Katrina: What the Media Missed
Note: This piece was originally published in 2006.
Remember the dozens, maybe hundreds, of rapes, murders, stabbings and deaths resulting from official neglect at the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina? The ones that never happened, as even the national media later admitted?
Sure, we all remember the original reporting, if not the back-pedaling.
Here's another one: Do you remember the dramatic TV footage of National Guard helicopters landing at the Superdome as soon as Katrina passed, dropping off tens of thousands saved from certain death? The corpsmen running with stretchers, in an echo of M*A*S*H, carrying the survivors to ambulances and the medical center? About how the operation, which also included the Coast Guard, regular military units, and local first responders, continued for more than a week?
Me neither. Except that it did happen, and got at best an occasional, parenthetical mention in the national media. The National Guard had its headquarters for Katrina, not just a few peacekeeping troops, in what the media portrayed as the pit of Hell. Hell was one of the safest places to be in New Orleans, smelly as it was. The situation was always under control, not surprisingly because the people in control were always there.
From the Dome, the Louisiana Guard's main command ran at least 2,500 troops who rode out the storm inside the city, a dozen emergency shelters, 200-plus boats, dozens of high-water vehicles, 150 helicopters, and a triage and medical center that handled up to 5,000 patients (and delivered 7 babies). The Guard command headquarters also coordinated efforts of the police, firefighters and scores of volunteers after the storm knocked out local radio, as well as other regular military and other state Guard units.
Jack Harrison, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau in Arlington, Virginia, cited "10,244 sorties flown, 88,181 passengers moved, 18,834 cargo tons hauled, 17,411 saves" by air. Unlike the politicians, they had a working chain of command that commandeered more relief aid from other Guard units outside the state. From day one.
There were problems, true: FEMA melted down. Political leaders, from the Mayor to Governor to the White House, showed "A Failure of Initiative", as a recent House report put it. That report, along with sharply critical studies by the White House and the Senate, delve into the myriad of breakdowns, shortages and miscommunications that hampered relief efforts.
Still, by focusing on the part of the glass that was half-empty, the national media imposed a near total blackout on the nerve center of what may have been the largest, most successful aerial search and rescue operation in history.
"The Coast Guard, the National Guard, the military in general performed heroically," said Sen. Robert Barham, R-Oak Ridge, who monitored the Superdome operation from Baton Rouge as head of the Louisiana State Senate's Homeland Security Committee. His opposite number in the Louisiana House, Rep. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, said, "They (the Guard) did a yeoman's job." Both said they were getting very different pictures from TV than they got from the Guardsmen at the Dome, and the state fish and wildlife department, another key player in the rescue operation.
"TV of the Superdome was perplexing to most folks," Thompson said. "You had them playing the tapes of the same incidents over and over, it tends to bias your thinking some, you tend to think it's worse than it really is." Official estimates at this point suggest the Guard, working from the Dome, saved 17,000 by air and uncounted thousands more by boat.
Let's try that again: The cavalry wasn't late. It didn't arrive on Thursday smoking a cigar and cussing. It was there all along.
The National Guard's response to Katrina was even more robust than I suspected in my reporting for RealClearPolitics in September, and in more detail for National Review, where I revealed for the first time that rescue operations saved up to 50,000 lives, with perhaps an equal number making their way to shelters on their own.
Fifty thousand New Orleans residents were in danger of death from drowning, heatstroke, dehydration and disease. That was a tough one to get through the media reality-distortion field, but the numbers have since been confirmed by Congress, the White House, Louisiana state officials and the relevant agencies themselves. If anything, I understated the size of the rescue effort. What I didn't understand was the critical role the Superdome headquarters played.
I initially heard about the Dome headquarters from Maj. John T. Dressler, who serves with the National Guard Bureau in Washington D.C, an organization that coordinates efforts of State Guard units which serve under their respective governors. Dressler was present in the command tent there and pulled together after-action reports for the Guard as a whole from its fifty-plus individual state commands. His account was so far at variance with the picture the media portrayed that I suspected a hoax, as did my RCP editor. As it turns out, various Guard documents, personal memories, and sworn testimony support his story, which in Louisiana is no great secret. It's just the rest of the country that's been kept in the dark.
This is how it happened:
As has been reported, when the Superdome was established as a shelter of last resort on the weekend before Katrina hit, the Louisiana National Guard sent several hundred soldiers there who were trained in policing and crowd control. They also, as rarely noted, stocked huge quantities of combat rations, also known as Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), and water, both of which were never in short supply, according to Maj. Ed Bush, who was inside the Dome the whole time.
