Timeline to disaster
Salon's hour-by-hour account of the worst natural disaster in U.S. history -- and how our government failed.
On Aug. 23, the National Hurricane Center in Miami discovered a “disturbed” weather pattern forming off the southeastern coast of the Bahamas. Initially the weather system was dubbed a tropical storm, but it was quickly upgraded to a hurricane, one that sucker-punched south Florida. People there barely had enough time to learn its name — Katrina — before it slammed into the coast on Aug. 25, killing 11. “Where did this thing come from?” one incredulous Keys resident asked a local newspaper.
After the hurricane moved past Florida into the Gulf of Mexico, it gathered strength. As officials tracked its direction and assessed its power, they knew that it posed a catastrophic threat to the Gulf Coast and to New Orleans. This situation could not possibly have come as a surprise. Officials had known for years that a major hurricane could devastate the region. Yet both before it made landfall and after it struck, the response at every level, but particularly the federal, was shockingly inadequate.
Over the coming months and weeks, investigations by the media, lawmakers and independent experts will try to discover why the reaction to Katrina went as badly as it did. This timeline does not pretend to provide comprehensive answers. It aims only to lay out some of the crucial decisions and events during the critical time period.
Much about the response to Katrina still remains shrouded in the fog of disaster. But several important themes emerge in this timeline.
Every level of government failed, to one degree or another, in the aftermath of Katrina. But the lion’s share of the blame must go to the highest level, the one that has ultimate responsibility: the federal government. Federal disaster planning was woefully inadequate: Command and control, essential to all disaster response, proved abysmal, and red tape snarled and slowed the response. When Katrina hit, federal officials were unconscionably ignorant of crucial developments, perfunctory and slow in their response, and unable or unwilling to take responsibility and make executive decisions.
On Sunday, Aug. 28, the day before the storm made landfall, Michael Chertoff, the secretary of Homeland Security, and Michael Brown, then the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, were briefed by the Hurricane Center on the possibility that Katrina would overwhelm New Orleans’ levees. Although the levees failed on Monday, Chertoff and Brown did not apparently learn of the disaster until Tuesday. By Wednesday, the storm response had become a televised disaster, yet Chertoff, Brown and Bush did not seem to comprehend how badly the federal government had failed until at least Thursday evening or Friday morning (when Bush’s aides showed him a homemade DVD of disaster footage so that he could understand what had happened).
Kathleen Blanco, Louisiana’s Democratic governor, was also far from blameless. While the federal mistakes seem born out of neglect, failure to plan and outright incompetence, most of Blanco’s errors stem from her apparent inability to understand the technical aspects of managing a disaster — cutting through all the red tape.
But if Blanco failed to cut through red tape, that still leaves the question why the red tape was there in the first place. In a disaster, provision should be made in advance for bypassing the jurisdictional issues and regulations that plagued the response to Katrina. Such planning is ultimately a federal responsibility. The Bush administration in general, and FEMA in particular, simply failed to plan for the chaos that would follow a disaster of this magnitude. That is a fundamental failure of governance, and it is inexcusable.
While officials dithered and squabbled, while they issued increasingly unbelievable promises of aid being on the way, the people of New Orleans were left to suffer and, in many cases, to die. The timeline tells of their desperate straits, and how, under the spotlight of television cameras yet somehow hidden from officials, things went from bad to worse.
Salon produced the following timeline of the events through Tuesday, Sept. 13, focusing on the period between Friday, Aug. 26, and Saturday, Sept. 3, after an extensive (but obviously far from comprehensive) examination of the public record. We looked at news stories, TV interviews, public proclamations and blog posts, and we conducted interviews with the officials involved. We’re especially indebted to the work done by Think Progress, Josh Marshall’s readers, the anonymous hordes who power Wikipedia, and reporters who assembled timelines for newspapers and wire services.
We also welcome input from Salon readers. If you know of incidents — or your own personal stories — that you think ought to be included here, please let us know at email@example.com.
Friday, Aug. 26
11:30 a.m. The National Hurricane Center issues a bulletin announcing that Hurricane Katrina is a Category 2 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale. According to the bulletin, Katrina is “rapidly strengthening” as it moves west and “could become a category three or major hurricane on Saturday.”
5 p.m. Gov. Kathleen Blanco declares a state of emergency for the state of Louisiana, effective until Sunday, Sept. 25. “We are in the strike zone,” she tells CNN.
The governor’s deputy press secretary, Roderick Hawkins, says the declaration “puts us on standby just in case we need to mobilize the National Guard.” The announcement activates the state’s emergency response and recovery program — which supports the evacuation of coastal areas as well as implements the State Special Needs and Sheltering Plan — and launches preparations for providing emergency support services when the storm hits.
Sometime on Friday, there is a discussion among FEMA officials about evacuating people in New Orleans who don’t have cars. “We should be getting buses and getting people out of there,” a FEMA employee named Leo V. Bosner will later tell the New York Times. But the discussions appear to go nowhere. Bosner will say: “We, as staff members at the agency, felt helpless. We knew that major steps needed to be taken fast, but, for whatever reasons, they were not taken.” The question of buses — where they are and who will drive them — will ring out at every level of government over the next few days, with little resolution until late in the week.
Saturday, Aug. 27
5 a.m. The National Hurricane Center announces that Hurricane Katrina has become “a major hurricane,” reaching Category 3 on the Saffir-Simpson scale, with wind speeds of 115 mph. “Some strengthening is forecast in the next 24 hours,” it says. Katrina is moving west, but “a gradual turn toward the west-northwest is expected during the next 24 hours.”
Morning: In his weekly radio address, President Bush talks about Israel, Iraq and the greater Middle East. He does not mention Hurricane Katrina.
St. Charles Parish, to the west of New Orleans, orders a mandatory evacuation, while New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin urges officials in Jefferson Parish, also to the west of New Orleans, to follow the state evacuation plan. Jefferson Parish officials later order a mandatory evacuation for low-lying areas, while Plaquemines Parish issues a call for a full mandatory evacuation.
In a letter, Gov. Blanco asks President Bush to declare a federal state of emergency for Louisiana. The governor writes: “I have determined that this incident is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments, and that supplementary federal assistance is necessary to save lives, protect property, public health, and safety, or to lessen or avert the threat of a disaster.”
Blanco estimates that the federal services — operating emergency shelters, evacuating coastal areas and performing search and rescue missions — will total $9 million. Meanwhile, Gov. Haley Barbour declares a state of emergency for Mississippi.
