Public Service

Disaster Response: What’s Changed?

By By Ernie Stephens and James T. McKenna | September 1, 2015
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The worst of Katrina’s effects hit on the hurricane's east side, along the Mississippi and Alabama coasts.
The worst of Katrina’s effects hit on the hurricane’s east side, along the Mississippi and Alabama coasts. Much of the damage in New Orleans came from surging waters pushed by Katrina and floods from failed levees.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Defense Dept.

You can’t say no one saw it one coming. Even as the tropical depression passed over the southern Bahamas Islands on Aug. 23, 2005, more than 300 mi southeast of Miami Beach, meteorologists were predicting it would strengthen, pass over Florida’s southern tip and move into the Gulf of Mexico.

They were right. The depression grew into Tropical Storm Katrina by midday on Aug. 24; by evening the next day, just off Fort Lauderdale, it was a hurricane.


Katrina’s strength wavered as it moved west into the Gulf, but by 10 p.m. on Aug. 27—with Category 3-level winds of 115 mph—it had turned north on a projected path that put the Gulf Coast border of Mississippi and Louisiana in its crosshairs. Katrina hit that target hard early on Aug. 29.

Helicopters rescued thousands of families from post-Katrina floodwaters all along the central Gulf of Mexico coast.
Helicopters rescued thousands of families from post-Katrina floodwaters all along the central Gulf of Mexico coast.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Defense Dept.

The hurricane wiped out large swaths of coastal Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and triggered massive flooding in New Orleans. The storm and flooding killed more than 1,800 people. Katrina is ranked as the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

It is hard to understand how Katrina’s effects surprised us.

As we noted here in March 2006 in reporting on the response to the storm, Katrina hit less than four years after terrorist attacks in New York and Washington that provoked intense debate about more coordinated and effective large-scale emergency response efforts. It hit a bit more than a year after an emergency-management simulation had predicted a Category 4 hurricane would cause massive flooding in New Orleans; Katrina was just shy of a Category 4 classification at landfall in Bay St. Louis, Miss. It also hit just eight months after a massive tsunami killed more than 200,000 people in 14 countries bordering the Indian Ocean.

The emergency response to Katrina was, in many respects, heroic. It was also, in many respects, selfless. It was, in many respects, a helicopter response.

A lack of planning for a large-scale disaster like Katrina meant improvised procedures prevailed, like these handwritten ones for operations at the “expanded” helipad at New Orleans’ Superdome.
A lack of planning for a large-scale disaster like Katrina meant improvised procedures prevailed, like these handwritten ones for operations at the “expanded” helipad at New Orleans’ Superdome. Photo from R&WI files

But it also was improvised, uncoordinated and, at times, chaotic. A Congressional investigation in early 2006 called it “a failure of leadership,” adding that “blinding lack of situational awareness and disjointed decision making needlessly compounded and prolonged Katrina’s horror.”

Back then, we asked, “What will we learn?” (R&W, March 2006, page 28.) Now, 10 years after the storm, we look at what we have learned from a number of perspectives.

At the national level, the scapegoat of Katrina says it has learned important lessons. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was (and still is) ridiculed for what many considered inept coordination of the response to the storm and bungled efforts to help afflicted communities recover from it.

That agency on July 30 put out a list of changes made since Katrina (with prodding and power from 2006’s Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act). FEMA says it has improved its ability to provide support to states ahead of a disaster. In 2005, generally FEMA could not act until the president declared a federal disaster or a state governor requested aid. Now it can surge aid resources to an area ahead of a disaster.

The agency said it has coordinate with response partners and developed (as required by the 2006 law) a National Disaster Recovery Framework that “clearly defines coordination structures, leadership roles and responsibilities” and provides “guidance for federal agencies, state, local, territorial, and tribal governments, and other partners involved in disaster planning and recovery.”

FEMA said it also has established Incident Management Assistance Teams, which it describes as full-time, rapid-response teams able to deploy within two hours and arrive at an incident within 12 hours to support a local incident commander and “provide situational awareness for federal and state decision makers crucial to determining the level and type of immediate federal support that may be required.”

Hundreds of military helicopters and dozens of commercial and private aircraft relied for days on improvised traffic separation and helipad procedures.
Hundreds of military helicopters and dozens of commercial and private aircraft relied for days on improvised traffic separation and helipad procedures. Photo from R&WI files

FEMA and its parent, the Department of Homeland Security, also have promoted the adoption of a National Incident Management System. FEMA describes that as “a systematic, proactive approach to guide departments and agencies at all levels of government, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector to work together seamlessly and manage incidents involving all threats and hazards—regardless of cause, size, location, or complexity.”

The agency has worked to improve search and rescue capability through greater integration of its network of Urban SAR teams and training of Community Emergency Response Teams—groups of local volunteers committed to providing an initial response in the neighborhoods while professional responders are occupied with large-scale incidents like a tornado, hurricane or earthquake.

Emergency response experts R&WI spoke with acknowledged the progress of some of those efforts, but said they have not made consistent gains beyond local or regional levels.

At the state level, the National Guard is a good place to look for lessons learned from Katrina.

In 2005, Barry Keeling was a colonel in the Louisiana National Guard and the state aviation officer for that organization. Today, he is a brigadier general and the Louisiana Guard’s director of joint staff. In that post, he is the chief advisor and principal assistant to the adjutant general (who commands the state Guard). Keeling also is the state’s dual-status commander, responsible for commanding all military forces conducting emergency and contingency operations in Louisiana.

One lesson of Katrina, he said, is to equip aircraft for the most devastating disasters. Many military, public service, commercial and private helicopters were available along the Gulf Coast. But they were not all equipped to communicate with other aircraft, and only some could perform hoist operations—the most important capability in the first days after the storm.

“A lot of our aircraft did not have hoist capability,” Keeling said. “So, we made a lot of effort to get hoists added to all of our utility helicopters. And we’ve done a lot to increase our over-the-horizon communication with satellite radio to get 700-800 MHz capability.”

Another lesson is to coordinate with all entities that may be needed in a large-scale response. Many federal units in the U.S. had air assets in the area after Katrina: the Coast Guard, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Customs and Border Patrol, etc.

Military units generally work well together when operations are coordinated far in advance of their execution. But they were unprepared for Katrina. Keeling, his staff personnel and those from other organizations created temporary procedures on the run. For example, the Superdome was a major site for evacuees. It had a single-spot helipad that was adapted quickly with 12 spots. Keeling’s staff wrote out traffic procedures on a yellow pad and made copies for incoming helicopters.

Today, “we’ve written an all-hazards operations plan, which goes into great detail, not only with what we’re doing, but how we’re coordinating with other local, state and federal agencies,” Keeling said. He works regularly with other guard units and public safety agencies to hone disaster plans, hold information exchange conferences with places such as New York and Washington, D.C., and participate in drills.

Lessons were also learned at the local level.

The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office upgraded its aviation section after Katrina from this Bell Helicopter OH-58 to a 407 and UH-1H.
The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office upgraded its aviation section after Katrina from this Bell Helicopter OH-58 to a 407 and UH-1H. Photo from R&WI files

New Orleans is in Jefferson Parish. In the parish’s Sheriff’s Office, “we talk every day” about the storm’s lessons “and how we have tried to incorporate them into the equipment we need, our training, and our preparations for each hurricane season,” said Col. Robert E. Woods. He is the office’s commander of special operations, which includes the aviation section.

When the storm hit, the office operated one Army surplus OH-58 out of Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. But the light single’s limitations became apparent in operations that required hoisting survivors from roofs and transporting the injured to first-aid centers.

The Sheriff’s Office now operates a 407 (ordered before Katrina) and a UH-1H. Both aircraft are more capable for SAR and law enforcement missions.

In the storm response, the office’s crews were stretched thin, with aircraft working 12 to 15 hours per day for two weeks, Woods said.

After Katrina, the office expanded its corps of pilots, including full-time employees and reserve deputies to ensure an adequate rotation of aviators. It also cross-trains members from outside of the aviation unit to serve as backup tactical flight officers.

Need To Know: A 2006 law prodded the Federal Emergency Management Agency to improve large-scale disaster response.In many areas, such responses remain uncoordinated.

Helicopter Database?

Helicopter Assn. International President Matt Zuccaro said in 2006 that he was “very committed” to compiling a comprehensive database of helicopter resources available to emergency response managers worldwide.

The idea preceded Katrina, growing out of frustration over the large number of corporate and private helicopters in New York City that went unused in emergency operations after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Zuccaro said in 2006 operators and industry officials were “very enthusiastic” about the idea,” he said. “What better repository for that kind of information than HAI?”

The database would include contact information for operators who can provide needed services, the types of helicopters available and their location and capabilities–including whether an aircraft is hoist-equipped or could handle stretchers or firefighting systems.

Initial efforts were made to compile such a database, but it is unclear whether anything has ever been done with it. HAI did not respond to repeated requests for information on the matter.

U.S. Relied On Guard, Reserves

The U.S. military took proactive steps in responding to Katrina, a 2006 review by the federal General Accountability Office found.

The response began before Katrina’s Aug. 29, 2005, landfall and peaked at more than 70,000 troops: about 50,000 National Guard and 20,000 active-component personnel, the GAO said. The response was based on the Pentagon’s June 2005 call for a focused reliance on the guard and Reserves for civil support missions.

Among the reasons for that reliance were that the guard and Reserves have key civil support capabilities and are located in 3,200 communities throughout the U.S. That reliance was a departure from past catastrophes when active-duty forces played larger roles in the response. For example, during the military response to Hurricane Andrew, the National Guard provided less than 20 percent of the more than 30,000 military responders.

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