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When Storm Hit, National Guard Was Deluged Too


When Storm Hit, National Guard Was Deluged Too

Marko Georgiev for The New York TimesA policeman supervised refugees at the New Orleans Convention Center on Sept. 2, four days after Hurricane Katrina hit.

By SCOTT SHANE and THOM SHANKER
Published: September 28, 2005
The morning Hurricane Katrina thundered ashore, Louisiana National Guard commanders thought they were prepared to save their state. But when 15-foot floodwaters swept into their headquarters, cut their communications and disabled their high-water trucks, they had their hands full just saving themselves.

For a crucial 24 hours after landfall on Aug. 29, Guard officers said, they were preoccupied with protecting their nerve center from the waves topping the windows at Jackson Barracks and rescuing soldiers who could not swim. The next morning, they had to evacuate their entire headquarters force of 375 guardsmen by boat and helicopter to the Superdome.

It was an inauspicious start to the National Guard's hurricane response, which fell so short that it has set off a national debate about whether in the future the Pentagon should take charge immediately after catastrophes. President Bush has asked Congress to study the question, and top Defense Department and Guard officials are scheduled to testify on the response before a House panel today.

Other elements of the response to Hurricane Katrina are also coming into question. The New Orleans police chief, Edwin P. Compass III, resigned yesterday after the department announced that 250 police officers - roughly 15 percent of the force - could face discipline for leaving their posts without permission during the storm and its aftermath.

The former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael D. Brown, testified in Congress that he had warned the White House of impending disaster several days before the storm struck. [Page A25.]

In interviews, Guard commanders and state and local officials in Louisiana said the Guard performed well under the circumstances. But they say it was crippled in the early days by a severe shortage of troops that they blame in part on the deployment to Iraq of 3,200 Louisiana guardsmen. While the Pentagon disputes that Iraq was a factor, those on the ground say the war has clearly strained a force intended to be the nation's bulwark against natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

Reinforcements from other states' National Guard units, slowed by the logistics and red tape involved in summoning troops from civilian jobs and moving them thousands of miles, did not arrive in large numbers until the fourth day after the hurricane passed. The coordinating task was so daunting that Louisiana officials turned to the Pentagon to help organize the appeal for help.

At the convention center, 222 soldiers trained in levee repair, not police work, locked themselves into an exhibit hall at the convention center rather than challenge an angry and desperate crowd of more than 10,000 hurricane victims at the center.

The near-total collapse of communications made every task far more difficult, forcing some Guard commanders to use "runners, like in World War I," as one put it. With land lines, cellphones and many satellite phones out of action, the frequencies used by the radios still functioning were often so jammed that they were useless.

"I think the Guard has performed admirably - unbelievably well - based on the conditions that Mother Nature gave us," Col. Glenn Curtis, deputy commander of the state's response to Hurricane Katrina, said in an interview. Disaster experts say that whatever the faults in execution, the 5,700 troops at the disposal of the Louisiana National Guard were far too few.

"What do you expect of 5,700 soldiers when so much of a state is destroyed?" said James Jay Carafano, who studies emergency response at the Heritage Foundation. "If we want the military to close the 72-hour gap in responding to natural disasters, we'll have to come up with a new model."

The eventual military response, which climbed to 35,000 guardsmen and active-duty troops, was widely judged effective. Yet questions about the first few days haunt many Louisiana guard officials: Should commanders have moved their headquarters to higher ground before the storm? Could they have better headed off the lawlessness or built more resilient communications?

And especially, could they have moved more troops faster to New Orleans and other devastated areas?

"I think to a man, we will live with the pain of this experience," said Col. Douglas Mouton, commander of 2,500 Guard engineers. The restoration of order at the convention center, when it came, was "phenomenally quick," Colonel Mouton said. "I think the frustration we all have - the country has - is, why couldn't it have been done a lot quicker?"

It was Colonel Mouton who made the decision not to send his soldiers into the crowd at the convention center. A 41-year-old New Orleans architect whose own house was destroyed by the flood, Colonel Mouton defended that decision but said the scenes of anguish that became an international emblem of American failure were particularly painful for local guardsmen.

"These are fellow New Orleanians who are suffering," he said, "people that I go to Mardi Gras parades with."

When the storm hit, 4,000 Louisiana guardsmen were on duty, including 1,250 in New Orleans and surrounding parishes, Guard officials said. By the next day, all 5,700 available Guard members were dispersed around the state, they said.

