Normally Hurricane warnings in the Gulf Country don’t make news here in Australia. This one, on a Tuesday ten years ago, did, as it was rated a Category Five and heading straight for New Orleans. I watched the events unfold with interest, then horror, as the levees broke. The professional fascination lie with the catastrophic loss of one of the US’s larger cities. We had not long finished a catastrophic disasters planning exercise, all this was moot, compared to what we watched. From my diary of Thursday 1st September :
Getting some traction on National Issues, finished a solid paper on the future of the national committee, another piece of work reshaping the way we approach disaster management.
The Scenes from New Orleans are devastating, much worse than feared, breeches in the levee banks, much of the city underwater and no prospect of drainage, the dispossessed and marginalised left behind to fend for themselves-so this is America exposed, the might of America unable to assist its poor, but then again, it never has. The free market, freedom ethos. Very Devastating, dramatic
In the afternoon, a phone call, things turned upside down. I might be going to American as part of the Australian Government Assessment Team
It was on and off about whether I was going or not. Then
About 2.45, Dudley called me into his office. “They want you to go-on Sunday!” Shit Bloody Hell. Then a mad rush, get equipment, VISAs etc
The weekend was a blur, we were renovating, it was fathers day, I needed to prepare, the flight was shifted to Monday, then away early, kissed my sleeping girls goodbye.
We had no idea what we were doing. In the long flight over, I wrote in my diary that given the lack of organisation in the trip, there was an air of political expediency about it. We planning to stop in with FEMA in Washington, get credentialed, then head down to New Orleans and work there. That was our naïve thinking.
LA Airport, immigration, official passports and we were heavily grilled. Mate, I felt like saying Australia, you know deputy sheriff according to your President. When I told the officer, my official business was to help out with Katrina, he immediately softened. “Yes, it’s pretty bad down there, I might be deployed myself” He stopped, then said “Thanks for coming to help out”
Washington, descending, listening to Hunters and Collectors Do you See What I see and You am I’s Kick a hole in the sky, we were met by Dave McLean, the Federal Police’s Liaison office in Washington. “Since you guys have been in the air, everything has changed. Government is in lockdown mode. FEMA won’t answer calls, emails, nothing” The events of the SUperdome , Convention Center, and “you’re doin’ a heck of a job, Browny” reared up and stung the government into action.
Awake, early, I went running, around the White House. I felt like I was in a movie, these buildings that were two dimensional, were suddenly three dimensional. At one of the entrances to the White House, I was stopped by a cavalcade, and a particularly threatening policewoman. VP muttered someone next to me. This cavalcade of about 15 cars was one of the more surreal things I have experienced. Particularly, the Secret Service men, hanging out the windows of black vans, high powered weapons trained on people, at one point, on me. Now is not the time to sneeze or lurch unexpectedly. The feeling of paranoia, post 9/11 really oozed through this place.
Next day, we set up at the embassy, in the AFP offices, and Dave McLean and Jane Hardy, the Congressional Counsellor (her job was to observe and assess Congressional Proceedings) doing what they could to facilitate access. A meeting was set up with the State Department, which went nowhere fast. It was fascinating to observe diplomatic niceties, all through gritted teeth, so the language was all polite but pointed, “What exactly do you propose to help us with” . The tone changed when the Deputy Ambassador, Gary Quinlan, arrived for the meeting and pretty much said ”Listen here, my prime minister is meeting your president in New York at the end of next week, you don’t want him mentioning this, do you?” The state department official left with his tail between his legs.
We were sifting through information that we had, watching TV, monitoring websites, trying to get a handle on things and trying to make contact, pressure from Canberra, what’s happening, why aren’t you in FEMA, why aren’t in New Orleans. The days were long, needed to start work at 7, then Canberra would wake up around 5, so the requests would come through around until around midnight.
It was all incredibly frustrating . The diary sums it up in a few words:
Long day, getting frustrated t sitting around waiting.
Little progress, might as well not be here.
A totally unproductive day. Everyone at the Embassy supportive, but we aren’t getting anywhere, we want to be of assistance, not just sitting around.
From what we could interpret from the information available, we decided to offer expertise in Disaster Victim Identification, Disaster Logistics Management, Disaster Recovery Centre management, Public Health and Impact Assessment. In the absence of anything else, we spent time working back through Canberra and EMA to develop capability statements for presentation to the State Department.
Some progress, we were told that our capability statements would be presented to a Taskforce chaired by Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, tasked with assessing offers of support. This felt like progress. All the while, Canberra was pushing us to make contact with FEMA, with anyone. “Go and sell icecreams on the street corner” was one of the frustrated cries from down the line.
In this time, I managed to make contact with my counterpart in Louisiana, the Director of Recovery for the office of Louisiana Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. I told him what we had on offer. He said, great, get em down here. When I told him it had to go through the State Department, he said “Good luck with that”
Being much closer (although still a long way away), we were immersed in the footage. It was interesting to observe, the same footage of the black kids emerging from a shop with electrical goods, over and over again. Footage of whites emerging from shops with food, “survivors”. It was apparent what an uncoordinated mess it was. The embassy staff explained it to us, America is lucky to function. It functions only because it is so big. It is over governed, but they hate government, none of the systems talk to each other, banks, phone companies etc, and each local government is in charge of its own patch.
The week dragged on, we refined our proposals, followed up leads,someone gave us the number of a FEMA official in Colorado, friend of a friend of someone who was at a conference, talk to her, we did, but she was cagey, “I can’t really talk to you, we aren’t allowed to talk to anyone”
I got to know America’s great public broadcasters, PBS and NPR. I eavesdropped on a lot of conversations in the street, ranging from disdain to disbelief.
Following the weekend, we were told our offers were considered by the Secretary of State, but respectfully declined, as the US had plenty of capability in the areas were offering. The diary says it all:
This was disappointing. We came with the intention of helping, with the assumption of being involved, and we felt deflated. It was not as ifwe expected to be parachuting in behind the lines and singlehandedly recovering the US from itself, we we felt as though we would at least be in the middle of things, getting a sense of what was happening on the ground. This left me feeling a bit directionless and unattached- I wasn’t really sure what to do or feel.
A bit of sightseeing, a bit of work, discovering some music, and then we left for home. I emailed the Director of Recovery again to tell him that we weren’t needed and we were heading for home. His response was “A real shame, those guys in Washington have no idea. We need all the help we can get”
It was fabulous to be home, but I spent the next two weeks staring out the window at work. We had another bombing in Bali, and I wrote in my diary:
Hit the wall. The last three weeks have been hardwork. Coming back from the US wasn’t that straightforward. I think the disappointment of the mission to the US pervaded the following two weeks, and then the bombing threw me off balance. I feel at the moment like a planet with a wobble on it’s access.
This feels like a story about nothing, particularly when I talk to colleagues and friends who went to New Orleans. One of the good things that did come out of this was having a lot of time on my hands, I did a lot of thinking, and part of that was inspired by what I saw on TV and listen to the on the radio. And I thought, I lot, we are doing something wrong with our preparedness, and how we support people at the margins, and when my current boss rang me about 12 months later, saying Red Cross wants to get into preparedness, I said “I have an idea” .
Dirty Dozen Brass Band, discovered while I was in Washington. Unclean Waters says it all.