Lisa P. Jackson
I was in New Orleans visiting my mother in the days before Hurricane Katrina struck. As the warnings grew more dire, we packed a car and drove out of the city, escaping the destructive force of the storm and the water that flooded the home where I grew up.
While my mother and I escaped to safety, in the aftermath of the storm hundreds of EPA personnel and emergency response volunteers traveled into the area. Their mission was to assess the environmental impact of the event and uncover any immediate health threats. As EPA responders deployed throughout the city, they ended up rescuing more than 800 people.
2010 marks the fifth year since Hurricane Katrina struck, and we have asked some of the responders on the scene in 2005 to tell their stories. Today we are sharing those stories with you, and providing a glimpse into an unprecedented response effort. I invite you to read their accounts below, learn about the events on the ground and in the water five years ago, and share your remembrances.
Boston, MA Regional Office
It’s hard to believe that we now are reflecting on the fifth anniversary of Katrina and the devastation it left. The lessons and experiences of responding in the Hurricane’s aftermath simultaneously feels much more recent and ancient.
All of us – EPA responders and citizens alike – recall images from the terrible flood: displaced families and individuals who symbolized an entire city, and their abandoned homes and businesses. Utter, heartbreaking devastation.
What I recall most strongly at this point, however, is more positive and hopeful. I spent two weeks or so in Louisiana, only a few weeks after the storm had hit. While I wasn’t in the first wave of responders who helped pull victims from the flood waters, I was there pretty early in the response effort. And within just those few weeks, I was incredibly impressed with how EPA staff from all across the country responded.
I remember someone saying while I was there, that there were something like 1,000 EPA employees volunteering at that moment to help the people of New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast cope with the disaster. This amount of people represented a new EPA regional office – and a larger office than any of the existing ten – which had been pulled together in one month’s time. This represented a thousand families across the country where a mom or dad, a son or daughter, a sibling or loved one, had dropped every other important thing in their life, to respond to a call of duty and try to help our fellow American’s cope with a dreadful situation.
The hours were long and exhausting, the comforts nonexistent, the suffering we all witnessed was terribly disturbing. But nonetheless, responding during that emergency was probably the proudest moment I have ever had working at EPA during a 19 year career. It wasn’t about us, and it still isn’t. It’s about pitching in when there is a need and you are able to do something to help.
New York, NY Regional Office
Being a part of EPA’s cleanup efforts in Louisiana reinforced my belief in the strength of the human spirit and our ability to live, fight and even thrive in the face of loss and destruction. In late September 2005 I reported to EPA’s Incident Command Post in Baton Rouge as an Assistant Public Information Officer (PIO). Shortly after arriving I had an opportunity to drive out to Slidell, Louisiana with the outgoing Assistant PIO.
Like many other communities, Slidell was hit hard from flooding. Nothing prepared me for the emotions of what I was about to see and experience. Homes toppled over in canals. Sofas perched in trees 20 feet above us. The inescapable smell of decaying animals. My nature is that I often absorb the feelings of those around me. I remembered feeling sick, overwhelmed and sad after a couple of hours of meeting folks in Slidell and witnessing their loss. I had nothing tangible to give the hurricane victims other than my time helping out with EPA’s household hazardous waste cleanup efforts. The folks in Slidell, and in particular the last resident that I met, reminded me of the value of listening and the importance of being there, the need for humans to feel connected.
A man in his late 60’s stood near his flooded home on a rural road just outside Slidell. It was almost completely destroyed, definitely uninhabitable. We stopped our car, and he invited us to look inside his home and walk around. Flooded and too dangerous to go into, we stood outside, under a tree with that sofa high above our heads. We listened as he told us of his losses and that his wife of 40 years had kidney disease and had to be taken to a hospital in Baton Rouge shortly before Katrina hit. She had only a few months to live he told us. Their home was an anchor to so many of their memories, and now that was pretty much destroyed. My heart was at its lowest as I thought we really had nothing to offer him. We had no check to give him. No promises of getting him into that home any time soon. I remember I felt embarrassed for “wasting his time”. As we said good bye and walked to our car, he yelled out “Thank you for stopping by. Thank you for listening and just letting us know that someone is out there trying to help us!” He had the biggest smile on his face. And that smile, and his words of thanks, gave me such strength and reinvigorated my own determination in the days and weeks that followed. Five years later, recalling that moment, I can see his smile like it was yesterday and it still lifts me.
New York, NY Regional Office
Nothing teaches you more about what EPA does and why we do it than taking part in a response to an emergency. I had the privilege of serving as a public information officer during the response to Hurricane Katrina, a chilling experience that taught me lessons and provided memories still very much alive to this day.
