster-stricken area.

But who would coordinate the activities among all of these various centers so that the disaster response did not turn into a massive federal government traffic jam? How would we make sure that we did not end up sending the same aid to one place three times while ignoring other places in need? How would we prioritize the many requests for help to ensure that the most urgent needs were filled first?

That's where FEMA's NRCC came in.

With a major disaster on the horizon, FEMA would alert the other federal agencies and the American Red Cross; those agencies would activate their own disaster centers, as mentioned above, but would also send a few staff over to the FEMA NRCC. Those staff would stay constantly in touch with their own agencies' disaster centers and would, thus, serve as a conduit of information between FEMA and the rest of the government and the Red Cross, ensuring that everyone knew what everyone else was doing and enabling top federal officials to make informed and unified decisions regarding the disaster response. In this way, there was instant communication across the government and we could ensure that the disaster survivors would quickly receive whatever aid they needed.

Once the system was activated, once all the disaster specialists from FEMA, Defense, Transportation, the Red Cross, and other sundry agencies got to work, it would be smooth sailing at the NRCC. All you needed then would be top federal officials who knew how to make informed and unified decisions in a disaster. But as we were soon to learn, that type of person was now in very short supply.

As we began operations that Friday night for Hurricane Katrina, I don't think many of us at the NRCC were worried. A lot of us had done this before – I myself had served on disaster activations for over ten years – and we knew how the system worked. We began to gather information on the storm, its likely impacts and the status of operations at the local, state and federal levels.

We worked through the night, and at 5:30 AM Saturday, August 27, we sent out our morning NSR to all the agency heads, including the heads of FEMA and DHS. Our report didn't pull any punches. We let everyone know that Katrina had strengthened, that it was expected to get stronger still and that it was headed north through the Gulf of Mexico headed straight for the Gulf Coast.

At 7 AM Saturday, we handed things off to the day shift and went home to get some sleep, all of us thinking that the wheels would begin to roll now that we had issued our warning. But when we reported back in for duty Saturday evening, we were astonished at how little was being done to prepare for the storm. Almost everything coming out of FEMA seemed to be aimed at “standing by,” “getting ready,” and the like. Decisive actions – such as evacuating the large numbers of people who did not have cars – were simply not being taken.

On Saturday night, we did more information gathering for our report. Sunday morning, August 28, we issued another NSR at 5:30 AM – this one showing that New Orleans was directly in the path of the storm and advising our bosses that at least 100,000 people lacked transportation to escape the city.

Our report once again seemed to fall on deaf ears. On Monday morning, August 29, the storm hit the Gulf Coast and our worst fears were realized. Our leaders at FEMA and DHS had lost two precious days when they could have been taking robust action ahead of the storm; now, they had to play catch-up and FEMA's failures in that regard have been well-documented.

But was it really FEMA's failure? Many of the FEMA staff like myself had worked at FEMA during our “glory days” of the 1990s, when FEMA was renowned as a fast, effective agency responding to disasters. Why was it now so slow?

For starters, FEMA under DHS had been forced to throw away its clear, workable disaster response plans in favor of a confusing set of plans that no one understood. When FEMA was still an independent agency, it responded to disasters under the Federal Response Plan, the “FRP.” The FRP had clear lines of authority and specified exactly what was to be done in a disaster. No plan is perfect, but the FRP had served us well in numerous disasters.

But under DHS, the FRP had now been replaced by something called the “National Response Plan,” or “NRP.” The NRP had been written by DHS contractors, with very little involvement from FEMA disaster professionals. It was complicated and hard to understand, something you definitely do not want in a disaster.

As Hurricane Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast, lines of authority under the NRP were unclear, a sure death blow to any emergency plan. For example, under the old FRP, a Federal Coordinating Officer (FCO) from FEMA was in charge of federal disaster responders in the field. Every federal responder in the field knew that and understood that the FCO was calling the shots.

But under the NRP, while there was still an FCO from FEMA, now there was also a Principal Federal Official (PFO) from DHS, who would do … well, no one quite knew what, exactly. As the disaster unfolded, it was unclear who was in charge of which things at the federal level … the FCO or the PFO. As a result, the NRP was confusing and almost useless and added to the delays in responding to the storm.

Even worse, FEMA was now operating under DHS, so instead of getting our orders from the seasoned disaster veterans like Witt or Lacy Suiter, who had run FEMA in the 1990s, our orders now came from managers at DHS who had no experience in disasters. In the middle of the Katrina response, phone calls to the NRCC from these DHS managers would continually interrupt the work of the FEMA employees with a barrage of questions which clearly were not related to the emergency response, but to speechwriting for DHS executives, distracting the FEMA employees from their emergency work.

