Posted by: njrigg | August 29, 2010

Hurricane Katrina: Death in the Water – Is Anyone Listening?

This article first appeared in Advanced Rescue Technology Magazine in February 2006.  It focuses on the swiftwater rescue mission during Hurricane Katrina – a story that was never well represented in the mainstream media.

In honor of the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, this article is being reprinted in order to salute the dedication and professionalism of the swiftwater and flood rescue teams and other water rescue resources that served during Katrina, including the United States Coast Guard.

Although far too many people lost their lives in Katrina, many more were rescued, and this chapter of swiftwater and flood rescue history deserves to be remembered.

Nancy J. Rigg

August 28, 2010


Is Anyone Listening?

By Nancy J. Rigg

"Welcome to New Orleans" (photo courtesy CA OES)

A typical Atlantic hurricane season features an average of ten named storms, according to the National Hurricane Center, with six of them reaching hurricane strength and two becoming major hurricanes.  In 2004 records were shattered when Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne devastated vast areas in Florida, moved up the East Coast through the Carolinas, and along the Gulf Coast to Alabama, killing more than 100 people.  For the 2004 hurricane season to be overshadowed seems almost unreal, but as National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) administrator, retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr. notes, the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season became “the most devastating hurricane season the country has experienced in modern times.”

2005 was a year of many “firsts,” including the first hurricane season with so many named storms that meteorologists had to dig into the Greek alphabet, with Tropical Storm Zeta becoming the 27th named storm on December 30th, a full month after the traditional end of hurricane season.  It was the first season featuring three Category 5 hurricanes and the first season with four major hurricanes of Category 3 or higher making landfall.

2005 was also the first hurricane season that FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, deployed rapid response swiftwater/flood rescue teams from the State of California to aid in water rescue operations when 80% of the City of New Orleans flooded up to 20-feet deep, leaving thousands of victims floating, clinging to trees, clambering into attics as their homes filled to the eaves, breaking through to their rooftops waiting for help, or drowning while waiting for help that did not come in time.

Although the U.S. Coast Guard and other air rescue assets began making air rescues in New Orleans as soon as it was prudent to do so, as many rescue assets as were available, more were needed.

Hurricane Katrina (photo courtesy NOAA)

Emergency Management Nightmare

Scientists continue to debate whether Katrina was a Category 4 or 3 when it made landfall in Louisiana, but prior to hitting the Gulf Coast, Katrina generated huge ocean swells as a massive Category 5 storm, launching 20-30 foot tidal surge floods that combined with 8-10 inches of rain and walloping winds to obliterate countless communities.  In the aftermath of Katrina, emergency managers, fire-rescue personnel and law enforcement officers found themselves faced with the largest disaster impact zone in modern history.  90,000 square miles of coastland along the Gulf of Mexico, covering an area the size of Great Britain, suffered major infrastructure damage, if not total devastation.

New Orleans under water (photo courtesy OES)

Initially it appeared that New Orleans had survived relatively unscathed after Katrina made landfall on the morning of Monday, August 29th.  According to William Lokey, Chief, Operations Branch, Response Division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), who served as Federal Coordinating Officer (FCO) during Katrina, on Tuesday, August 30th, “We began getting anecdotal information that the levee had broken, then no, it had just overtopped with some local flooding and a lot of people went to bed Monday night thinking we’d dodged the ‘big one.’”

The full magnitude of flooding in New Orleans did not become clear until Wednesday, August 31st.  “Our initial report was that there were some problems, but the Coast Guard had it handled,” Lokey says.  “We didn’t have a full appreciation of how much New Orleans was flooding and how bad it was until Tuesday.  No phone lines worked, no radio towers were up, nobody could communicate with anybody.  The infrastructure was gone.”

FEMA Makes a Bold Decision

For several years there has been an effort to improve the means of coordinating mutual aid resources during major emergencies when local, county/parish and state resources can quickly become overwhelmed.  Before Katrina made landfall FEMA pre-staged urban search and rescue (US&R) teams from Texas, Tennessee, Missouri, Ohio and Indiana in Louisiana and Mississippi, with additional US&R Task Force Teams from Florida, Virginia, and Maryland, as well as medical, military and logistical assets on alert.

