HOST: Welcome to Diving Deeper, I’m your host, Ashley Braun. Today, we’re looking back at one of the most tragic and memorable natural disasters in U.S. history: Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana on August 29, 2005, bringing winds of 140 miles per hour and storm waters that left more than 80 percent of New Orleans flooded in the days that followed. Tragically, more than 1,800 people lost their lives and damages across the Gulf Coast topped $108 billion. Less than a month later, Hurricane Rita battered the Gulf Coast on September 24.
Ten years after the fact, we’re speaking with two pollution responders from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration who were working in Louisiana in the wake of these destructive storms. First, we’re speaking by phone with Charlie Henry, who at the time was NOAA’s primary scientific advisor to the Coast Guard in New Orleans and who today serves as Director for NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Disaster Response Center in Mobile, Alabama.
Hi, Charlie, thanks for joining us by phone today.
CHARLIE HENRY: Glad to be here.
HOST: Now, Charlie, what exactly was your role during the response to Hurricane Katrina and later to Hurricane Rita?
CHARLIE HENRY: My role in the region as the NOAA science support coordinator is to basically serve as a consultant or technical expert to the lead federal agency during emergencies. Most often that’s working with the Coast Guard on oil and chemical spills, but it extends to all hazards, including hurricanes.
HOST: So what does your job look like during a hurricane?
CHARLIE HENRY: Well, one thing that’s different is that during a hurricane one of the first things that we’re concerned about is protection of life, and that was no different on Hurricane Katrina. Katrina was a devastating storm that impacted much of the infrastructure across the northern Gulf of Mexico. After the storm passed, my initial role was link up with the U.S. Coast Guard and say “how can I help?” And then we got to work.
HOST: Could you give an example of how you accomplished that during this response?
CHARLIE HENRY: Well, one of the things to think about is that New Orleans is, in many parts of New Orleans, is actually below sea level. And so they depend on a levee system as a set of barriers to keep water out, and those barriers at least two locations were damaged and water got in. And so the end result was that those same levees that were designed to protect water from getting in now were actually creating barriers that were holding the water in, and they were also creating barriers that really restricted our access into the city.
One of the first jobs was to try to secure some satellite imagery so that we could create new maps because road maps and all the maps we had before were not of any value because of the significant flooding. Essentially we took those images, which now showed where the roads were flooded, and we showed where we could get access points, where we could have points where we could move people to, once we rescued them from their roofs and out of the water. And to kind of operate more effectively because now we had a better idea of the environment we were operating in, where initially we didn’t. It was pretty much water everywhere and no roads were accessible.
HOST: And was this primarily in the first few days after the storm?
CHARLIE HENRY: That continued for probably the first four or five days. The real focus of the response was search and rescue activities. And then the response kind of transitioned to some of the hazards associated with chemical spills that were imminent threats to the public, as well as oil spills that were also threats to the public. Some of the oil spills were actually impacting people’s homes because they were from tanks that because of the flooding and the water were actually entering parts of the city.
HOST: Charlie, do you know how many oil and chemical spills you trying to deal with simultaneously?
CHARLIE HENRY: I do know that we started mapping them, and we went through a very detailed process of collecting data that came in from reports, and also verifying those and mapping those. We were working over 120 significant spills by the first week.
HOST: And what was that like trying to take on so many spills at the same time?
CHARLIE HENRY: Well, you can kind of put it into perspective that access to these areas was very difficult. Many of the areas that we had to go to even assess the problem were accessible only by helicopter.
HOST: And how did working on the response to these disasters affect you personally?
CHARLIE HENRY: Well, Louisiana is my home. I’m born and raised in Louisiana. My office was in New Orleans, Louisiana. Even though I lived north of New Orleans, my house was not impacted, my family was not impacted to the same degree, many of my friends were in the zones that were flooded and had to evacuate with their families on that weekend.
So, it was very personal to me in that it was people and places that I knew. And I knew that people were dying. I think we knew that very well early on. It was not just the impact from the initial hurricane impact, but as the floodwaters were rising in New Orleans, we knew that people were being trapped in their houses, being trapped in their attics, and they were actually dying. And that made it very personal because you couldn’t feel like you even could relax. You just had to keep working because you knew that there was still work that had to be done.
And everyone was working long hours. No one was taking any breaks. Everyone was giving it everything they had. And from a personal perspective I think the hardest challenge I had early on was every once in a while making myself slow down, get a bite to eat, and try to get some sleep. I do remember on those first three days I slept maybe two or three hours total in the back of a truck because there was so just much work to do. It was nonstop.