For example, on one night during the Katrina response, there was a discrepancy in the number of people who had reportedly been rescued from the flood waters that day in a particular locale. The discrepancy was small … maybe one report said that 35 people had been rescued and another report said it was 40. In the confusion of a disaster, such a discrepancy would be normal and it did not really matter. The fact was, about 35 to 40 people had been rescued from flood waters that day in that particular area.

But “about 35 to 40 people” was not good enough for DHS. I was working my shift at the NRCC that night and a staff person at DHS phoned me at about 2:00 in the morning and ordered me to phone down to Louisiana, wake up some people on the federal rescue team and have them send in a more exact number immediately.

These rescue team members were firefighters and medics who had been doing hard, dangerous rescue work for about 15 hours or more and were now getting a little sleep before going out to do more rescues and I was ordered to wake them up to fix some numbers in a report.

I was not permitted to refuse an order from DHS, so I said O.K., I'll call them right away. I hung up the phone, waited about ten minutes and then I phoned back to DHS. Sorry, I said, the phone lines to the rescue team are all down because of the hurricane, so my call could not get through. I promised to keep trying and hung up the phone. In truth, I never even attempted to phone the rescue teams. I was not going to wake up exhausted rescuers in the middle of the night just to get some numbers for a speechwriter.

Ironically, it was response units like FEMA's Urban Search & Rescue (US&R) teams – the ones I was told to awaken from their sleep for the sake of the DHS speechwriters – that actually operated very effectively in the field once they were deployed. The US&R teams, along with other field responders from FEMA and other federal agencies, worked tirelessly to rescue and assist thousands stranded by flood waters after the disaster. Unfortunately, their heroic efforts were overshadowed by the delays and errors back in Washington.

And then there were the contractors.

As mentioned earlier, FEMA staff levels had declined drastically since the DHS takeover of 2003. Now, with a major disaster under way, FEMA was, naturally, short staffed.

No problem. Several major contracting companies would supply the extra staff to make up for the shortage of FEMA employees.

Now, the fact is, most of the contract employees with whom I worked were top-notch people who did a wonderful job. I had a number of them working for me during Katrina and by and large they were excellent employees.

But they could also be very expensive employees. In many cases, I learned that the contracting companies were billing FEMA for salaries significantly higher than the salaries of FEMA staff who were doing the same work. Interestingly, it seems that the contract employees themselves did not actually receive the higher pay … that went to the contracting company in the form of “profit.”

More annoyingly, it also became clear that some of these companies were gaming the system and using the disaster as an opportunity to obtain free training for their staff rather than as a concerted effort to relieve human misery.

For example, as I came on duty one night I was approached by a young man I'll call “Phil.” Phil introduced himself, said he worked for the XXX company that was supporting FEMA in the disaster response and that he would be assigned to work for me. The only thing was, he had never done this type of work before, so could I please show him the ropes and explain what was needed?

Well, as any soldier can tell you, the middle of a battle is not when you want to start giving the troops their basic training, but Phil was there and I needed people, so I spent time with him showing him what was needed, going over his work with him and taking whatever time was needed to bring him up to speed. I then had him work alongside some of our more experienced people and within a few nights, Phil pretty much had the hang of it.

Then he disappeared.

Yep, one night I came in for our shift and Phil was gone, just when his work had started to be fully productive. Now that he had been trained, his company had shifted Phil to another work site. No problem – a young lady I'll call “Melinda” then walked up to me and introduced herself. Melinda said she worked for the XXX company that was supporting FEMA in the disaster response and that she would be assigned to work for me.

The only thing was, she had never done this type of work before, so could I please show her the ropes and explain what was needed?

It quickly became clear to me what an opportunity Hurricane Katrina was for some of the FEMA contracting companies. They would send their least-experienced staff to FEMA, supposedly to “assist” with the disaster work, but in reality to be trained by FEMA staff, who would be forced to take time away from their disaster relief work to do the training. Once the contract staff had been trained on one job, they could be transferred elsewhere and another novice brought in to “help.”

So we continued to limp along at FEMA, short-staffed, burdened by poor leadership, confusing plans and, most of all, by the DHS. We did our best for the victims of Katrina, but it was not nearly good enough and it was not what they, or America, deserved from their government.