In addition to federal assets, the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) facilitates the sharing of mutual aid resources across state lines in times of disaster or emergency.  Over the past few years water rescue assets have been deployed through NEMA’s Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), but in the absence of national swiftwater/flood rescue standards and team typing, past calls for water rescue resources have turned major flood responses into a “you-all come help” scramble, creating serious command and control problems in the flood zone.

OES Swiftwater Rescue - IRBs (photo courtesy of OES)

In an attempt to help ensure that qualified swiftwater/flood rescue assets could be called up through EMAC if flooding were to become an issue, before Katrina made landfall, Lokey provided state officials in Louisiana with information about respected and experienced swiftwater/flood rescue teams, including assets from North Carolina, Maryland, Texas, and California. Unfortunately at the time, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) was not a signatory through EMAC.  Lokey quickly secured permission to deploy California swiftwater/flood rescue teams as federal assets.  He justified this bold action by noting that “people are not dying in collapsed structures or for lack of ‘safe rooms’ in tornadoes.  People are dying in moving water that is generated by hurricanes.”

“It was unprecedented to have eight of our swiftwater/flood rescue teams deployed through FEMA,” Deputy Chief Charles Hurley of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) Fire and Rescue Branch, Special Operations Division notes.  “FEMA does not recognize water rescue as a component of their US&R program at the federal level.  Because of major floods in 1995 and 1997, the State of California recognized that flood and swiftwater rescue is an integral US&R component.  Our US&R teams are, first and foremost, a local asset.  Second, here in California they are also state assets.  And third, they are federal assets.  Because floods are one of the most common disasters that we respond to, as state assets we made the decision to affiliate our water rescue teams with the US&R Task Forces.  California now has ten Type 1 flood and swiftwater rescue teams.”

Launching into the flood zone (photo courtesy of OES)

Hurley explains that only a few states have developed a genuine capability to manage and quickly deploy swiftwater/flood rescue teams statewide, including California, Texas, and North Carolina.  Water rescue experts continue to make a push within the National Urban Search and Rescue Response System to address this issue at the federal level.  “It’s something that the US&R teams have been pushing FEMA on for years,” Hurley says.  “If you review responses historically,” he adds, “the bread and butter operations for FEMA and the US&R program have been hurricanes, not incidents like the World Trade Center, Oklahoma City, or earthquakes.”

Swiftwater rescue teams from Northern California – Sacramento City Fire Department (CA-TF7), Oakland Fire Department (CA-TF4), and Menlo Park Fire Department (CA-TF3) –and Southern California – Los Angeles City Fire Department (CA-TF1), Los Angeles County Fire Department (CA-TF2), Orange County Fire Authority (CA-TF5), Riverside City Fire Department (CA-TF6), and the San Diego City Fire Department including the Lifeguard Division (CA-TF8) – were alerted about a possible deployment before Katrina made landfall, mustered on August 30th and arrived in New Orleans on the 31st. “By 11:00 that morning the three swiftwater/flood rescue teams from Northern California began deploying our boats,” Hurley says.  “By 5:30 PM the balance of the teams had arrived and relieved the first three teams.  From about 11:00 AM until 10:00 PM, the California teams rescued about 500 people.”

In the flood zone (photo courtesy of OES)

Incident Management Muddle

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, the federal government reviewed existing emergency response plans, found them less than adequate and implemented the National Response Plan (NRP) through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  According to DHS documents issued in 2004, “The purpose of the NRP is to establish a comprehensive, national, all-hazards approach to domestic incident management across a spectrum of activities including prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery.”  It is important to note, especially in light of all the finger pointing and condemnation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that “the NRP is built on the template of the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which provides a consistent doctrinal framework for incident management at all jurisdictional levels, regardless of the cause, size, or complexity of the incident.”

OES commanders (photo courtesy OES)

Multi-agency incident command and control begins at the local level and expands as needed.  Theoretically, when every agency involved in a response adheres to standard incident command system (ICS) protocols, “the Plan ensures the seamless integration of the federal government when an incident exceeds local or state capabilities.”  Minimum NIMS compliance nationally was supposed to have been established no later than September 30, 2005, with agencies nationwide meeting full compliance in 2006.