But you cannot sustain it that way. You have to be able to balance with your own personal needs for sleep and food with being able to do the job effectively. And so that was the biggest challenge was to find some kind of balance so that you could then be effective and that you weren’t feeling guilty because you weren’t working 24 hours a day.
HOST: Charlie, what do you remember from that first day after Hurricane Katrina had passed?
CHARLIE HENRY: Well, when I woke up that Monday morning, first to drive to the U.S. Coast Guard office and then to the State Emergency Management Center, one of the things I noticed was that every parking lot was totally packed with people. This was the last people that were able to get out of the city before the roads were flooded. And they had really nothing except what was in their cars. And the city of Baton Rouge where I lived looked pretty much like a series of evacuation camps.
You could definitely see what the impact was and how many people were being displaced and it was very...you know it kind of took me by shock. I had never seen that before.
HOST: Then, there was still no way for most people to get into or out of New Orleans at that point?
CHARLIE HENRY: All the interstates and highways into New Orleans had been shut down. Even if they hadn’t been shut down, you would not have been able to drive on them because they were flooded. Floodwaters were a barrier that kept you away. And actually those same floodwaters also isolated and kept many of the people who wanted to leave at the last minute from New Orleans from leaving New Orleans. They could not get out. The roads were flooded. So they could only hope they could return to their homes or they were stranded on tops of overpasses in their cars.
So it was a very ugly situation, very threatening situation to families that were stranded in the storm in those types of situations. The bottom line was that you knew people were hurting and how do you help them and how do you get more resources there to help them and how do you find ways into the city to help them. Especially finding ways into the city was part of the job that I was working on at the time by creating, you know, maps that showed us access and working with the Coast Guard on where we were going to stage assets and move people to, so.
HOST: Charlie, was there a particular moment when the impacts or scale of these disasters really hit home for you?
CHARLIE HENRY: So we’ve been talking primarily about some of the activities in New Orleans and just south of New Orleans. The impact of Hurricane Katrina was much larger. It impacted…heavily impacted the coastline of Mississippi and into the coastal areas of Alabama. So you had three states that were impacted, several large cities, a huge metropolitan complex—New Orleans—millions of people were displaced.
What made it even worse was that four weeks later we had another hurricane sitting in the Gulf of Mexico now approaching the western part of Louisiana. That hurricane, Hurricane Rita, which was not quite as big as Hurricane Katrina, it was nearly as devastating. And it impacted western Louisiana and eastern Texas.
So five weeks into the response, now we had devastation that goes from eastern Texas all the way through to the western panhandle of Florida. That’s five states that’s involved. Many more millions of people that were impacted from that storm. And at that point then you go, what can you do. You’re already depleted on resources and your problems have grown even larger.
You might be surprised to know that if you looked along the coast of Louisiana, it’s a highly industrialized area, and when that storm occurred, a lot of the materials that were packaged and being ready to be shipped offshore and to be used in offshore oil and gas production, now were distributed and washed all over through the cities and marshes.
In the months that followed, we picked up over 17,000 drums and hazardous material totes just in southeast Louisiana alone. We had over a thousand vessels—from small fishing vessels such as shrimp trawlers to large barges and offshore supply vessels—that were stranded or wrecked or sunk. Each of those were creating issues and they were creating navigational hazards.
HOST: So, Charlie, how did knowing about the human tragedy of these storms affect you as you were trying to do your job?
CHARLIE HENRY: I think it gave me a lot of strength. It gave me a lot of determination. It made me really recognize how fortunate that I am and that my family was fine and that I used as motivation just to do what I could.
You know I wanted to just leave my normal job and actually drive down to the city and be on the boats rescuing people one-on-one, and I tried to do that, but I actually was pretty quickly told that I had better value to the response on helping develop the tactical plans where we could move lots of people into the city and deal with working at the operational planning level. But I actually felt guilty that I couldn’t be more in the front lines and I was working more on the back side of the spill because I felt a need that I had to do something. And that never ended.
When I would go into different neighborhoods and still see the devastation and see the markings on the houses on how many people were...and often the markings on the houses meant how many bodies were removed from those houses, you were continuously reminded what the impact of the storm was…continually reminded of the importance of what we do to try to be better prepared for the next storm so it hurts less and less people are impacted and the environment that we live in recovers more quickly. And that’s really what our goal is.