I arrived at the Incident Command Post in Metairie, Louisiana about six weeks after the storm, and will never forget the silent ride from the airport as I looked over the devastation left by the receding waters. While the pictures on TV were shocking, seeing the watermarks well above the doors of home after home with my own eyes was much more compelling and disturbing. The city was deserted and quiet. But the Command Post, in which staff from EPA, the Coast Guard and the state environmental agency were working side by side, was cookin’. It was like a small city, completely organized to cover every needed function, from the operation itself – largely focused at that point on the identification and retrieval of hazardous materials – to the planning and logistics required to manage such a huge operation, to the simple needs of food and shelter for more than 100 people. If you needed bug spray, or a map to provide to a reporter, or an update on the exact number of electronic devices we had collected, there was a place to find it, and find it quickly.
The scope of the operation was simply mind boggling. One image etched in my memory is the sight of thousands of refrigerators lined up in neat rows in a huge field waiting to have their Freon removed so they could be crushed and recycled. It was a giant refrigerator graveyard. As I walked up and down the aisles with reporters in tow, I kept thinking how each refrigerator – a mundane part of daily life – had come from someone’s home that was now destroyed.
Looking back, I sometimes think about the 7:00 am mandatory meeting for the whole team – over a hundred bleary-eyed people, some who had been up half the night planning the next day’s work, getting their marching orders. One of my jobs was to report the results of the previous night’s sports scores, information critical to team morale. We got our assignments, the safety brief, and were sent off for our 12-hour shifts, exhorted by the burly and boisterous state Incident Commander to “Plan your play, and play your plan.” That’s what EPA does, even in the toughest situations, and does it best.
Dallas, TX Regional Office
IMT Safety Officer and Enforcement Officer in the Compliance Assurance and Enforcement Division
In early October, 2005, I was driving through the Ninth Ward on the way to do an inspection, and came upon two women in the front yard of the remains of a house knocked down by the floodwater. They looked haggard and exhausted. I stopped and asked them if they had food and water. They told me they had just come back to their home from Baton Rouge, where they went to escape the disaster. They were an elderly mother and her young granddaughter, sifting through the remains of their lives. looking for whatever they could find. “We were both born and raised in this house” the grandmother said. “Now it’s all gone. But at least we have food and water for today. We’ll be all right. Thanks for asking.” I drove on, knowing I would forever remember their tired faces as they searched for future meaning in the disaster of the past.
The storm surge from Hurricane Rita had lifted the house of an elderly couple off its foundation and set it back several feet, resulting in a demolition order. Rural, somewhat isolated, the Calcasieu Parrish agricultural area south of Lake Charles had been ruined for years by the salty water that flooded the rice fields to a depth of nearly thirty feet. It was February, 2006, and as I stood in their front yard, observing the demolition of the more than fifty year old house, I watched tears form in the eyes of the couple, standing a few feet away, as they watched their home since the 1950s’ being torn apart like it was garbage. I walked up to them and asked if I could get them a cup of coffee or something. “Oh, we’ll be alright”. the wife said. “We built this house in 1952, and we’ve been raising rice and beef cattle here ever since, and it’s just a little hard to say good-bye.” “Our neighbor had it pretty hard though.” said the husband. “How so?” I asked. “Well” said the husband, “as the flood water began to rise to a foot high in his house, he finally decided he had better get out, so he got in his brand new pickup and headed down the road. He made it as far as our old oak tree, here in the front yard..” The husband pointed to a gnarled old tree in the southwest corner of their property, near the two lane blacktop farm road. “The force of the incoming floodwater shoved his pickup off the road and into the tree, where it lodged. He climbed out of the truck into the tree, and kept climbing as the water rose higher and higher. He spent more than forty eight hours in the top of that old tree, kicking back snakes and ‘gators, till the Coast Guard came by in a boat and got him out. He still doesn’t know where his truck ended up, but he’s alive. We left before the surge came in. We’ve got our pickup and clothes, and each other. We don’t really need nothin’ else.”
Office of External Affairs and Environmental Education
In my 17 years at EPA, leading the Web response to Hurricane Katrina was one of my proudest, most meaningful experiences. I wasn’t on the front lines, but coordinating online communications across several offices required quick thinking and long hours under intense pressure. And let me tell you, we’re all lucky to have my colleagues who work in the headquarters Emergency Operations Center.
Our Web effort actually started a few days before landfall. I was at a picnic over the weekend and my boss called. Thirty minutes later, I was downtown, prepping materials and planning the opening days of Web development. One of the first pieces we published helped drinking water companies prepare.
I had two young daughters then, and they missed having Daddy to play with while I worked long hours. But we discussed how our family could help people hurt by the storm. My girls didn’t have money to donate, and they couldn’t physically go clean up. But what they could do was to let me work the hours I needed to work. It was a small sacrifice compared to what people lost, but I was proud to have passed on my dedication to public service. When people ask me why I work in government, I respond that I have the privilege of serving people as we did after Katrina.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.