It is difficult to measure the skill levels that pre-existed Hurricane Katrina’s arrival in Louisiana, but numerous reports from the field indicate less than fluid ICS or NIMS capability at local, parish, and state levels.  Without the solid foundation that NIMS provides, major disasters like Katrina can quickly deviate from the envisioned “seamless response” noted in the NRP to a flimsy house of cards that collapses from the bottom up.

“It is critical to have a common operating system,” says Lt. James “JP” Troy, swiftwater rescue team manager for Oakland’s US&R Task Force (CA-TF4).  “With all the incidents we respond to on a regular basis in California, from wildland fires to floods to other large events, we’re adept at using ICS.  We fall right into the system and know how it works.  But when you’re coming into other areas of the country like Louisiana, and New Orleans in particular, they’re not quite as adept.  Being in the middle of a major disaster is not the time to be teaching the system.”

According to William Lokey, “One of the lessons learned over and over again is that people need to be up to speed with ICS.  Just taking ICS 100, 200, or 300 on the FEMA web page doesn’t cut it.”  Efforts were made to establish a unified command center functioning within standard incident command, but Lokey admits, “It was so big, so confused, and so Raggedy Andy, it wasn’t very good.”

Swiftwater Rescue teams being inserted into the flood zone (photo courtesy OES)

Menlo Park Fire District Division Chief Special Operations Harold Schapelhouman, who serves as CA-TF3 Program Manager and oversees the agency’s water rescue resources, notes that incident management problems reach beyond a simple understanding of ICS and NIMS.  “Nationally,” Schapelhouman explains, “we have a lot of swiftwater rescue personnel trained at the operations level, but what we don’t have is enough people who understand water rescue at the management level.  This is a hole in the system.  Although the management capability is evolving, unfortunately, many people who understand search and rescue, including US&R, simply don’t understand the series of moves that you need to make in a water rescue environment and how to prioritize where you need to put your assets.  Swiftwater and flood rescue teams are ‘special forces’ units, with a clearly defined focus and capability.  They could have been used more effectively.”

Schapelhouman recalls having the swiftwater teams lodged in a convoy over four miles long leading into the flood zone.  “Management didn’t understand the light, fast, mobile capability of the swiftwater teams,” he says.  “We were stuck behind the Type 1 US&R teams that couldn’t get their busses across the water, which was a big mess.  It was like putting Special Forces behind the Army.  That’s not what you want to do.  You put those guys out front and let them do what they do best.”

Control of the Flood Zone

OES swiftwater rescue teams heading to the flood zone (photo courtesy OES)

With live television news covering the unfolding misery in New Orleans, an armada of self-deployed volunteers joined with various public safety agencies to ferry willing survivors and animals out of the flood zone.  Unfortunately, boats were also commandeered for less noble purposes by looters and others taking advantage of the situation.  Charles Hurley notes that command and control on the water was a challenge.  “There were myriad assets with boats from the Coast Guard to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, with folks who were experienced boat operators, to volunteers helping people out,” Hurley says.  “We had citizens showing up with everything from $30-50,000 bass boats to dilapidated, beat up old aluminum boats, with no life vests, no personal protective equipment or anything.  They just wanted to drop their boats into the water and go get people.  I applaud the desire to help, but this kind of freelancing makes coordinated search and rescue efforts very chaotic and potentially dangerous.”

Hurley recalls one airboat operator with a penchant for “pulverizing” rescue boat crews with putrid floodwater.  “This ‘volunteer’ would wait until our rescue boats got behind him and then he would throttle up that airboat and send nasty water spewing over our boat crews,” Hurley says.  The volunteer claimed not to be doing this on purpose, but “we watched him wait until the organized boat crews got behind him, throttle up and dust them,” Hurley adds.  The man was arrested by local sheriff’s deputies and removed from the water.

Bringing a young survivor ashore (photo courtesy of OES)

Command and control problems, compounded by major communications problems, affected all levels of the response.  “FEMA is there to support and help with response and recovery efforts,” Hurley says, “but they are not supposed to be the primary emergency response component.”  In the absence of a functioning command and communications structure, members of a FEMA Incident Support Team (IST) stepped up to the plate and everyone worked together to resolve issues in the field.