Dressler said that about 2,000 other troops, MREs and water were stationed at armories and schools around the city, mini-versions of what the Guard had set up in the Dome. They had about 50 high-water vehicles available, and two dozen boats. Some satellite sites and equipment would later be put out of business by flooding. Elsewhere in the state and around the country, another 6,000 troops were standing by.
As these preparations were underway, National Guard helicopters dispersed out of state away from the storm, which was standard operating procedure. Like the Coast Guard (also running by a detailed playbook), they later circled south behind Katrina and followed the storm into the city. Thus there were up to 64 National Guard helicopters that began rescue operations, as well as critical reconnaissance that revealed more details of the breached levees, arriving Monday afternoon and into the evening. Because of high winds, it literally was impossible for help to arrive any sooner.
The main operations headquarters for the National Guard was at the Jackson Barracks in the hard-hit Ninth Ward, which began flooding after nearby levees breached early Monday, a critical fact that wasn't clear at many levels of government until the next day. In one of those ironies of military operations, this crisis may have ended up saving lives. Most of the staff was local, with three liaison officers from the National Guard Bureau in Washington. Long before they had aerial recon, Guard commanders knew by 9:00am that their city was in deep trouble, with water about 20 feet deep around the barracks. (This was about the time that TV anchors were reporting the city had "dodged a bullet".)
They contacted the National Guard Bureau in Washington via satellite phone for more help. That led officials at the national level to call a noon teleconference among all 52 state guard commanders, who got a laundry list of what the locals needed. The result was that more helicopter search and rescue teams began arriving late Monday from as far away as Wisconsin, close behind the original batch, mostly local, that tracked the storm in.
The procedure ran under a system known as EMACs (Emergency Management Assistance Compacts), a mutual aid pact among states. The conference call became a daily routine that was New Orleans' primary lifeline to outside aid. It bypassed local officials and the fouled-up federal chain of command that led to much publicized infighting among the Governor, FEMA and the White House. According to the Senate Select Committee on Katrina, "This process quickly resulted in the largest National Guard deployment in U.S. history, with 50,000 troops and supporting equipment arriving from 49 states and four territories within two weeks. These forces participated in every aspect of emergency response, from medical care to law enforcement and debris removal..." the report said. All from the Superdome.
Meanwhile, late Monday, Louisiana National Guard HQ moved its high tech "unified command suite" and tents to the upper parking deck of the Superdome. This degraded communications for about four hours but ultimately gave them satellite dishes for phone and Internet connections to the outside world, Wi-fi, plus radios that were the only talk of the town. Helicopters and boats, as we noted, were already bringing in survivors there. About fifty men and women, black and white, worked per shift, equipped with maps, laptops, phone and radios to coordinate the rescue operation. The rescuers called it the "eagles' nest".
The operation was impossible to hide or ignore and some news outlets may have mentioned it in passing. Still, I haven't seen anything reported that sounded like what the two Majors described Tuesday morning: helicopters landing every minute; big ones, like the National Guard Chinooks, literally shaking the decking of the rooftop parking lot; little ones like the ubiquitous Coast Guard Dolphins; Black Hawks everywhere, many with their regular seats torn out so they could accommodate more passengers, standing. Private air ambulance services evacuating patients from flood-threatened hospitals. Owners of private helicopters who showed up to volunteer, and were sent on their way with impromptu briefings on basic rescue needs. Overhead, helicopters stacked in a holding pattern.
By the end of the week 150 National Guard aircraft were operating, plus regular military and Coast Guard units who also dropped off survivors. The biggest problem rescuers faced, according to crew members I've interviewed, was the danger of aerial collisions.
This is at the Superdome, remember, supposedly Ground Zero for bad behavior and the scene of massive governmental incompetence.
Also hard to ignore at the Dome was another big operation: support for local first responders. This effort included many of the black local heroes among the police and firefighting squads, despite misleading media reports leaving the impression they had either fled the city or walked off the job. The majority of local police and firefighters were available, though their communications system had been wiped out. They quickly hooked up with pre-positioned Guard units, as well as an army of volunteers in everything from flatboats to airboats. "We were just handing out radios to anyone who wanted one," Dressler said.