Epilogue – After Katrina

After Hurricane Katrina, we were told that FEMA's problems would be remedied, but they only got worse. FEMA Director Mike Brown was replaced by David Paulison, a former fire chief who many hoped would revitalize the agency. However, during Paulison's tenure as head of FEMA, the agency continued its downhill slide:

  • In 2006, when DHS decreed that hurricanes can be accurately predicted a full week in advance (they can't), Paulison went along with DHS plans to spend our time training on all the things we should do during the week before the hurricane hits … a little like planning all the things you should do the week before you are hit by a car while crossing the street. One long-time FEMA manager used computer modeling of previous hurricane tracks to disprove the logic of the “one-week” plan. That manager was immediately transferred to a different office.
  • In 2007, when it became known that FEMA trailers housing Katrina disaster victims were giving off formaldehyde, an in-house FEMA newsletter cheerily featured an article entitled, '”Myth: FEMA Must Remove Formaldehyde from Travel Trailers.” The article reassured us, “Formaldehyde is a common substance that is found in homes and buildings everywhere.”
  • Paulison's deputy was Harvey Johnson, a Coast Guard officer who became famous in 2007 for his “phony press conference” in which FEMA employees posed as reporters asking Johnson questions in what was purported to be a news conference. The incident made headlines nationwide, further damaging FEMA's reputation. Paulison issued a memo absolving Johnson of any wrongdoing, but the FEMA employee who leaked the photo that exposed the phony press conference was fired.
  • And those embarrassing NSRs that had given advance warning of Katrina's approach? Deleted from the FEMA web site. (But as mentioned above, I kept copies of the two reports and you can read them for yourself here, and here.)

The message from these incidents was clear to all of us: FEMA's mission was first and foremost PR; “emergency management” was a distant second, if that. Any attempts to push back and actually fix the agency's problems would either be ignored or punished.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard, which was rightly praised for the heroism of its pilots and its rescue crews during the Katrina operations, was told to send some of its officers over to FEMA to straighten things out. Fine, except the Coast Guard didn't send their best officers to FEMA: while a few of the officers they sent seemed well-qualified, in many cases, the Coast Guard simply cleaned house and sent us their failures, officers who had been passed over for promotion or who had other problems. It was not such a great deal for FEMA.

With the influx of Coast Guard officers, along with uniformed officers from various branches of the military, experienced disaster managers at FEMA found themselves pushed into the background, and many of them simply left the agency in disgust. As one long-time FEMA executive remarked to me, “If you have disaster experience at FEMA, it's the kiss of death for your career.” In January, 2008, I finally called it quits and retired from FEMA after more than 28 years with the agency.

The following November, Barack Obama was elected president and in May 2009, Craig Fugate was appointed as the new FEMA administrator. Fugate, the former head of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, is an outgoing and down-to-earth individual who has gotten well-deserved high marks for his knowledge and experience with disasters.

However, in the view of some, he has not moved quickly enough in turning the agency around. While some experienced disaster managers have indeed been brought into the agency, Fugate's management team still appears to be weighed down by less-than-stellar executives left over from the Bush administration, and Fugate himself has at times seemed reluctant to address FEMA's internal problems head-on. Female staff at several FEMA offices have complained of sexual harassment and even of workplace violence, but remedies to these complaints seem to come slowly, if at all. The executives who fired the whistleblower after the 2007 phony press conference are still in their jobs. The embarrassing NSRs from Hurricane Katrina have still not been restored to the FEMA web site. Other problems continue to fester beneath the surface.

One senior FEMA staff member summed up the situation bluntly to me: “The Bush people did the crimes; the Obama people covered them up.”

Meanwhile, outside visitors trying to penetrate FEMA's shell often come away complaining about rude treatment and the lack of knowledgeable FEMA staff. One experienced disaster manager went so far as to tell me, “Craig Fugate and [Deputy Administrator] Rick Serino are great, but from there on down the system is rotten.”

Overall, what I have heard so far from many of my former FEMA colleagues has been along the lines of, well, it seems to be getting better … but pretty slowly.

Despite these shortcomings, I still have hopes for FEMA. Fugate seems sincere and knowledgeable and if he does not have the close-to-the-president kind of power that Witt had, I nonetheless believe he is clearly capable of leading the agency. And many FEMA staff, new and old alike, are well-qualified people who are motivated by a desire to help protect America from the impacts of disasters.

Can FEMA, now a component of Homeland Security, overcome its recent history and its continuing impediments and once again act as effectively as it did as an independent agency under the Clinton administration? Time will tell … as will FEMA's response to the next major emergency or disaster.

I wish my former colleagues at FEMA the best.


“Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security,” by C. Cooper and R. Block, Times Books, 2006.

“The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” by D. Brinkley, HarperCollins Books, 2006.

“The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina – The Inside Story from One Louisiana Scientist,” by I. van Heerden and M. Bryan, Penguin Books, 2006.

“Introduction to Emergency Management,” Third Edition, by G. Haddow, J. Bullock and D. Coppola, Elsevier Books, 2008.

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