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Wednesday, March 1, 2006

When Will We Learn?

The question remains: When will we learn? Two weeks shy of the fourth anniversary of terrorist attacks that had U.S. politicians of every ilk clamoring for greater domestic defense against threats manmade and natural, little more than a year after an emergency-management simulation essentially predicted massive flooding of New Orleans in the wake of a Category 4 hurricane, just eight months after an Indian Ocean tsunami proved again the widespread, destructive power of Mother Nature, we were "caught by surprise" when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Katrina was at a strength of Category 4, with sustained winds of more than 114 kt., when it made landfall just west of Gulfport, Miss. on Aug. 29, 2005. Hurricane-force winds--sustained in excess of 64 kt.--extended more than 100 mi. to either side of its eye. The storm wiped out whole coastal communities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. It destroyed key road and rail links. It killed more than 1,300 people--that is just the number of bodies found. It left more than 480,000 people homeless and caused tens of billions of dollars worth of damage.

The storm also laid bare the failure of government--at the federal, state and local level--to develop and execute plans for effectively managing major disasters. A U.S. House of Representatives investigation titled its report "A Failure of Initiative," explaining that, "If 9/11 was a failure of imagination, then Katrina was a failure of initiative. It was a failure of leadership," as well as "a blinding lack of situational awareness and disjointed decision making."

The head of the U.S. Homeland Security Dept., for instance, failed to make the bureaucratic declaration that would have freed vast federal resources to aid the devastated areas until Aug. 30, a full day after levee breaks began flooding New Orleans and the decimation of the Mississippi Gulf Coast was clear. This despite the fact that officials in Washington knew, or should have known, that the New Orleans levees had broken before dawn on Aug. 29. The National Guard, U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers all had reports in hand that this "worst case" for the city was developing.

The bureaucratic declaration, of an "incident of national significance," was prescribed by a new National Response Plan that the Homeland Security Dept. had put in place, theoretically throughout the United States, just a year earlier.

"The failure of initiative," the report argues, "cost lives, prolonged suffering, and left all Americans justifiably concerned our government is no better prepared to protect its people than it was before 9/11, even if we are."

The report faults the lack of awareness and action by leaders in Louisiana and New Orleans as well as Washington. But given the unique role that the Gulf Coast has in U.S. national security, the lack of federal awareness and action may be most shocking.

The New Orleans region is arguably the energy heart of the United States, with a significant portion of its oil and natural gas supplies pumped through pipelines fed there by offshore wells in the Gulf of Mexico. Ironically, the city of New Orleans director of homeland security, Terry Ebbert, has been aggressive and fairly successful in forging a partnership among local, regional and federal law enforcement, intelligence and transportation officials to protect in a coordinated manner those critical pipelines, as well as the Mississippi River shipping lanes critical to the economies of Midwestern U.S. states.

Yet those efforts were little help in getting food, water, medical supplies and shelter to the devastated areas for several days after Katrina hit. On top of that, the federal government reported that substantial percentages of Gulf of Mexico oil and natural-gas production remained off line months after the storm.

"The system needed to go into automatic" after Katrina hit, Ebbert said, with federal officials sending resources in without waiting for local and state officials to ask for specific support. "It didn't do that."

Particularly troubling was the failure of federal, state and local officials to plan for overcoming communications problems that should be expected after a major storm. The congressional investigators found that communications throughout the region suffered extraordinary damage, but that officials hadn't planned effectively for alternative means of communications when their primary ones failed. This hindered the response efforts, they found, especially in New Orleans and on Mississippi's Gulf Coast.

"Despite the devastation left by Katrina, this needn't have been the case," their report states. "Catastrophic disasters may have some unpredictable consequences, but losing power and the dependent communications systems after a hurricane should not be one of them."