The senior commander of National Guard troops at the Pentagon, Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, said the Iraq deployment did not slow the hurricane response. He said that Louisiana Guard troops were "in the water and on the streets throughout the affected areas rescuing people within four hours of Katrina's passing," and that out-of-state troops arrived as soon as they could be mustered.

But state Guard commanders disagreed. "We would have used them if we'd had them," said Lt. Col. Pete Schneider, a spokesman for the Louisiana Guard. "We've always known in the event of a catastrophic storm in New Orleans that we'd use our resources up pretty fast."

There is little disagreement that Guard equipment sent to Iraq, particularly hundreds of high-water trucks, fuel trucks and satellite phones, could have helped speed the response. The chairmen of the Senate National Guard caucus, Christopher S. Bond, Republican of Missouri, and Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, said in a Sept. 13 letter to Mr. Bush that the Guard nationally had only 34 percent of its equipment available for use in the United States.

With about 150 high-water trucks available statewide, Guard commanders placed most of them outside the danger zone at bases more than two hours' drive from New Orleans. They risked parking 20 trucks at the low-lying Jackson Barracks so they could be immediately available.

Even though the National Hurricane Center warned that Hurricane Katrina might be catastrophic, they did not consider setting up headquarters elsewhere. In 10 years with the Guard, said Col. Tom Beron, who oversees most of the Guard's trucks and drivers, he had never seen more than a few inches of water on the grounds and none inside the buildings. But by midmorning on Aug. 29, as the flood approached the second floor of an armory where 35 truck mechanics, many of them unable to swim, had found refuge, Colonel Beron decided they needed to get out of that building.

The trucks were useless. "There's not a truck in the U.S. Army arsenal that could get through that water," Colonel Beron said.

After ferrying the mechanics to the three-story headquarters building in a borrowed fishing boat, guardsmen grabbed civilian neighbors as they floated past.

"It was best to have a rope tied to you, because the water would just carry you away," Colonel Curtis said.

The relocation of the Guard command on Aug. 30 to the Superdome from the flooded barracks assured attention to the huge crowd there. But as word arrived the next evening of the ballooning numbers at the convention center, commanders felt they had no soldiers to spare.

By happenstance, there were guardsmen at the convention center: backhoe operators, truck drivers and mechanics who had chosen a huge exhibit hall to stage their heavy equipment.

Of the 222 there, almost none were trained in police work or riot control. Many did not have weapons, said Colonel Mouton, the engineers' commander. "We didn't expect a martial law situation," he said. "We were building levees."

Thirsty, hungry civilians began banging on the doors. But commanders decided opening them would pose a danger of a stampede.

"We understand we're soldiers," Colonel Mouton said. "But what we had at the convention center was a partially armed group of engineers, ready to operate equipment," - and with enough food and water to anger 20,000 people.

On Sept. 1, he withdrew the engineers to the Superdome.

Aware that the Guard would be stretched thin, state officials had contacted other states two days before the storm hit about sending troops under an agreement called the Emergency Management Assistance Contract. The day the storm hit, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Louisiana asked President Bush for all the help he could provide. After touring New Orleans by helicopter the next day, she asked General Blum, of the National Guard Bureau at the Pentagon, to speed and coordinate aid from other states.

Some states got troops there quickly. Sgt. Lawrence Ouellette, a Rhode Island guardsman who works as a police officer, was in court in Central Falls, R.I., on Aug. 31, when he got the call. Just 24 hours later, he and his fellow soldiers had flown to a base near New Orleans and then flew by helicopter to the Superdome to help.

At least one governor, Bill Richardson of New Mexico, has complained publicly that his early offer of help went unanswered. Officials said New Mexico offered 200 Guard members the day the storm hit, and the troops were packed and ready to move the next day. But no orders were received to move those troops until two days later, Sept. 1, and 400 soldiers finally flew to the hurricane zone on Sept. 2.

At the Pentagon, National Guard officials offered no explanation for the apparent delay. An officer not involved in the specific case said the reasons might include lack of aircraft and housing for the troops or uncertainty about their mission.

In the weeks since the military presence brought order to the Gulf Coast, officials in Washington and statehouses have suggested that the state-controlled National Guard is no match for a disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina. Some have suggested that the military have a domestic force ready for instant deployment, while others say the Pentagon should simply assume responsibility for communications and other support services. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that he expected a debate on the military's role.

"It's up to the country, the government, to think that through and decide how they want to be arranged for a catastrophic event," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

Denise Bottcher, press secretary to Governor Blanco, said state officials supported such a rethinking. "Every piece of emergency preparedness, including the military, should be scrutinized," Ms Bottcher said. "There should be some examination of how we can do this better."

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