The distribution of extra National Guard radios also helps explain why deaths were much lower than the 10,000 anticipated, even though the city's emergency services comm network had been knocked out. National Guard communications, limited by range, were far from perfect, but better than nothing. In some cases, Dressler said, helicopter crews called for firemen equipped with axes and power saws, picking them up and dropping them on the roofs of submerged buildings to pry survivors from attics. Conversely, when boat crews picked up survivors who were near death from dehydration, they could call in helicopters for quick evacuation.
In military jargon, the radios were a "force multiplier," as was aerial recon. The latter enabled police and fire rescues to be prioritized for the most desperate. Dressler said the Guard was controlling more than 200 boats, most of which were run by mixed crews of Guardsmen, police, firefighters, volunteers and officers of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Later in the week, when reports of rioting and looting broke out, the Guard set up a special transportation unit of high water vehicles to whisk police and sheriffs' teams to trouble spots. Thousands of survivors came to the Dome by boat, thanks to police and firefighters and the rest of the rescue flotilla. Between the radios and first-hand reports from pilots and boat crews coming in, the comm center at the Dome had a good feel for what was going on in their city - something the media utterly lacked.
Besides rescuers and local first responders, another big story at the Dome was the medical center. Like a Chinook helicopter landing on your roof, that sure was hard to miss. Fifteen doctors and a total of 65 medical personnel set up at the New Orleans Arena, within spitting distance of the Dome. It was primarily for survivors brought in by air and boat, but also for people in the Superdome with medical problems. There was never any shortage of medical care, Dressler and Bush both said.
The Arena medical center cycled through triage and treatment of up to 5,000 injured or sick victims, Dressler said. Those in the worst shape were evacuated to the New Orleans airport and out of the region, those in good shape hydrated and sent to the Superdome. The success of the makeshift medical center was such that there were just six deaths at the entire Superdome complex: four of natural causes, one drug overdose, and one suicide during the week of supposedly rampant anarchy and death.
Triage (there was another medical facility at the airport) may have been the most critical element in limiting deaths once the levees broke and the city flooded. Rescue operations were brisk, but survivors of that kind of trauma aren't always coherent or aware of their own life-threatening injuries, particularly dehydration. Absent care, hundreds if not thousands could have died even after they were rescued and brought to the Dome.
Most of the national media also neglected to mention the seven babies that National Guard physicians delivered, something Maj. Ed Bush said he pointed out repeatedly. Overall, the false claims of up to 200 dead at the Dome, including murder victims, had clueless FEMA officials showing up at the end of the week with a refrigerated 18-wheeler to claim the stacks of bodies.
In all this time, Dressler said, "We didn't see a single camera crew or reporter on the scene. Maybe someone was there with a cell phone or a digital camera but I didn't see anyone." This was in the headquarters area. Maj. Ed Bush, meanwhile, did start seeing reporters on Tuesday and Wednesday, but inside the Dome, most were interested in confirming the stacks of bodies in the freezers, interviews with rape victims, he said, and other mayhem that never happened. He pitched the rescue angle and no one was interested. A few reporters and film crews did hitch rides on helicopters, came back, and produced stories of people stuck on rooftops, not stories about rescues, he said.
Neither Maj. Bush nor Dressler saw TV until the end of the week. They were aghast. Apart from sporadic mentions, the most significant note taken of this gigantic operation was widespread reporting of the rumor that a sniper had fired on a helicopter. What were termed evacuations in some cases, rescue operations in others, were said to have been halted as a result. "I never knew how badly we were being killed in the media," Maj. Ed Bush says. In reality, the only shots fired at the Guard were purely metaphorical and originated with the media. Rescues continued 24/7 at a furious pace.
In the end, the media timeline was exactly backwards. The bulk of all rescues took place on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and began tapering off on Thursday, officials say. Their account is buttressed by a Washington Post poll of survivors, which indicates that 75 percent of the survivors who had been trapped and rescued were picked by Thursday, and virtually all were picked up by the end of the week.
In other words, by the time the clichéd "long-awaited help" arrived, in the form of a visually-stimulating cigar being chomped by a cussing Lt. General Russel L. Honore, the worst was over. The majority of trapped survivors were out of the direst straits and awaiting evacuation.
They weren't happy campers. Besides the smelly but safe Superdome, which was not a pleasant place, many had been dropped off on the nearest high ground, primarily Interstate overpasses, in the rush to clear rooftops and attics. There were genuine shortages of food and water at these locations, especially at the Convention Center, another drop-off point. They were stuck, as search and rescue and lifesaving continued.
The biggest story everyone missed was that the guys in charge - and you're entitled to your own political persuasion here - weren't out-of-touch FEMA bureaucrats, or a president somewhere fund-raising, or a paralyzed governor in Baton Rouge, or a mayor hanging out with his crew at a posh hotel a block away.