Equally troubling was the failure of government agencies at all levels to overcome chronic problems of a lack of interoperability among communications systems used by various public safety agencies. Cited as a critical problem in the responses to the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the lack of interoperability continues to plague U.S. emergency operations. The House investigators noted, for instance, that while hundreds of millions of federal dollars have been spent to improve interoperable communications, first responders in helicopters couldn't talk to crews patrolling flooded regions by boat. National Guard commanders in Louisiana and Mississippi relied on runners to relay orders.

"Despite years of recognition of the threat that was to materialize in Hurricane Katrina," the House report says, "no one--not the federal government, not the state government, and not the local government--seems to have planned for an evacuation of the city from flooding through breached levees."

What did work, and work well, in the aftermath of Katrina was helicopters. Civil, military, public-use, corporate, offshore, medevac, firefighting, electronic news-gathering--rotorcraft of nearly every variety flooded into the devastated Gulf Coast region after the storm passed.

Before Katrina had finished passing through, Col. Barry Keeling of the Louisiana Army National Guard said, Guard aircraft were flying over New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. State aviation officer for that Guard organization, Keeling said the aircraft came from Louisiana and other states contributing assets under the National Guard's Emergency Management Assistance Compact, which provides for such mutual aid in emergencies.

In some ways, helicopters worked in the response to Katrina despite the efforts of federal officials. Numerous air medical operators had aircraft, flight and medical crews and supplies standing by to fly to the aid of the storm's victims. Many got phone calls from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or their state equivalents telling them to stand down. Some said they were threatened with punishment if they sent their aircraft and people to the Gulf Coast. At the same time, calls were coming in on another phone line from friends and colleagues in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama detailing the dire conditions they faced--no power, dwindling medical, food and water supplies and a rising number of patients--and begging them to send every available box, trained person and helicopter.

Keeling, the Louisiana Guard's aviation officer, said there soon were plenty of helicopters in the area, but not enough with hoists. "There were a limited number of those, and we used every one."

Federal agencies familiar with the capabilities of helicopters, commercial and otherwise, (such as the U.S. Forest Service staff that manages their use in firefighting) seemed to have little to do with bringing rotorcraft to bear on the situation. Instead, operators willing to send aircraft and crews to help were directed to contact a FEMA contractor, who was charged among other things with making sure that operators had obtained federal purchase orders before they flew in to work on the relief efforts.

Few operators ex-pressed any concern about purchase orders or making sure they got paid for the work that obviously needed to be done along the Gulf Coast. Chuck Brainerd is typical of the lot.

"We went on our own nickel," said the head of Leesburg, Fla.-based Firehawk Helicopters, of the company's decision to send its two firefighting S-70Cs to New Orleans. "We took off to do some helping. We didn't have a customer. We hoped to find one once we were there, but that wasn't the first thing on our mind."

The Firehawks spent the first 3-4 days in New Orleans airlifting patients off the roof of Tulane University Hospital's parking garage to the triage center at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. They later found a customer; the Defense Dept. hired them to fight fires in New Orleans. By early February, the Firehawks were still on duty in the city, half of which is without water pressure in fire hydrants. They are used for defensive firefighting operations--keeping fires in single buildings from turning into conflagrations that wipe out blocks of buildings.

Excepting the extended firefighting mission, many of the civilian helicopter crews had a similar experience: they flew because help was obviously needed; there was little control evident when they arrived but they were soon drafted to rescue people from rooftops and levees to hospitals or triage and staging areas. There were a lot of them doing that.

Nearly a week after Katrina hit, during the peak of activity over the Labor Day weekend, New Orleans International Airport alone reportedly was handling 150 helicopter takeoffs and landings a day.

"This was by far the most challenging flying that I have done in my 19-year career," said David Webb, a flight instructor at Bell's training academy. "All my past flying helped, but nothing could truly prepare me for what I saw there. There were so many helicopters in the sky at any given time. It was surreal."

In the pages that follow, we offer the accounts of seven among the hundreds who flew to the aid of Katrina's victims. We present them not as standouts in that group, but as typical representatives of those who through sacrifice and perseverance brought aid to the afflicted in a national crisis in ways that only helicopters could.

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