Security and Safety

Lt. John Greenhalgh serves with the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, Lifeguard Division, and manages CA-TF8’s swiftwater rescue team.  With eleven river rescue lifeguards, a task force leader from the fire department, a communications specialist-paramedic, and a logistics specialist, the 14-member swiftwater rescue team offers a “strong mix” of aquatic and fire-rescue personnel.  Greenhalgh recalls driving towards the flood zone on their first day of operations past the over-crowed Super Dome.  “People were yelling at us saying they needed help,” he says, “but we knew that the people we were being sent out to help needed it even more than they did.  We saw that they had water and MREs.  I’m sure they were uncomfortable, but we were going out to help people who were trapped inside flooded houses.”

On the second day of operations, with anger and lawlessness mounting, security concerns brought rescue missions to a halt.  “When they didn’t let us go out, it was hard, because rescuers want to get out there and get the job done,” Greenhalgh says.

CA-TF!, Los Angeles Fire swiftwater rescue team (photo courtesy of OES)

The majority of California swiftwater rescue personnel come from agencies that serve in large urban areas with varying crime rates.  “At some point you’ve got to take back the dirt,” Harold Schapelhouman says, “but how do you do this in a flood zone?”  Schapelhouman stresses the importance of working closely with local fire-rescue and law enforcement personnel.  “Even if it’s a jurisdiction that doesn’t have water rescue capability and is impacted to the point where their command, control, and operations are completely devastated, like New Orleans was, you still need local personnel to provide a clear reference for the area.”  Schapelhpouman commends a small group of New Orleans firefighters who worked closely with the swiftwater rescue teams throughout the deployment.

Lessons Learned… Again

Tracking Numbers: Currently there is no federal system to accurately track disaster death statistics in a meaningful way, where the presence or lack of technical rescue teams is evaluated.  Nor is there a means to accurately track the number of people who benefit from technical rescue expertise, like swiftwater/flood rescue, where a high skill level is required.

Photo courtesy of OES

The number of rescues being touted varies from 33,000 plus by the Coast Guard alone to joint-agency rescues and evacuations in the thousands.  Without faulting any agency’s desire to shine, Harold Schapelhouman is quick to point out, “It’s important to note that this effort involved many rescue teams and resources working together.  It wasn’t a single agency that pulled this off.  It was a combination of everybody in a variety of disciplines working together.”

Rescue (photo courtesy of OES)

“The US&R and swiftwater rescue teams have been credited with 6,582 saves,” William Lokey says.  “FEMA personnel were on land, in fish and wildlife boats, working with the Coast Guard, working with military helicopters, we had a lot of people down there.”

Media Coverage: Selective media coverage put the federal government in a bad light, without telling the full story.  Coverage of the swiftwater rescue team deployment was spotty at best.  “I’m a little disappointed that the story has not been fully reported,” Lokey muses.  “We pre-staged more assets than ever.  We launched quicker than ever.  We saved more lives than ever.”  By law FEMA is supposed to supplement local response capability, not supplant it.  Unfortunately, the lingering impression in the aftermath of this catastrophic storm is, “Where was FEMA?” Lokey says.

Beyond the public relations issue a serious public safety debate about future operations is unfolding.  “FEMA is being criticized for everything that went wrong, including things outside of their responsibility,” Harold Schapelhouman says,” but nobody’s seeing what went right, including the deployment of swiftwater/flood teams.  The fear for me, as a first responder, is when you have the President of the United States being told that the military can do a ‘better job’ than FEMA, what you’re saying is that master mutual aid, which certainly is not where it needs to be, but continues to improve, can be replaced with something different.  FEMA needs to become more all-risk, more inclusive, and better funded.  We hope that FEMA remains the federal vehicle to coordinate responses and that swiftwater/flood rescue is finally integrated into the system.”

Rescued in New Orleans (photo courtesy of OES)

*  *  *

Photos courtesy of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES

Robert A. Eplett, photographer.

An unknown number of dogs and domestic pets drowned or were abandoned as a result of Hurricane Katrina. We must also remember them and learn...



  1. This is a terrific report that our country needs to hear, because this information is/was not known by society at large after Katrina. It can also serve as motivation for continuing to increase swiftwater rescue capability at local levels, as well as nationally.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: