Congressional Action: Hurricane Katrina Relief Problems

On October 21, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) shared on the Senate floor a summary of a diary kept by a constituent who observed serious command and control problems during Hurricane Katrina relief operations:

Mr. President, I rise to discuss the situation in Louisiana, particularly New Orleans, as it relates to the Katrina hurricane. I do that because of a very devoted constituent by the name of Craig Van Waardhuizen of 3716 Pearl Lane, Waterloo, IA. We are members of Prairie Lakes Church, Cedar Falls, IA, a Baptist church. He approached me because he had bad experiences in trying to help people in Louisiana at the height of the hurricane and the period of time thereafter.He says things just were not right. That is quite obvious to all of the country. I had a chance to hear it from a person who witnessed it. He kept a diary of his experiences. He is a sincere enough individual to spend time with me, sincere enough individual to put things down in writing, and he is a sincere enough person who would like to have things that happened to him not happen again in a future natural disaster.

So I promised my friend in Waterloo that I would make sure the entire Senate knew of his situation. It will be on record for people to refer to so corrective action can be taken.

I suppose most of this falls in the area of FEMA’s responsibility, but I am not so sure but what some of it doesn’t fall into the area of local responders and to State people as well. But FEMA is the one most referred to. So I am going to spend my time reading word for word from this diary so that people will know the trials and tribulations of one bus driver, trying to help people all the way from Iowa, going to Louisiana to help people there who had problems.

This starts on September 1, which is the Thursday after Katrina hit. I believe Katrina hit either on that Saturday or Sunday, the 27th or 28th of August. Presumably some time after Katrina hit, my constituent friend was desiring to help the people in need there. He was affiliated with a bus company that could provide transportation. This starts on September 1, but presumably on the days of Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday before September 1, he was trying to get involved in helping:

September 1, 2005, Thursday: Another day of searching on the internet and contacting our motorcoach associations has brought no success as we (Northwest Iowa Transportation, Inc.) look for ways to help in New Orleans. We have coaches and drivers available to go help in moving people out of the New Orleans area. However, we do not believe that we should just drive down to New Orleans without any contact. It is discouraging when you want to help and yet can’t find the avenue to help.

September 2, Friday: There is a light in the tunnel. Today we were contacted by Utah Transportation Management to see if we had any coaches and drivers that could go help in evacuation of New Orleans. Finally a way to head to New Orleans and provide the assistance that we have wanted to do since a hurricane hit last Monday. Since this help will fall under FEMA we will be able to use four drivers and two motorcoaches to drive straight through to New Orleans. After finding three other drivers who were willing to help in this effort I head out to New Orleans. We pack extra supplies in the coaches along with water and food for ourselves. We also take along extra paper towels and toilet paper. About 9:00 p.m. we head south from Waterloo-

That is Waterloo, IA– ready to go provide assistance to those in need.

Saturday, September 3: Driving straight through the night and switching off with driving we arrive at the staging area at Le Place, LA. The first thing we notice is the large number of motorcoaches waiting in the staging area and many more like ourselves, just pulling in. Our first order of business was to get in line to refill with fuel. We didn’t stop for fuel on our way as we had been told that FEMA would provide fuel for all motorcoaches when we arrived at Le Place. We are ready to go to work and start moving people. The fuel was brought in by the National Guard and they did all the refueling in Le Place. Finally, it was our turn to get fuel. While fueling, we visited with the other drivers to find out what had been happening. We learned that after fueling you would get in another line and wait for orders. Nobody seemed to know who was in charge of the operation and there was very little communication. Finally a man with an orange vest came and asked us to get in line to go transport people. We lined up with 12 other coaches. Nobody moved until the state patrol was ready to provide escort. At last we have action. We are headed into New Orleans to do what we came down to do, move people. We had traveled about 10 miles when we were pulled onto the shoulder. No reason given for pulling all of us over. We sat and waited on the side of the highway wondering what was going to happen.

After a waiting about 45 minutes we started traveling again, and it was soon apparent that we were headed back to the staging area. This whole operation seems to lack leadership and direction. We arrived back at the staging area at Le Place. Then we were sent down I-10 to the scale house and were staged with about 40 other coaches. Even the State patrol assigned to us didn’t know what was going on. About 10 pm a deputy sheriff patrol showed up with some food for us. They didn’t have any news or information. About 11 pm the State patrol said to stay with the motorcoach as we might be called upon at any time. As drivers we decided to get as much rest as we could while we had the opportunity.

So then presumably they slept the evening. That is a presumption on my part because it goes on now to Sunday, September 4. This is the fourth day of this tribulation.

Last night was a long night with little sleep as it is hard to sleep on the coach. About 4 am a group of school buses arrived from Houston, TX. They had been told to report to this staging area and wait. The morning passed by very slow and we never saw or heard from anybody that knew what was actually happening. This is really amazing as we are all here to work and provide help and we are just sitting along the interstate. At the scale house on the other side of the interstate a unit of federal border patrol agents is also waiting for instructions. They have been waiting since Tuesday for orders.

So that means that they had been waiting for 5 days, the Federal border patrol was waiting — that’s my assumption — waiting for orders. My writer says:

I asked the state patrol to radio to the main staging area where we fueled to see what was going on. The patrol had as many questions as we did. It sure seems like mass confusion and no clear leader. I really wonder who is in charge of this operation. About noon a guy shows up in an orange vest and tells us that we are moving to a new staging area at Lake Charles, LA. Soon the rumor is going around through the drivers that we will be moving people out of temporary shelters to better places. We move to Lake Charles with high hopes that we will finally be moving people. At the edge of Lake Charles we are pulled onto the shoulder of the interstate. With over 60 motorcoaches sitting on the shoulder of a major interstate (I-10), this is an accident waiting to happen. The school buses from Houston are headed back to Houston as they were told there was no work for them. What a waste of resources to have them drive all the way from Houston to New Orleans only to turn around and head back. A highway patrol escort arrives and leads us to a large parking area at the Lake Charles airport. We are all parked in a row with no other instructions. When the last coach is parked a man who tells us he is the dispatcher for this operation arrives and tells us that we are going to regroup.

This man has made arrangements for us to have a hot meal supplied by the Lake Charles Firefighters in the armory at the airport. During this meal he informs us that rooms in a motel have been reserved for us for the night. As we sign up for our rooms we are told to report back tomorrow at 1:30 pm for more instructions. Since the rooms are in Beaumont, TX he arranges to have five motorcoaches to take us as a group. At least we will have a good bed to sleep in tonight and we will be able to take a shower.

Now, Monday September 5.

Continued conversation with other drivers reveals only rumors and no facts. About noon we head back to Lake Charles to report in at this temporary dispatch office at the airport. When we report in, we are told there will be no movement until tomorrow. This is disappointing and hard to understand, especially as we listen to the radio and hear about this huge need to get people moved. Seems to me that there has to be a better way to organize and run this system. Who is in charge and who gives the orders to all of us (drivers)? There is very limited and very poor communication. If I ran operations like this, the company would lose all of its business and drivers. Calling back to the office–

I think he means his own office–

and to any other contact I can come up with doesn’t provide any help. About 2 pm the dispatcher comes around looking for two coaches that have two drivers. We are just what he is looking for and we offer to be of service. He tells us to head to Fort Smith, AR as soon as we can hit the road and to report in at Fort Smith. We head right out and make the trip to Fort Smith. As we are going down the road we find out that a mistake has been made. Instead of Fort Smith at Fort Smith, AR, it is Fort Chaffee. The drive to Fort Smith is a long one, about 500 miles. Upon arrival we are to report to Fort Chaffee for instructions. As we are travelling we begin to notice many other motorcoaches headed the same direction.

September 6, Tuesday.

We arrive ….. and find the directions we were given in Lake Charles to be wrong. Finally, we arrive at Fort Chaffee and enter the base. The guards at the gate are very surprised to see us and they wonder why we are reporting at 2 a.m. The guards give us direction to the area where the people are housed. We get to that area only to find out nobody knows why they sent us to this base. Once again I get on the phone calling the numbers I was given. These calls just get voice mail and nobody ever returns the calls. One of the guards gives me the phone number of the base commander. I give him a call (at 2 a.m.) and have a nice conversation with him. I can see that he has no information to help us out. He suggests getting a motel room and coming back in the morning. There are no motel rooms available and it is now 4 a.m. We decide to head back into Fort Smith to top off the fuel tanks and get a hot breakfast. Looks like we are in a race headed nowhere. At 8 a.m. we report back to the base. We are wondering why we were sent over 500 miles to just sit and wait. The guards at the base are telling us that the people are being moved out to other places to live. Many of the other coaches from Lake Charles are showing up this morning. About 10 a.m. there is movement and they begin to load coaches to move people on. Some guy comes along and tells us to hang in there and we will soon be working. At noon we are moved into position to load people. However, we received no instructions or information as to where we will be going. Even the people we are loading don’t know where they are headed. What a way to treat people who have lost everything they have. Soon we are loaded and waiting to go someplace. A representative of the state of AR comes aboard and wishes the people a good future. At the same time we are told we will be escorted by the state police to Siloam Springs, AR. We are part of a 12 coach move with a highway patrol escort for every three coaches. The drive is supposed to take about 90 minutes. The actual drive took us over three hours as the escort never went faster than 40 mph. All of the people are very thankful for the help in moving them and they are very pleasant considering what they have all been through.

Finally we arrive at Siloam Springs at a church camp. It seems like the whole community is here to welcome the people and help them make a home. It is very heart touching to see all the generous help. We unload and clean our two coaches. Feeling tired and hungry we head back towards Fort Smith. After what happened last night we see no need to arrive at Fort Chaffee in the middle of the night. We find rooms in Fayetteville and shut down for the night. The whole trip is nothing like we had hoped or thought it would be. Maybe we will feel better in the morning.

Morning is September 7, Wednesday. So this would be the seventh–it is my judgment this is the seventh day that my constituents were going through this trial and tribulation.