HOST: Charlie, do you have a memory from this time that stands out the most for you?
CHARLIE HENRY: Early on in the response, when we were still working at the State Emergency Operations Center, they were receiving a lot of phone calls from people in New Orleans that could by chance be able to get a cell phone connection which was very hit or miss and very slow, but people were able to get through periodically.
And there was a young woman that had been manning the phones and I saw here and she was sitting outside leaning against the wall and she was just crying, I mean just bawling crying. And I said, Are you OK? And she said, “I don’t know if, I can’t do this. I’m getting all of these calls about people trapped in their attic and how the water is still rising in their attic and they’re dying in their attic. And there’s nothing I can do.”
And she...really I felt the same way. And we chatted for about two or three minutes and her break was over, she needed to get back into manning the phones and she went back to work. But that was not atypical. Everyone knew how bad it was. And so I always remember that conversation I had with her early on.
And she was a young woman. She was probably was asked to help man the phone banks and she went to work but it was very traumatic I’m sure for her to have to deal with those phone calls.
HOST: Charlie, do you have any advice for our listeners based on your career in emergency response?
CHARLIE HENRY: Take hurricanes seriously and be prepared.
HOST: Well, Charlie, I just want to thank you one more time for sharing your experiences with our listeners.
CHARLIE HENRY: Thank you, Ashley. I’m happy to.
HOST: Next, we’re joined in Seattle, Washington, by Dave Wesley, a pollution responder for NOAA who has been specially trained to identify oil spills from the air. Hi Dave, thanks for joining us today.
DAVE WESLEY: Hi Ashley, thanks for having me.
HOST: Dave, you’re normally based in Seattle, Washington. When did you head down to the Gulf of Mexico for the response to Hurricane Katrina?
DAVE WESLEY: It was about three weeks after Hurricane Katrina came through and roughly a week before [Hurricane] Rita came through. It was late enough after Hurricane Katrina that the Coast Guard had dealt with the big human health and safety issues and had moved on to worrying about pollution response.
HOST: Now what was your role during this response to Hurricane Katrina?
DAVE WESLEY: My role was pretty narrow and specific. One concern the Coast Guard had that, in addition to some local spills that they knew about, was that potentially a whole bunch of oil had gotten washed out into the Gulf with the storm surge of Hurricane Katrina. We knew that there was a lot of pollutant that had been released, but we didn’t know if it was out there and could come back to shore. So there was a concern that there was a massive oil spill out there floating around waiting to come and hit the shore. So I was sent out to go reconnoiter and see if we could find any big potential pollution or oil spill that could come in.
HOST: And what did you find?
DAVE WESLEY: We didn’t find anything. There was plenty of pollution that got washed out, but it looks like that it just got washed into the Gulf of Mexico.
HOST: Now, Dave, our colleague Charlie Henry shared that right after Hurricane Katrina hit, the flooding in New Orleans made it difficult for responders to enter the city, but you arrived a few weeks later. So where were you based and what was it like where you stayed?
DAVE WESLEY: So, it was difficult to set up a Command Post near New Orleans, so they set it up near Baton Rouge, which was far enough away that they hadn’t been hit very hard. I flew into New Orleans and it was interesting, even three weeks after the hurricane came through, the airport was still not ready for commercial use really. Very few planes were flying through. It was mostly responders or NGOs that were coming down to do something to help out.
The airport itself, the terminal was in disarray. The men’s bathroom was broken. There was flooding in the bathroom. There was obvious flooding in the terminal itself. There were sections that were closed off because of damage. It was interesting to see that, and it was basically deserted.
HOST: Dave, you were flying over the coast in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina and as I understand it, also after Hurricane Rita. What did it look like and how did it feel to be looking out over the coast after two massive storms?
DAVE WESLEY: Well, it was an interesting experience and opportunity. Most of my time I spent flying in a plane, a small plane, off the coast looking for potential oil that was out in the water. And I didn’t see much out there. I did see some damaged platforms out there, oil platforms. Including one that was listing pretty seriously. It looked like it was about ready to fall over into the water.
But it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to fly in a helicopter and fly down just near shore that I flew down the Mississippi River and during that flight down we passed a whole bunch of small towns and I got to see some of the devastation that the storm surge had caused.
It was really sad and very memorable for me. I saw small town after small town where the only structures that didn’t look damaged were the water towers for the town.
But I had the opportunity to fly with some Coast Guard pilots when I was flying in a helicopter where we flew over a neighborhood that had been flooded pretty heavily, and they told me a story about landing on the roof of the hospital in that neighborhood, which was the only structure that wasn’t completely flooded and evacuating patients off that roof.
HOST: Did you get the chance to go into New Orleans at all while you were down in the Gulf?
DAVE WESLEY: I did. So, the last day of my stay, which was after Hurricane Rita came through, I had some time before I flew out, and I drove down to the French Quarter just to see what it looked like.
I remember driving in and driving down one of the main roads to the French Quarter and there were probably half of the storefronts there were broken windows, just looked wrecked. And I remember thinking, “Uh oh, I’ll probably need to use the restroom before I head back to the airport. I wonder if I can find a place open.”
And I pulled around a corner and drove down one of the main roads where there’s a grass median in the middle of the road and there were hundreds of portapotties lined up, like 30 a block for as far as the eye could see that were obviously set up during the emergency response, for the human health and safety period of the response. And it was crazy to see that many portapotties lined up, with broken down buildings and office fronts on either side of it.
I ended up getting to the French Quarter and it was in pretty rough state. There was debris everywhere and it hadn’t been cleaned up yet, but I found a couple of stores open and talked to some of the locals before I headed to the airport.
Later, I had an opportunity, much later I had an opportunity to go through some of the flooded neighborhoods in New Orleans, and you could see the bathroom ring, the high water mark on the buildings had stained the outside of the buildings, so you could see the water level stain on them. And they were probably around three feet high. And just seeing that...you could look through a neighborhood, where it was a flat, flat neighborhood, and just look building after building after building after building with these three foot high water stains. It was very memorable trying to think of that area being or trying to visualize that area being flooded.
HOST: And you mentioned that you were in the area during the time when Hurricane Rita actually hit. What was that like being down there at that time?
DAVE WESLEY: See, we were evacuated for Hurricane Rita. The entire Incident Command Post run by the Coast Guard evacuated when we heard that Rita was coming, so that was an interesting process too because we had to shut down the response and get everybody out. I think I had a day’s notice where we just had to grab whatever we had, jump in a bus with all the other Coasties [Coast Guard members] and everybody, all the responders, had just got bused over a hundred miles away from Baton Rouge and put up for a night or two in a town and then flown back afterwards and try to start up the response again.
So, it was interesting to be in a bus. I think they requisitioned a bunch of school buses and we just had a convoy of school buses driving us out of the path of Hurricane Rita.
HOST: And how did that affect the response, to have another hurricane come through the same area that was already reeling from this destruction and pollution as well that was released during the storm?
DAVE WESLEY: It was disruptive for our work, but luckily Hurricane Rita didn’t hit nearly as hard as Hurricane Katrina. Since my narrow focus was concerned about oil that had been spilled out into the Gulf and was still waiting to come to shore...probably Hurricane Rita, all that energy from the storm system, would have broken up any spill if there had been out there. So basically the concern that we had that brought me out there dissipated by the time Hurricane Rita came through.
HOST: Dave, could you describe what it was like to do your job in an area hit by not just one but then two massive hurricanes and how was this different than responding to a usual oil spill, if there is such a thing?
DAVE WESLEY: It was definitely a different experience: living out in tents in a field or in a big communal space with a bunch of other responders, it was a different vibe. Usually for us, for oil spill response, we can stay in hotels, we’re in places where their infrastructure hasn’t been damaged, so it’s…even though you’re out working in the field or working in a helicopter, it still seems like you’re in civilization. This was very different. This just had more of a sense of remoteness to it even though you were near a big city.
I remember driving...I had an hour commute to get down to the airport to fly out when I was doing surveillance out over the Gulf, and driving down freeways where they were absolutely deserted, except for every once in a while, occasionally you would get cars driving by with blue flashing lights on. That seemed to be the thing. I don’t know where they got these blue flashing lights, but every car other than mine it seemed like would have these blue flashing lights and they would be driving 90 miles an hour down deserted freeways. So it was an interesting, kind of a surreal experience.
HOST: That certainly sounds like a surreal experience...and one to remember. Well, Dave, thank you for talking with us today.
DAVE WESLEY: Thanks, Ashley. It was a pleasure to be here.
HOST: I want to thank Charlie Henry and Dave Wesley once again for joining us on Diving Deeper and sharing their experiences responding in the aftermath of both Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. And for our listeners, you can find more information on this topic in our show notes. Thanks for tuning in!