Except for the Coast Guard's brilliant performance, which saved up to 30,000 lives, most of the rescue operation was run by local National Guard middle management, combat tested in Iraq, accustomed to hardship, and intimately familiar with the city. (In fact, as I previously reported, Guard members rescued other Guard members, who then reported for flight duty.) The junior officers munched the same unappetizing but adequate rations as everyone else at the Dome. They were struggling to catch a few winks when they could in the garage level under the LZ, with concrete chips raining down on them when the Chinooks landed and rattled the decking.
Like everyone except the TV anchors, they squatted to do their business in the nearest stairwell. "You just walked down the steps, and when you hit water, there you were," Major Dressler recalls fondly. "We had a little boy's stairwell, and a little girl's stairwell."
They were, in other words, on the scene, and they knew exactly the grotesqueries in the Dome and in the rest of the city. The priorities were search, rescue and lifesaving, not the comfort level of survivors they rescued who they knew would survive somehow if they sorted out the sick from the healthy. It looked brutal on TV, but it was effective, giving a whole new meaning to that venerable military cliché "quick and dirty."
Someone should have told them that's not how real Americans are supposed to act when they could be on national television. But they weren't watching TV, so they didn't even have a political or PR motive to appear to be doing something. They were too busy.
The true story of the Dome accounts for a lot of what looked liked official incompetence. Some specific examples:
--Why didn't the Guard fly in porta-potties as the crowd at the Dome stewed in its own rich and savory juices? Well, toilets worked through Tuesday afternoon, and by stinky Wednesday, search and rescue missions continued to ramp up and still had the highest conceivable priority. Had helicopters been diverted, people trapped in attics, on rooftops, and in broken-down hospitals would have died. Other apparently brutal behavior, such as ignoring visible corpses scattered around the city, were also seen as a distraction from the main task.
--Many survivors in the Dome complained of food and water shortages, a charge that reverberated through the media echo chamber. According to Maj. Bush, the Guard stuck to strict rationing - one MRE and one liter of water per day, exactly what troops got in combat in Iraq. Because so many victims were being brought in so quickly in an open-ended rescue operation, the Guard wasn't taking any chances of running out of supplies by opening an all-you-can eat buffet. It started out with a 3-day supply for ten thousand people, and ultimately brought in 300,000 MREs and 397,000 liter bottles of water, a 30-day supply for 10,000 people. And as Maj. Bush points out, there wasn't a single death from dehydration - a constant threat to those waiting to be rescued from rooftops and attics in the 100-degree heat and in the steamy atmosphere of the Dome as well.
--Why wasn't the Superdome evacuated sooner? National Guard officials on the scene saw no need for it until Thursday, and they were right. First, all resources at their disposal were, quite correctly, focused on search and rescue and lifesaving, rather than on re-supply and the comfort level of those saved. Had they deployed helicopters for marginal tasks, people still stuck on rooftops or languishing in powerless hospitals would have died. When rescues began to taper off on Thursday, they began to shift resources to evacuation. In other words, they had a plan: rescue, triage, hydrate, evacuate. Not exactly rocket science, but if you leave out the rescue and triage part, as the national media did, the rest makes no sense. The Guard spent the week after Katrina in an exquisite balancing act between the needs of healthy survivors in the Dome, the care of the sick and injured in the Arena, and hauling in the tens of thousands who faced death on rooftops and in attics. Then they could worry about getting the hell out of town.
--Why did the evacuation take so long? The full evacuation proceeded rapidly once it began on Thursday, Maj. Dressler said. Once again, however, the use of the Superdome as a staging area distorted perceptions: Even as the previously rescued were being bused away, more were arriving by helicopter, boat, and under their own power as rescue operations reached a crescendo. The new arrivals delayed the completion of evacuation until well into the weekend.
To be fair to the national media, there were good reasons the rescue angle was grossly underreported. For the first few days, no one was keeping close track of numbers. Nor was there a "center" for the media to cover since most of the reporters were stuck elsewhere, away from the action. The rescuers themselves, which also included the Coast Guard and local first responders, knew they saved a lot of lives, but feared how many thousands, or even ten of thousands, may have been left behind to fill the 25,000 body bags on hand. With Mayor Nagin predicting up to 10,000 dead, no one was in any mood to crow.
It was a week and a half before anyone saw a glimmer of hope. That was when boat crews began a formal, gridded house-by-house search, leading to cautious reports on Sept. 8 that "Katrina death toll could be lower than feared," but no one was ready to say how much lower. By then, however, the view of Katrina as a massive governmental screw-up had been set in concrete, and it wasn't until Oct. 5 that the intense official search for bodies ended, with a toll of 972 in Louisiana, a number that has since crept slowly upward to about 1,300.
And there were screw-ups. The lead-up to Katrina took decades and cut across party lines. More resources could have been put in place in the few days before the hurricane struck. More could have been done to evacuate, particularly for the sick and elderly. But once the levees burst on Monday, it is hard to make a case that many more lives could have been saved - and that's the bottom line in any disaster.
"We had a major city destroyed," said Dr. James Jay Carafano, a Homeland Security expert at the Heritage Foundation. "If it had happened in any other country on the planet, tens of thousands of people would have died."
Carafano also points out that the media's stereotype of victims as poor and black is wrong. The demographics of the dead mostly mirror those of the city, but for one exception: Most who died were elderly. Stats at the Louisiana Department of Public Health show that people 60 and older make up about 15 percent of the city's residents but 74 percent of the known victims. Blacks, according to a lengthy report from Knight-Ridder in December, were slightly under-represented among the dead. The mortalities of Katrina, in other words, were less about race and class and more akin to the official neglect of the most vulnerable during heat waves that killed more than 1,000 elderly in the Midwest in 1995 and nearly 15,000 in France in 2003. Hospitals and nursing homes were particularly hard hit.
The truth about the National Guard's role in Hurricane Katrina is gradually emerging. John Hill, senior Louisiana government reporter for Gannett, put together a huge take on the Louisiana Guard operation in the current issue of Louisiana Life. "While those stories of violence whipped across the nation from a press corps isolated on high ground on Canal Street near the river, the National Guard and state responders set about doing their work," Hill wrote.
Still, the existence of a functioning command center at the Superdome raises almost as many questions as it answers. Mayor Ray Nagin, source of many of the unfounded rumors of widespread civil disorder, was staying at a hotel near the Dome. Why didn't he or his police chief, Eddie Compass, move their command center there, where they could tap into the Guard's awareness of the situation in the city? Why didn't they run aid requests through EMACs? Like Compass' three-day disappearance, this is a genuine mystery.
Governor Kathleen Blanco, meanwhile, had a direct pipeline to the command center and clearly knew what was going on, which might explain why she maintained her authority over the Guard and resisted calls from the President to federalize it. It also explains her apparent callousness to those stuck in the Dome - she knew the real situation was not as bad as the media was reporting. At the very least, she deserves credit for standing up to the national media and following the advice of the junior officers on the scene.
Hill's story also indicates how the politics of Katrina rescues are playing out in Louisiana: Gov. Blanco, facing the voters in 2008, is eagerly, and with justification, claiming some of the credit for the rescue operation. "When all the stories are told," Gov. Blanco is quoted as saying, "the story is going to be that Louisianans were saved by Louisianans." Understandable, but a little bit of a stretch, as it conveniently leaves out the federal contribution, namely the Coast Guard, the regular armed forces and Guard units from other states, as well as the key coordinating role the National Guard Bureau played.
What's more puzzling is why the White House hasn't joined Blanco in trying to rehabilitate its reputation. The handling of Katrina by FEMA is one of the most-cited reasons for the President's low poll numbers. The national Democratic Party, meanwhile, continues to try to hang Katrina around the President's neck. As Adam Nagourney recently wrote in the New York Times, "Democrats are looking to this city as the symbol of an administration that is at once incompetent and heartless."
The president's side isn't a complicated story. He sits atop a huge bureaucratic machine. He's responsible for how the pieces of the pyramid work, not every last detail. "The rescues happened way below the radar screen and that's not bad," Carafano said. "You want this kind of decentralized execution. If we have to sit around for someone in Washington to make a decision, we're all going to die."
FEMA failed miserably. Yet the Coast Guard, a branch of the much-maligned Department of Homeland Security, operated precisely according to plan and saved up to 30,000 lives amid near total destruction. The National Guard Bureau helped run the show. The State Guard and regular military, which owes its extraordinary professionalism to the administration's insistence on training and equipage for service in Iraq, saved tens of thousands more.
That's the real story of Katrina. But the national media isn't about to acknowledge it unless the administration makes its own case, something that, so far at least, it hasn't begun to do.
Email Lou Dolinar at firstname.lastname@example.org.