Our week of service is almost over and we sure haven’t [done] much of any good. We have spent more time driving around empty as they have moved us all over. This morning we went back to Fort Chaffee and waited for new orders. Many other drivers were also waiting to see what we were to do. About noon we get the word that we were to report back to Lake Charles for the next duty. Here we go again on a 500 mile drive with no passengers. Does anybody really know what is going on? As we drive to Lake Charles, we know it will be about 9 p.m. when we arrive. Hopefully somebody will be around to fill us in. No such luck. When we arrive at Lake Charles the parking lot is filled with hundreds of motorcoaches. There are hundreds of coaches and drivers. Many drivers are very upset as they just sit idle. At Lake Charles we are told to report back in the morning and we are also told good luck on finding any lodging. Looks like another night of sleeping in the coach. I make some phone calls and find out there are some rooms at the casino. I call them and ask about rooms and explain what we have been doing. The manager gives us a deal on three rooms for the four of us. At least we will have a bed to sleep in and be able to take a shower in the morning.

September 8.

This will be Thursday.

This is the last day that we can help as we need to return to Iowa tonight. The coaches need to be back to go on charter trips. We will report to the temporary dispatch office early. With hundreds of coaches just parked it doesn’t look good. The dispatcher said there is no work today and the next opportunity might be tomorrow. I ask if there is anybody that needs to move north as we could take people north as we head home. Nothing available today and with all the idle coaches it looks bad for tomorrow. I sign us out and we start back home. I am glad that we came down and tried to help. There is a huge sense of disappointment in the fact that we drove about 3,000 total miles and only hauled 47 people 103 miles. It seems like a huge waste of valuable resources and money. Especially as I look over a parking lot filled with hundreds of motorcoaches.

Somebody made the order to get all these coaches here and now they sit idle. It easy to see why people get frustrated with the system. Along with these coaches sitting idle, many school buses were moved to the area and never used. They were sent back home as they weren’t needed. Today we learned that in the city of New Orleans all of the school buses were left to get caught in the flood. Why weren’t they used before the hurricane and flood to get people moved out of harm’s way in New Orleans. There are a large number of public officials at all levels and the news media pointing fingers trying to put the blame on FEMA when they should look at themselves. Why did the school buses get left and not used? Why didn’t people heed the notice to get out and move to a safer area?

I think the whole process needs to be looked at and evaluated for making improvements. We were not the only ones to wonder what was going on. Almost all the drivers were asking who is in charge and where are the lines of communication. Of all the people who gave us orders, none of them seemed to understand operations and dispatch. From my viewpoint, it appears to me that many of those who were supposed to manage the coaches didn’t have any idea of what to do and just how much help they needed.

September 9.

After driving through the night we arrived back in Iowa. We are tired and ready to be back in our own homes. The hardship we went through was very minor compared to what all the displaced families were going through. As a team, we all agreed that we would go again and we would do whatever we could to provide assistance to people in need. Hopefully, if there is a next time, there will be better organization and all involved parties will work together.

About 10 a.m. I received a call from the dispatcher in Lake Charles saying he had a trip for us. He was looking for us and wondered where we were. This is a good example of poor management as this was the same person I had signed out with yesterday morning in Lake Charles. What a joke and what a lack of management. I just hope that all of the drivers and coach companies didn’t get mad at the system. If they did get upset with the whole system, there might not be enough help the next time.

I would go and help again. It seems like the call to come and help was about two days late. Then when the call went out, too many resources were brought into play and then there was overkill. I do hope to be able to sit down and talk with somebody who evaluates this operation.

Let me say parenthetically that he is going to continue to talk to other people, but he asked me to be part of this communication, to lay out, as he saw it, the problems, in hopes that action will be taken here and at the local responder level and the State level to make sure these things don’t happen again.

I am going to say that sentence again that I just was distracted from.

I do hope to be able to sit down and talk with somebody who evaluates this operation.

Someway, somehow, there has to be a method to get operation managers in the right place to guide a mass movement of people as fast as possible. Maybe when this is all over people will have time to look back and make new plans.

The saddest part of this whole experience was the difference of the news media coverage to the real situation. The devastation was huge. The generous helping spirit of the American people was huge. A large number of resources available and there were people willing to provide assistance. Yet, many of these resources were poorly used as the lines of command and communication were poor. We went down to New Orleans to work hard and help. That goal of providing help was not accomplished in my eyes. Yes, we moved about 94 people on our two coaches. However, we only moved those people 100 miles and we spent the rest of our time driving empty as we were moved from place to place. There needs to be a better system of command and coordination.

I am very thankful for this opportunity to go and help, no matter how small the help seemed to be. The people we moved were very thankful and they greatly appreciated the efforts of many. My heart hurts for those people who have lost everything but their lives. I also know that we had the right kind of intentions as we went to help.

Note: “Congressional Action” is a blog feature highlighting an official activity undertaken by or in Congress, very often chosen at random, to provide an educational snapshot of our Congress at work. Opinions and facts represented in this feature do not necessarily represent the views of Amy Ridenour or The National Center for Public Policy Research, nor is this feature intended to express an opinion on any measure under consideration by the Congress.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.