Katrina prompts a new view for reservist

Federal Workers

September 08, 2006|By Melissa Harris

Editor's Note: Marking the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Workers column starts a three-week series of firsthand accounts from Maryland-based employees who went to Louisiana.

Jon Ayscue, 59, of Baltimore has worked as a Federal Emergency Management Agency reservist for four years. Before joining FEMA, Ayscue worked at the Space Telescope Science Institute at the Johns Hopkins University.

Ayscue served in a variety of posts during his five months in Louisiana, including chief of staff to the federal coordinating officer for the state of Louisiana, the No. 2 FEMA post in the state. Here, he tells his story.

The week that Katrina hit, I received a call asking if I would deploy to Washington for long-term recovery planning. I asked to go to Louisiana instead. I've revisited whether that was a wise decision since then, but I really felt that this was a major disaster, and I wanted to be there.

I reached a holding center in Orlando, Fla., and from there it was almost impossible to get to Louisiana. FEMA's auto-deployment data system had melted down.

When I landed at the Baton Rouge, La., airport on Sept. 6, everywhere you looked it was military. It looked like [it was] right out of M.A.S.H.

At the field office, which was in an old department store, it was chaos, a really high-activity level. Workdays were 12 hours a day, seven days a week and that never changed in Louisiana for the five months I was there.

The disaster victims were properly at the hotels. So we had a base camp set up outside [the field office]. The National Forest Service had set up these big tents. I slept in my office. It was just easier. I worked until 9 or 10, got up at 4:30 and was at the first staff meeting at 6 a.m.

The one thing I noticed about Louisiana, in contrast to earlier disasters, was that you usually go out the first few days and don't quite have things under control. You're not organized. You don't have traction. After a week or so, it's usually clear what the state needs and what the federal government can provide, and things are matched up and the needs get met. In Louisiana, we never got traction. We just never got there. Every day, there was a major issue to solve.

Looking back at my journal, I see here on Sept. 20 that the Defense Logistics Agency, which supplied us with MREs (meals ready-to-eat), cut us off. They had to supply soldiers in Iraq, as well. So that day, we had to find a way to feed 100,000 people. That was just a normal day.

An ongoing problem was finding places for people to live. FEMA isn't allowed to provide permanent housing, only temporary housing, which is usually mobile homes. The trailers started arriving, and we couldn't find sites where the parishes would allow us to set them up. Every day, I was fighting to find a place for five trailers or 10 trailers or 15 trailers.

You know people have said that if Louisiana wasn't a poor state, things would have turned out differently. I'm not sure about that. I'm not sure Baltimore would have been any better prepared.

The big, big problem was always housing people. There are a lot of critics of the cruise ships, but they were a blessing. Emergency responders, government officials, firemen and police officers all lived on cruise ships. I wish we could always have cruise ships.

Everything you take for granted was a problem down there. In the field office, you could forget about telephones. There were no land lines and sporadic cell phone coverage. Cell towers in Baton Rouge were never set up for a huge army of federal employees. So to talk to someone at the field office, an office with more than 3,000 people, we had to go find [that person].

Around Thanksgiving, I asked to go from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. You can't ... verbally [describe] New Orleans, but imagine, if you can, driving through a major American city for six hours and everything you see, no matter which direction you look, has been destroyed. No houses to live in. No stores to go to.

I managed to find a room in an old apartment house near City Park. All along the street were huge piles of debris. There was no regular telephone, but there was electricity and water. One house would look OK; the next house, the roof would be blown off; the next house was flooded. It's just hard to describe. It was a post-apocalyptic society, and I don't believe things are really a lot better there now.

One of the major issues was that it wasn't clear who was in charge. One of the problems with the way FEMA is set up under the Stafford Act is that federal assistance has to be requested by the state. FEMA supports the state. So what do you do when the state doesn't have a plan? When it isn't capable of acting?

Well, I do know what could be done in the future. States could have a better plan in place in the future. Have your deficiencies identified.

I found it all to be very somber. I'm a more somber person now than when I went there. I wasn't visiting a Third World country. I was visiting the United States.

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