Bush grants Blanco’s request. The federal emergency declaration authorizes the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate hurricane relief efforts. “Specifically,” the president’s declaration states, “FEMA is authorized to identify, mobilize, and provide at its discretion, equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency. Debris removal and emergency protective measures, including direct federal assistance, will be provided at 75 percent federal funding.”
4 p.m. As part of Louisiana’s evacuation procedure, state police set up “contraflow” on the state’s highways, allowing traffic to move away from New Orleans on both sides of Interstate Highways 55, 59 and 10. The Louisiana National Guard begins pre-positioning equipment, personnel and supplies to areas near the coast, Lt. Col. Pete Schneider tells CNN.
5 p.m. In a joint news conference with Blanco, Mayor Ray Nagin calls for a voluntary evacuation of New Orleans. “This is not a test,” he says. “This is the real deal.”
Nagin says the Superdome will be available beginning Sunday morning as a refuge of last resort for those who can’t get out of the city. He urges residents in low-lying areas of the city, such as Algiers and the 9th Ward, to begin evacuating. He says that he will wait until 30 hours before expected landfall of Katrina to issue an official order, as state guidelines recommend, but “we want you to take this a little more seriously and start moving — right now, as a matter of fact.”
8:30 p.m. Amtrak runs its last train out of New Orleans. The rail line had offered the city the train — which had room for hundreds — to use for evacuating people. But the city did not take Amtrak up on the offer, and the train leaves the station without any passengers.
By Saturday evening the mayor’s legal staff is looking into “whether he can order a mandatory evacuation of the city, a step he’s been hesitant to do because of potential liability on the part of the city for closing hotels and other businesses,” according to the Times-Picayune. The paper also reports that on Saturday night Nagin tells local station WWL-TV, “Come the first break of light in the morning, you may have the first mandatory evacuation of New Orleans.”
Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, calls Mayor Nagin, Gov. Blanco and Gov. Barbour to reiterate the dangers posed by the storm. “I just wanted to be able to go to sleep that night knowing that I did all I could do,” Mayfield says.
Sunday, Aug. 28
1 a.m. The National Hurricane Center announces that Hurricane Katrina has reached Category 4 and continues to move west-northwest, with a gradual turn to the northwest and possible strengthening expected later in the day.
8 a.m. The hurricane center upgrades Katrina to Category 5, the highest possible rating on the Saffir-Simpson scale. Its report concludes: “Katrina is expected to be a devastating Category 4 or 5 at landfall.”
9:30 a.m. New Orleans Mayor Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Blanco hold a press conference to announce the first-ever mandatory evacuation of New Orleans. President Bush called Blanco at about 9 a.m. to discuss preparations for the storm and to encourage an evacuation. “I wish I had better news,” Nagin says, “but we’re facing the storm most of us have feared.”
11 a.m. Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, holds a teleconference with officials at FEMA headquarters. FEMA director Michael Brown and Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff listen in on the briefings, according to the Times-Picayune and the Los Angeles Times. The information provided in the briefing is to be part of FEMA’s daily briefings for President Bush.
Katrina Advisory No. 23, issued at 10 a.m., is the focus of Mayfield’s message to FEMA, according to Frank Lepore, a public affairs officer with the hurricane center. The advisory — titled “Potentially catastrophic Hurricane Katrina, even stronger, headed for Gulf Coast” — says the hurricane, now Category 5, is expected to hit within 24 hours and that “preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion.” The warning includes reports from an Air Force Hurricane Hunter aircraft indicating that maximum sustained winds have reached nearly 175 mph. It predicts that a coastal storm surge of 18 to 22 feet above normal tide levels — “locally as high as 28 feet, along with large and dangerous battering waves” — will occur “near and to the east of where the center makes landfall.”
Mayfield’s briefing to FEMA includes “warnings that Katrina’s storm surge could overtop New Orleans’ levees,” the L.A. Times will report. “We were briefing them way before landfall,” Mayfeld will tell the Times-Picayune. “It’s not like this was a surprise. We had in the advisories that the levee could be topped.” (Katrina Advisory No. 24, issued at 4 p.m. Sunday, mentions that possibility in the paragraph that begins “Coast storm surge flooding…”)
11:31 a.m. President Bush gives a televised address from his estate in Crawford, Texas. The president devotes about one-fourth of the speech to Hurricane Katrina before talking about the Iraqi constitution. Bush says he has spoken with Blanco earlier in the morning, as well as the governors of Alabama, Florida and Mississippi.
Regarding the evacuation, Bush says: “We cannot stress enough the danger this hurricane poses to Gulf Coast communities. I urge all citizens to put their own safety and the safety of their families first by moving to safe ground. Please listen carefully to instructions provided by state and local officials.”
Throughout the day: Because between 35 and 40 percent of Louisiana’s National Guard is on duty in Iraq, Gov. Blanco has fewer than 6,000 troops available for responding to Katrina. Over the weekend, she activates about 3,500 of them; by Monday, about 5,700 are ready.
Realizing that the Louisiana National Guard is thinned by deployments in Iraq, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson offers to send his own state Guard troops, an offer that Blanco accepts. But in order to send the troops, Blanco must issue a formal request to the National Guard Bureau in Washington; according to the Boston Globe, she makes that request on Tuesday. New Mexico’s troops arrive only at the end of the week. It’s unclear why Blanco’s formal request comes so late; state officials will later tell reporters that the governor’s office, overwhelmed in the first days of the storm, had trouble dealing with the legal complexities — red tape — required to bring in a national response. Because of the legal difficulties Blanco encounters in trying to bring in other troops, Guard units from other states just trickle in.
Red tape appears to stand in the way of another critical issue on Sunday: evacuations. The Louisiana National Guard requests 700 buses from FEMA to evacuate people on the coast but receives only 100, again according to the Boston Globe. It’s unclear why FEMA gave the Guard so few buses. A FEMA official later told the New York Times that it didn’t offer Louisiana more buses because the state issued a formal request for buses only on Wednesday. In fact, state officials requested buses all through the week. It’s unclear if they were asking in the right way. The state has not to date returned calls from Salon on this or any other matter.
The Pentagon establishes Joint Task Force Katrina to coordinate the military response to the hurricane. The JTF’s headquarters are in Mississippi, and Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré is put in command.
At around noon, the Regional Transit Authority begins to send buses to 12 locations throughout New Orleans to transport people to the Superdome, one of 10 shelters operating in the city. About 550 members of the Louisiana National Guard provide security and distribute food and water at the Superdome, while the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary makes preparations to assist the Coast Guard in rescue operations once the storm passes.
4:13 p.m. The National Hurricane Center issues a stark warning titled “Extremely dangerous Hurricane Katrina continues to approach the Mississippi River Delta; devastating damage expected.”
The report says: “Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks, perhaps longer. At least one half of well-constructed homes will have roof and wall failure … The majority of industrial buildings will become non-functional. Partial to complete wall and roof failure expected. All wood framed low-rising apartment buildings will be destroyed. Concrete block low-rise apartments will sustain major damage, including some wall and roof failure. High-rise office and apartment buildings will sway dangerously, a few to the point of total collapse. All windows will blow out.
“Airborne debris will be widespread and may include heavy items such as household appliances and even light vehicles. Sport utility vehicles and light trucks will be moved. The blown debris will create additional destruction. Persons, pets and livestock exposed to the winds will face certain death if struck.
“Power outages will last for weeks, as most power poles will be down and transformers destroyed. Water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards.”
6 p.m. As a curfew is imposed on the city of New Orleans, Molly’s at the Market, a French Quarter bar known for ignoring hurricane warnings, closes its doors. “When they close, you know it’s bad,” says Bourbon Street resident Tip Andrews. “They never board up.”
By Sunday night, approximately 25,000 people have gathered at the Superdome. The Louisiana National Guard has stocked the arena with three trucks of water and seven trucks of meals ready to eat, enough for 15,000 people for three days, a Guard spokesman tells the Times-Picaynue.
11:14 p.m. A New Orleans blogger named Kenneth Greelee, watching satellite images of the storm from his evacuation point in Galveston, Texas, writes: “There is a Schrödinger’s Cat quality to watching the spinning red ball: does the New Orleans that I know even exist right now, hours before landfall?”
Monday, Aug. 29
6 a.m. Hurricane Katrina makes landfall at Buras, La., a bayou town 70 miles southeast of New Orleans. The storm, which had previously been heading directly toward New Orleans with wind speeds of 175 mph, appears to have granted the city a last-minute reprieve, relaxing to 145-mph and veering slightly to the east. In photographs, Buras appears to be completely destroyed.
Over the next few hours, strong winds and rain pummel New Orleans, and tidal surges cause flooding in some parts. At 8:14, the National Weather Service issues a warning that a levee along the Industrial Canal — which holds back water from the 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish, on the city’s east — had been breached, and that 8 to 10 feet of flooding is expected. Mayor Nagin tells a local radio station that water is overwhelming the pump and levee system in the city’s 9th Ward, and that some people may be stranded on their rooftops. Two large metal plates fly off the roof of the the Superdome, allowing rainwater to drip in. The Dome, where 25,000 people are holed up, loses electricity at around dawn; it runs on generator power, with lights dimmed and the air conditioning off.
In an interview with CBS’s “Early Show” just as the storm hits, FEMA director Brown says he’s pleased with how city and state officials have prepared for the hurricane, and he promises aid will soon flow into affected areas. “I started jamming up those supply lines as fast and as downward as I could to be ready to respond to anything these governors might need,” Brown says.
Louisiana Gov. Blanco, also on “The Early Show,” sounds satisfied with federal efforts. Bush’s declaration of a federal emergency “allowed FEMA to come in here early,” Blanco says. “We’ve set the stage for a lot of help for evacuation help, and the federal government is standing by. The president called. He was very supportive of our efforts. He was encouraging evacuation. He was very concerned. We appreciate his concern.” In another interview on NBC, Blanco says, “I believe the water has breached the levee system, and is — is coming in,” but does not suggest that New Orleans is facing possible doom. It’s unclear exactly what Blanco knew about the situation with the levees, but levees breaching had long been the nightmare scenario, warned about for many years by experts.
Neither does any federal official, including anyone at FEMA, express any concern about the levees.
9 a.m. Katrina’s eye passes to the east of New Orleans. Wind speeds are estimated at 135 mph, and the storm is heading out of town — toward the Mississippi coast — at a rate of about 15 mph.
In New Orleans, flooding is reported in several places. The Times-Picayune — providing continuous updates on its blog — says that water has risen to over 6 feet in some parts of Orleans and St. Bernard parishes. The city’s telephone and electric grids are failing.
10:15 a.m. Mayor Nagin tells the “Today” show that his city is “still not out of the woods as it relates to that worst-case scenario,” but that overall, “it looks as though everyone is pretty safe here — so just stay tuned to all the news reports and I’m sure that we’re going to get through this OK.” Nagin also says that the city has enough provisions for people to stay in the Superdome for “four to five days. And then if it has to extend beyond that, we’re going to — we’re basically counting on the federal government to supply us with what we need.”
11 a.m. FEMA director Brown arrives in Baton Rouge. It’s around this time — five hours after the storm hits the coast — that Brown sends out his first alert to the Department of Homeland Security requesting extra personnel. The memo, to DHS secretary Michael Chertoff, does not express much urgency: Brown asks for 1,000 DHS staffers to come to disaster areas within two days, and 2,000 within seven days.
Noon: At a town hall meeting at the Pueblo El Mirage RV Resort and Country Club in El Mirage, Ariz., President Bush says: “Our Gulf Coast is getting hit and hit hard. I want the folks there on the Gulf Coast to know that the federal government is prepared to help you when the storm passes. I want to thank the governors of the affected regions for mobilizing assets prior to the arrival of the storm to help citizens avoid this devastating storm … When the storm passes, the federal government has got assets and resources that we’ll be deploying to help you. In the meantime, America will pray — pray for the health and safety of all our citizens.” Bush also mentions that he phoned DHS secretary Chertoff that morning — but the topic wasn’t the hurricane, it was illegal aliens.
The White House declares disaster areas in the affected regions of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. These declarations constitute a legal promise of financial aid to local governments: “For a period of up to 72 hours, Federal funding is available at 100 percent of the total eligible costs for emergency protective measures, including direct Federal assistance,” the White House says.
Meanwhile in Louisiana, it becomes clear to officials in St. Bernard Parish that the breach in the Industrial Canal levee is serious. The area floods almost immediately. Henry Rodriguez, the president of the parish, will later tell NPR, “It came up so fast, in about, I’d say, 30 minutes, we had eight feet of water on our first floor.” On its Web site — in urgent red — the parish reports, “Estimated 40,000 Homes are flooded.”
2 p.m. The city confirms that another levee — this one along the 17th Street Canal, on the northwest side of the city — has failed. There are reports of flooding in the nearby Lakeview neighborhood. It’s unclear when two levees along the London Avenue canal — the final two levees in the city to fail — actually succumb. Al Naomi, who manages New Orleans’ levees for the Army Corps of Engineers, later tells the Times-Picayune that these two also probably fail sometime on Monday morning, meaning that by the time the storm leaves the city, New Orleans’ critical levees have already been breached.
Around 3 p.m. The storm subsides in the city, and it’s difficult for residents, as well as the media, to assess how New Orleans has held up. Damage caused by the high winds — broken windows, downed trees and power lines, overturned cars — is widespread. Yet compared to what some officials and experts had been predicting — “Armageddon,” as one meteorologist had told the New York Times — parts of the city, especially those of most interest to the media, appear to have come through the storm unscathed. The French Quarter, for instance, looks fine. Some people there gather outside bars to take in the breezy, beautiful weather.
But officials monitoring the levees realize that disaster is about to strike. The Army Corp’s Al Naomi calls the state emergency headquarters in Baton Rouge to inform officials of a catastrophic situation in the city. Water from the increasingly large breach in the levee at the 17th Street Canal — it ended up being 200 feet wide — is pouring out, flooding the city center. It is this breach that will inundate the city of New Orleans over the next day, eventually making it part of Lake Pontchartrain. But for reasons that aren’t known, state officials do not heed his warning. Nobody sounds the alarm that the city may soon be flooded. Indeed, Mary Landrieu, Louisiana’s Democratic senator, will later tell Newsweek that the mood in the state’s headquarters wasn’t one of panic. “We were saying, ‘Thank you, God,’ because the experts were telling the governor it could have been even worse.”
Meanwhile, communications failures hamper rescue and relief efforts. Radio channels are overwhelmed, cellphone networks are down, and police, fire and rescue workers are often unable to communicate with each other.
By Monday evening, neither federal nor state officials appear to have registered the scale of the disaster. After a second Medicare speech in California, President Bush makes no public statement on what’s happened in New Orleans. But he talks on the phone with Gov. Blanco, who said, “Mr. President, we need your help. We need everything you’ve got.”
Later, Blanco will be faulted for not specifying what exactly she needs — active-duty troops, who would be under the president’s command, or more National Guard troops, whom she would direct. “She wouldn’t know the 82nd Airborne from the Harlem Boys’ Choir,” Newsweek will quote a state official as saying. Blanco’s vague request will prove to be a key part of a struggle between federal and state officials as the week progresses, one that contributes to the inadequate response.
But if Blanco is vague, Bush is uninterested. Also from Newsweek: “There are a number of steps Bush could have taken, short of a full-scale federal takeover, like ordering the military to take over the pitiful and (by now) largely broken emergency communications system throughout the region. But the president … went to bed.”
On television, Blanco and FEMA director Brown say they’re concerned about flooding, but both seem to be referring to the early flooding in the city’s east, not the flooding of the west and central areas caused by the massive breach in the 17th Street Canal. Brown reports that his aid teams are moving aid into the city, and Blanco tells about Coast Guard rescues of people stranded on rooftops. Neither one discusses looting, which has begun in some parts of the city.
It’s unclear whether either of them knows or understands the disaster posed by the breached levees. Communications on the ground are inadequate and the media was erratic and at times erroneous in its reporting on the levees. On TV, neither mentions that New Orleans — where waters are rising by a foot per hour in some parts — will soon be inundated.
Tuesday, Aug. 30
Early morning: Michael Chertoff, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, will later say that he awakens to relatively positive news from the Gulf. “I remember on Tuesday morning picking up newspapers and I saw headlines, ‘New Orleans Dodged the Bullet.’” It’s only on Tuesday afternoon that Chertoff finally learns that “there was no possibility of plugging the gap [in the levees] and that essentially the lake was going to start to drain into the city.” Other federal officials appear equally clueless about the danger posed by the levees. At a press conference Tuesday in Baton Rouge, Bill Lokey, a FEMA coordinator, says, “I don’t want to alarm everybody that, you know, New Orleans is filling up like a bowl. That’s just not happening.”
In fact, not a single newspaper headline says that New Orleans dodged a bullet, although some did say that New Orleans had avoided taking the brunt of the storm. The Times-Picayune (available only online after the storm knocked out its press) was far from reassuring. Its front page headline — – screams “CATASTROPHIC: LAKEVIEW LEVEE BREACH THREATENS TO INUNDATE CITY.” (Here’s a PDF of the front page).
11 a.m. President Bush commemorates the 60th anniversary of V-J Day with a speech in San Diego. The speech focuses on Iraq; Bush compares his efforts there to FDR’s with the Germans and the Japanese in WWII. Bush mentions the hurricane just once, saying that that federal, state and local officials are working side-by-side to rebuild the damaged areas. He does not indicate that he’s aware of the possibility of catastrophic flooding.
At a press briefing, spokesman Scott McClellan reports that the president has decided to cut short his vacation and leave for Washington on Wednesday in order to monitor federal hurricane relief efforts. McClellan does not suggest that anyone at the White House is aware of the flood problem.
Afternoon: Crime and looting increase in New Orleans. Police officers — who report being completely cut off from their commanders — say they’re powerless to stop the looters, who are stealing food, water and much else. The Times-Picayune, which is forced to evacuate its main city newsroom during the day, spots “one New Orleans cop who loaded a shopping cart with a compact computer and a 27-inch flat screen television.” One store’s entire gun collection is taken. New Orleans City Council president Oliver Thomas worries that the looting will prompt widespread anarchy in the city. “Some people broke into drug stores and stole the drugs off the shelves. It is looting times five. I’m telling you, it’s like Sodom and Gomorrah,” he says. One office is shot in the head by looters; he survives.
It’s unclear how many National Guard units are in the city at this point. Throughout the state, about 6,000 were available for Katrina response. Observers of the anarchy say that there are clearly too few troops.
6:30 p.m. The Army Corps of Engineers’ efforts to fix the city’s breached levees have failed, Mayor Nagin tells a local radio station. At a press conference, he estimates that 80 percent of the city is underwater, and he warns that some areas remaining dry may also soon flood.
Nagin urges people to leave the city, but for many, especially the mostly black residents of the city’s poor neighborhoods, getting out is impossible. Many of these people, thought to number close to 100,000, do not have cars, and no public or emergency transportation is available. Instead, they flee — sometimes trudging through miles of water — to the Superdome, where the population swells to more than 25,000.
The situation at the hot and fetid Superdome is deteriorating rapidly. After a tour there, Gov. Blanco calls conditions “very, very desperate.” The toilets have stopped working, and people are concerned for their safety, as there are some people at the Dome “who do not have any regard for others.” Blanco urges an evacuation of the Dome, but outlines no plans for how or when such an evacuation will occur.
One plan is to move people to Houston’s Astrodome, but officials lack enough buses for the large-scale evacuation. Louisiana officials demand more buses from FEMA; FEMA grants the request. But for reasons that aren’t yet clear, the buses don’t come. “We’d call and say: ‘Where are the buses?’ ” Col. Jeff Smith, of Louisiana’s Homeland Security Department, will tell the Washington Post. “They have a tracking system and they’d say: ‘We sent 349.’ But we didn’t see them.”
To accommodate people escaping their flooded homes and hotel rooms, city officials also open the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and tell residents to collect there for shelter. But there appears to be little awareness among federal and state officials, or the news media, of this plan. No count of the population at the convention center is available, and it’s unclear whether any plans exist to provide food, water, medical attention or buses to the center.
A similar situation exists at an overpass of Interstate 10, where rescue helicopters have been dropping people they’ve collected from rooftops. The official plan for the convention center — whose plan it is to use the place as a designated shelter, and who is responsible for keeping it safe and secure — is, at this point, not known.
On CNN, Nagin says his city is “actively working on a plan to relocate those individuals to a much better facility, but unfortunately in the city of New Orleans, with 80-plus percent of it under water, we don’t have a lot of options locally.” He estimates that people will remain at the Superdome for at least a week. Nagin also says that he wishes that the more than 3,000 Louisiana National Guard troops who are stationed in Iraq were available to help in his city.
Wednesday, Aug. 31
Morning: Gov. Blanco appears on several morning news shows to say that the most pressing matter for New Orleans is to find a way to move 20,000 people from the Superdome out of the city. Conditions at the Superdome have become, by this time, deplorable. The New York Times will report, “By Wednesday the stink was staggering. Heaps of rotting garbage in bulging white plastic bags baked under a blazing Louisiana sun on the main entry plaza, choking new arrivals as they made their way into the stadium after being plucked off rooftops and balconies. The odor billowing from toilets was even fouler. Trash spilled across corridors and aisles, slippery with smelly mud and scraps of food.” The Los Angeles Times will note of conditions there: “At least two people, including a child, have been raped. At least three people have died, including one man who jumped 50 feet to his death, saying he had nothing left to live for.”
Blanco issues an emergency proclamation allowing the state to commandeer school buses to evacuate people (PDF). On CNN, she says state and federal officials are looking into various ways to clear the Dome — the government may use buses, boats or helicopters. Blanco says she does not know where the evacuees will be moved to. One idea is to house people on cruise ships docked around the Gulf. Another is to look for small shelters throughout the region. “This is something we have to work with FEMA on,” she says. “You know, we don’t have any answers right now on what we will do with folks once we stabilize the situation. We’re in a crisis mode. And we simply have to move people and get them to safe ground. I think that’s what we have to do right now.”
The Bush administration dispatches four Navy ships to the Gulf. The ships, which are docked in Virginia, are expected to arrive in the affected region by the weekend. The administration also decides to release oil from the strategic reserve in order to keep down gasoline prices.
On his way back from Crawford, Bush surveys hurricane damage from the window of Air Force One. When he gets back to Washington, Blanco calls him and asks for more help: She wants 40,000 troops. The request sparks a discussion in the administration over the question of federalizing the effort. By law, active-duty troops aren’t allowed to perform domestic law-and-order functions; they can only do so if Blanco signs over control of the effort to the federal government, or if Bush usurps her power by invoking the Insurrection Act.
In Washington, Steven Blum, the chief of the National Guard, looks into ways to bring more Guard into the region. He holds a videoconference with Guard generals across the devastated region, and arranges for 3,000 troops to come into New Orleans over the next 24 hours, according to the Washington Post.
8 a.m. Emergency generators at two New Orleans hospitals — Charity Hospital and University Hospital — run out of fuel. About 350 patients and 1,000 staff and others are holed up in the hospitals; it’s unclear how or when they will leave the city, doctors say.
10 a.m. FEMA and Blanco announce an evacuation plan for New Orleans. People at the Superdome and other shelters in the city will be bused in convoys to Houston’s Astrodome, they say. About 475 buses have been secured for the evacuation. Officials give no indication of when the buses will arrive, but they estimate that the operation will take two days or less.
Midday: Maj. Gen. Don Riley of the Corps of Engineers tells the Times-Picayune that water levels in the city and Lake Pontchartrain have equalized, causing floodwaters to level off in the city. New Orleans has essentially become a part of the lake. Water levels in the city will rise and fall with the tides, he says. The Corps is attempting to fix the 17th Street Canal levee by filling the breach with sandbags, but the Corps does not have enough slings — which hold sandbags in place while they’re being transported by helicopters — to finish the job. At this point, though, the efforts aren’t very urgent; even if the levees are fixed, officials are estimating that it will take months to pump the city free of water.
4:11 p.m. After meeting with members of his Cabinet, President Bush makes his first public statement acknowledging the scale of the disaster. “The vast majority of New Orleans, Louisiana, is under water,” he says. “Tens of thousands of homes and businesses are beyond repair. A lot of the Mississippi Gulf Coast has been completely destroyed. Mobile is flooded. We are dealing with one of the worst natural disasters in our nation’s history.” Bush says that buses are moving in to evacuate people from the Superdome. He spends a great deal of the speech listing resources the federal government has provided, including “400 trucks to move 1,000 truckloads containing 5.4 million meals ready to eat, or MREs, 13.4 million liters of water, 10,400 tarps, 3.4 million pounds of ice, 144 generators, 20 containers of pre-positioned disaster supplies, 135,000 blankets and 11,000 cots.” Bush adds: “And we’re just starting.” It is unclear how many of these provisions are making it into affected areas.
Late afternoon: Mayor Ray Nagin orders 1,500 city policemen — the bulk of the force — to abandon search-and-rescue efforts and instead fight the increasing lawlessness in the city. Looting in the city is widespread. At one Rite-Aid drugstore, a group uses a forklift to break open the place, allowing in “a steady stream of looters, many wheeling shopping carts, to stock up, primarily with food, candy, any soft drink or water or alcohol, and cigarettes,” a Times-Picayune reporter writes. Such incidents are reported all over the city.
The city’s descent into disorder is epitomized by the scene at the convention center, which the news media begins reporting on late in the day. Reporters on scene estimate that more than 3,000 people are there, but more are coming in all the time, as officials around the city are telling people that the convention center has food and, importantly, buses to evacuate people.
In fact, people at the center are stranded, starving, and seemingly forgotten about by the authorities. There is a dead body in a lawn chair outside the center — the body of Booker Harris, a 91-year-old man who was dropped off there with his wife Allie, 93.
Booker’s body is visible to all, including TV news correspondents, who flock to the place. “I mean, this convention center is right in the heart of downtown. I mean, picture any downtown where — any city you live, Main Street, wherever. The main building, there’s a dead body that has been sitting out there for two days. They put a blanket over him,” CNN correspondent Chris Lawrence reports. Lawrence also says, “These people are hungry. They’re tired. They’ve got nowhere to go. They’ve got no answers, and they’ve got no communication whatsoever. And the officer said, when night comes — I’m watching the sun dip behind the buildings right now, he was very afraid — he said, ‘I don’t know which night it’s going to break, but these people have a breaking point. And I’m scared to see what happens when they reach that point.’”
Despite the televised scenes, there is no public response — from state, local or federal authorities — to the disaster there.
Evening: FEMA director Michael Brown appears on a slate of news shows, declaring that contrary to what people have been seeing on TV, storm victims are being helped in New Orleans. Larry King asks Brown, “All of our correspondents, other people telling our correspondents that they’re frustrated, they’re angry, they’re mad at the government, state, federal. They’re not getting enough. And they’re saying where is the help. So where is the help?”
“Larry, the help is right there,” Brown says. “And it’s going to be moving in very, very rapidly. I’m going to ask the country to be patient … And I must say this storm is much, much bigger than anyone expected.” Moments later Brown appears to contradict himself when he says that his agency has long anticipated that a hurricane hitting New Orleans would be one of the worst possible disasters. “We planned for it two years ago. Last year, we exercised it. And unfortunately this year, we’re implementing it.”
Brown promises that relief will arrive tomorrow. “That help is there. We have an agreement with [Defense] Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld. the president has stepped in. We’re going to have air-lifting commodities in. We’re going to have those caravans moving tonight. So tomorrow you’re going to see that relief.” The claim will prove largely false.
Thursday, Sept. 1
7 a.m. In an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, President Bush says that the federal government’s evacuation effort is well under way, and that a “major transportation lift” is already getting people out of the Superdome. He does not mention — nor is he asked about — evacuation plans for the New Orleans convention center, where more than 20,000 people are now stranded without food, water, medical attention or security.
The New York Times will later report that Bush only learns that there are people at the convention center around the time of his interview with Sawyer. Bush finds out about the convention center in an unusual way — from a wire service news report that an aide hands to him. Aides will tell the Times that the report angers Bush, because Michael Chertoff, the secretary of Homeland Security, had not mentioned the convention center in a morning briefing to Bush. Neither Chertoff nor his subordinate, FEMA director Michael Brown, are aware of the situation there. Brown, responsible for all federal disaster relief, will later say that he does not learn that the convention center is being used as a shelter until sometime on Thursday, two days after the city first opened the center for evacuees, and a day after scenes from the convention center dominated TV news.
In his chat with Sawyer, Bush suggests that federal government was surprised by the scope of the storm damage. “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees,” he says. “They did anticipate a serious storm. These levees got breached, and as a result, much of New Orleans is flooded and now we’re having to deal with it and will.” In fact, long before the hurricane struck land, many experts and officials — including the Hurricane Center’s Mayfield and Mayor Nagin — warned that the levees were vulnerable.
Morning: Authorities suspend evacuations at the Superdome — evacuations that had only just begun — due to what they call increasing unrest outside the arena, including reports of weapons fire at rescue helicopters and fires deliberately set in the path of buses. Lawlessness in the city is hampering rescue efforts all over, officials say. More than 28,000 National Guard troops have been called up to the city, but there are far fewer actually in the area — between 8,000 and 13,000. Only a few hundred Guardsmen are present at the Superdome.
Observing the situation at the Superdome, Terry Ebbert, who heads New Orleans’ emergency operations, tells the Associated Press: “This is a national disgrace. FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control. We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can’t bail out the city of New Orleans. We have got a mayor who has been pushing and asking, but we’re not getting supplies.”
Midday: President Bush has lunch with Federal Reserve chairman Alan Grenspan to discuss the economic impact of the storm. Later, he holds a press conference with two former presidents, his father and Bill Clinton, whom he has asked to lead an effort to raise private money for hurricane relief. At a press briefing, spokesman Scott McClellan is asked if Bush is satisfied with the government’s response to the hurricane. “This is not a time to get into any finger pointing or politics or anything of that nature,” McClellan says. “This is a time to make sure all our resources available are focused where they need to be, and that is on the people who have been displaced or the people who have been otherwise affected by this natural disaster. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
At a press conference, Homeland Security secretary Chertoff insists that his department has the situation in New Orleans under control. “The fact of the matter is, the Superdome is secure,” he says. “Understandably, there are crowd-control issues. People are anxious, they’re impatient, they’re hot, they’re tired, they want to get someplace else. That is more than understandable.” Chertoff says people there are safe and their evacuation is imminent. In fact, conditions at the Superdome are described as chaotic and dangerous. Chertoff does not mention the convention center.
At almost exactly the same time, Mayor Ray Nagin sends out “a desperate SOS” on CNN. “Right now we are out of resources at the convention center and don’t anticipate enough buses,” Nagin says. “We need buses. Currently the convention center is unsanitary and unsafe and we’re running out of supplies.”
The network runs a montage of graphic scenes from the convention center, including pictures of several dead bodies. Chris Lawrence, a CNN correspondent, reports, “We spent the last few hours at the convention center, where there are thousands of people just laying in the street. They have nowhere to go. These are mothers. We saw mothers. We talked to mothers holding babies. I mean, some of these babies, 3, 4, 5 months old, living in these horrible conditions. Putrid food on the ground, sewage, their feet sitting in sewage. We saw feces on the ground. It is — these people are being forced to live like animals.” People at the convention center tell Lawrence that National Guard troops have driven by and tossed small amounts of food to them. But most people are hungry and thirsty. ” Lawrence says: “What these people are saying basically is, ‘Give us some water, give us some food. Don’t leave us here to die. Or get us out of here.’ They’re saying, “We’re stuck here. We can’t leave. They don’t send the buses. They won’t take us out of here. And yet they won’t come in with truckloads of water and food to feed us.’”
The American Red Cross will later explain to Salon that the convention center is not being serviced by the agency because, sometime during the week, the Louisiana Homeland Security Department — that is, the office under Gov. Blanco — tells the agency not to “come back into New Orleans following the hurricane.” Louisana officials have not responded to Salon’s request for an explanation of this order. According to the Red Cross, the Homeland Security Department had been worried that a Red Cross presence in the city would “keep people from evacuating and encourage others to come into the city.”
Evening: On NPR, anchor Robert Siegel asks secretary Chertoff several times about reports that tens of thousands of people are starving at the convention center. Chertoff dismisses such reports. He says, “You know, the one thing about an episode like this is if you talk to someone and you get a rumor or you get someone’s anecdotal version of something, I think it’s dangerous to extrapolate it all over the place.” Siegel insists that reporters from NPR and other organizations have personally witnessed the horrors at the convention center. But Chertoff refuses to believe Siegel.
On NBC, Brian Williams asks FEMA director Michael Brown why FEMA isn’t doing an airdrop of food and water to the convention center. ” Brian, it’s an absolutely fair question,” Brown says. “The federal government just learned about those people today. And I’ve got to tell you, we are moving heaven and earth to get pallets of food and water to those people.”
Later on “Nightline,” when Brown again says that the federal government only learned of the convention center on Thursday, Ted Koppel asks, “Don’t you guys watch television? Don’t you guys listen to the radio? Our reporters have been reporting about it for more than just today.” Brown says, “We learned about it factually today that that’s what existed.”
At a press conference, Gov. Blanco criticizes House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who earlier in the day said it might not make sense to rebuild New Orleans. It’s “unthinkable,” Blanco says, that Hastert would “kick us when we’re down.” Blanco also warns “hoodlums” in New Orleans: National Guard troops in the city, she says, “have M-16s and they are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot to kill … and I expect they will.”
Late Thursday night, in an interview with WWL-AM radio in New Orleans, Mayor Nagin sharply criticizes how state and federal officials have handled the hurricane response. Referring to Gov. Blanco’s earlier press conference — in which the governor said 40,000 National Guard troops were heading in to help Louisiana — Nagin said: “I don’t want to see anybody do anymore goddamn press conferences. Put a moratorium on press conferences. Don’t do another press conference until the resources are in this city. And then come down to this city and stand with us when there are military trucks and troops that we can’t even count. Don’t tell me 40,000 people are coming here. They’re not here. It’s too doggone late. Now get off your asses and do something, and let’s fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country.”
Friday, Sept. 2
4:35 a.m. A series of explosions at a chemical storage facility shakes New Orleans. The blasts occur east of the French Quarter, near the Mississippi River, but vibrations can be felt all the way downtown. Witnesses say the explosions illuminate the predawn sky, and that a cloud of acrid black smoke hangs over the area. Officials emphasize that the smoke is not toxic, but nevertheless order that the surrounding area be evacuated.
8:05 a.m. Taking reporters’ questions on the south lawn of the White House, President Bush acknowledges that although “a lot of people are working hard to help those who have been affected” by Hurricane Katrina, “the results are not acceptable.” He then leaves Washington for an approximately six-hour air tour of the devastated coastal areas of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Bush’s tour will make several stops, including one at the ongoing repair of the 17th Street Canal breach in New Orleans, but will bypass more troubled sites like the convention center, the Supderdome and the makeshift trauma center at the city’s Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. On the flight down to the Gulf Coast, Bush catches up on the catastrophe by watching a DVD of hurricane news coverage that presidential aide Dan Bartlett has compiled to help the reality sink in.
Also around this time, commercial airlines begin assisting the evacuation effort by airlifting refugees from the New Orleans airport. Most major U.S. airlines participate, including American, Continental, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and United. FEMA issues a statement saying it will oversee the evacuation; at least at first, evacuees will go to San Antonio’s Lackland Air Force Base.
10:35 a.m. Bush holds a press briefing at the Mobile Regional Airport in Mobile, Ala. In a four-minute speech, he praises the rescue and relief efforts of the Coast Guard, the governors of the affected states, and FEMA director Brown: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” Bush also says: “The good news is — and it’s hard for some to see it now — that out of this chaos is going to come a fantastic Gulf Coast, like it was before. Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott’s house — he’s lost his entire house — there’s going to be a fantastic house. And I’m looking forward to sitting on the porch.”
At another stop in Biloxi, Miss., Bush backs off a from his earlier statement that the results were “not acceptable”: “I am satisfied with the response. I’m not satisfied with all the results,” he clarifies.
12:49 p.m. Congress passes an emergency measure providing $10.5 billion for Hurricane Katrina rescue and relief efforts, which the president promises to sign upon his return to Washington that evening. But Rep. Karen Carter, a Democrat whose district includes New Orleans’ French Quarter, tells reporters the region needs transportation help more than it needs cash: “Don’t give me your money. Don’t send me $10 million today. Give me buses and gas. Buses and gas. Buses and gas. If you have to commandeer Greyhound, commandeer Greyhound … If you don’t get a bus, if we don’t get them out of there, they will die.”
Midday: A convoy of National Guard troops arrives in the city, and a thousand troops are dispatched to the convention center to deliver food and water and provide much-needed security to an estimated 20,000 evacuees. Some people there cheer the arrival of supplies, while others are upset that the Guard lacks the one thing many people need — buses to leave.
Evacuation of the Superdome resumes, with an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people standing in 100-plus degree heat and wading through knee-deep trash to board buses. Seven hundred evacuees who have been staying at a neighboring Hyatt hotel are allowed to board the buses before Superdome evacuees, reportedly so that the Hyatt can be prepared to house emergency workers. Given that conditions in the Hyatt were less dangerous and more sanitary than those in the Superdome, National Guard Capt. John Pollard calls the decision to let the Hyatt evacuees go first “very poor.”
After being postponed due to gunshots on Thursday, evacuations of the beleaguered New Orleans Charity Hospital and Louisiana State University Hospital resume and are completed: more than 600 people, including 110 patients, are evacuated from University Hospital, and about 2,200 people, including 363 patients, are evacuated from Charity Hospital. Three terminally ill patients die during the Charity Hospital evacuation; flooding of its morgue hamper efforts to ascertain how many bodies are inside. Conditions at Charity, which has been without power since Monday and without water since Tuesday, are said to be desperate.
Remaining staff and patients at Tulane University, Methodist and Kindred hospitals are also evacuated.
In Houston, Mayor Bill White announces that, with 15,000 evacuees inside, the city’s Astrodome is full. The city opens the Reliant Center, which will hold another 11,000 evacuees. A total of 22,000 evacuees have taken refuge in Houston so far. Meanwhile, First Lady Laura Bush tours another evacuation center, the Cajundome in Lafayette, La., where approximately 6,000 refugees are sheltered. During a press briefing, she remarks, “This doesn’t really look like what we’re seeing on television.”
President Bush, along with Sen. Mary Landrieu, visits the 17th Street Canal breach in New Orleans, where sheet piling has stopped the flooding into the city. For security reasons, all air traffic in the area is grounded until Bush departs; three tons of food intended for delivery by helicopter to evacuees in St. Bernard Parish and Algiers Point are delayed on the Crescent City Connection bridge until nightfall.
Gov. Blanco takes several official actions on the relief effort. She sends Bush an open letter reiterating her previous requests for many things, including “an additional 40,000 troops; trailers of water, ice and food; commercial buses; base camps; staging areas; amphibious personnel carriers; deployable morgues; urban search and rescue teams; airlift; temporary housing; and communications systems.” The letter additionally requests “the expeditious return of the Headquarters of the 256th Brigade Combat Team as they have completed their mission in the Iraqi theatre of operations and they are urgently needed here at home.” Also on Blanco’s list of requests: an operating base for relief efforts in Baton Rouge, additional radio frequencies and tower crews to help restore cellphone service and public safety communication throughout the state, aerial and ground firefighters, a fleet of military vehicles, 175 generators, and public-health and livestock assistance.
Blanco emphasizes that state and local authorities cannot complete relief and rescue efforts without help: “Mr. President, only your personal involvement will ensure the immediate delivery of federal assets needed to save lives that are in jeopardy hour by hour.”
The Bush administration does not respond specifically to these requests, but in his meeting with Blanco later in the day, Bush is reported to promise more resources.
In a press briefing, White House spokesman Scott McClellan says that bringing troops back from Iraq is not necessary because there are enough National Guard units at home to handle the situation.
Blanco also issues an executive order declaring a state of public health emergency and suspending Louisiana medical licensing requirements for out-of-state doctors and medical personnel providing emergency treatment, provided that those doctors and personnel prove that they are licensed in their home states. Because practicing medicine without a license is a crime carrying severe penalties, out-of-state doctors have been barred from volunteering their services in the wake of the hurricane; this belated order finally allows volunteer doctors to begin providing treatment.
Finally, Blanco issues a second executive order authorizing the state Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness to commandeer all school buses for evacuation purposes, replacing a similar but less comprehensive order she issued on Wednesday. The order suspends the requirement that bus drivers have commercial driver’s licenses, apparently in response to reports that many licensed bus drivers are unwilling to drive into lawless parts of New Orleans.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus hold a news conference blasting the federal response and charging that it was due to indifference to New Orleans’ poor population.
5:01 p.m. Before departing the region for Washington, President Bush makes another statement to the press from the tarmac at the New Orleans airport. He thanks relief workers and reassures residents of several southern Louisiana parishes that “people are paying attention to them.” He also reminisces about his party days in New Orleans, when he says he visited the city “to enjoy myself — occasionally too much.”
While still on the airport tarmac, Bush invites Louisiana Sen. Landrieu, Gov. Blanco, and New Orleans Mayor Nagin aboard for a meeting. If there are tensions between Bush and Nagin — given Nagin’s candid radio interview from the previous night — neither man shows it. Bush invites Nagin to take his first shower in five days aboard the plane. Nagin says of meeting Bush, “He was brutally honest. He wanted to know the truth … And we talked turkey. I think we’re in a good spot now.”
On board, Bush also asks Blanco to request a federal takeover of Louisiana’s National Guard forces. The move would allow the federal government to exert unified control over all of the forces in the state, both active duty as well as National Guard. Federal officials believe such unified control will improve the efficiency of the hurricane response operation. Some state officials are suspicious of this request, fearing that once the federal government takes over, Bush officials will be free to blame all previous problems on state mismanagement. Blanco asks Bush for some time to think about his request.
Administration officials will later say that Bush lawyers determined that they could wrest the mission away from Blanco without her consent by invoking the Insurrection Act, but political worries prevented them from doing so. “Can you imagine how it would have been perceived if a president of the United States of one party had preemptively taken from the female governor of another party the command and control of her forces, unless the security situation made it completely clear that she was unable to effectively execute her command authority and that lawlessness was the inevitable result?” an unnamed aide rhetorically asks the New York Times.
Late afternoon: A bus carrying an estimated 50 Superdome evacuees overturns on the highway 130 miles west of New Orleans, killing one passenger and injuring at least 17 others. Police say the crash was a result of a struggle between a passenger and the bus driver, but one of the bus’s passengers says there was no struggle and that the driver just wasn’t looking at the road. FEMA director Brown announces that, as of Friday afternoon, 7,000 people have been rescued from rooftops and flooded regions by Urban Search and Rescue forces and Coast Guard teams. Some 15,000 people have been evacuated from the Superdome to the Astrodome in Houston; evacuations to Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, continue. Additionally, Brown estimates that 2,000 patients have been evacuated from the trauma center at the New Orleans airport.
At NBC’s celebrity-studded Concert for Hurricane Relief Friday night, singer Kanye West expresses his outrage at the slow pace of the federal response, saying, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
Shortly before midnight: The White House sends Gov. Blanco a legal memorandum formalizing its proposal that she request a federal takeover of the mission to evacuate New Orleans.
Saturday, Sept. 3
Early morning: The Superdome is mostly evacuated. Lt. Kevin Cowan, of Louisiana’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, estimates that 2,000 people remain in the Superdome, though a spokesperson for the Texas Air National Guard says the figure could be as high as 5,000. Air-conditioned buses are diverted to the convention center to begin evacuating the nearly 25,000 refugees housed there. The National Guard reports that it has served approximately 70,000 meals at the convention center already and has supplies to serve 130,000 more.
9:06 a.m. President Bush reads his weekly radio address from the White House Rose Garden, an unusual spectacle. Bush says he is sending more than 7,000 active-duty troops to the region devastated by the hurricane in the next 72 hours. The active-duty troops — which will come from Army’s 82nd Airborne from Fort Bragg, N.C., 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas, and the Marines’ 1st and 2nd Expeditionary forces from Camp Pendleton, Calif., and Camp Lejeune, N.C. — will join 4,000 active-duty troops already in the region. The Pentagon announces that an additional 10,000 National Guard forces will be deployed to the region, bringing the number of Guard in the area to about 40,000.
Throughout the day: Gov. Blanco declines Bush’s offer of a federal takeover for Louisiana’s National Guard. This leaves Blanco in charge of all Guard troops in the region and will prohibit active-duty troops from maintaining law and order. Instead, she hires James Lee Witt, who served as the head of FEMA under President Clinton and who has previously criticized the decision to have FEMA report to the Homeland Security Department, to help direct Louisiana’s hurricane relief efforts.
DHS secretary Chertoff, along with Bush aides Housing Secretary Alphonso Jackson and White House domestic policy advisor Claude Allen, holds a two-hour meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus to discuss the roles of race and poverty in the federal government’s hurricane relief efforts. Also in attendance are NAACP president Bruce Gordon and National Urban League president Marc Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans.
Evacuation of the Superdome resumes and is completed. Members of the Texas National Guard who have been supervising the evacuation cheer as the last evacuee, an elderly man in a Houston Rockets cap, boards the bus. Later, more evacuees arrive at the Superdome, and the evacuation effort continues.
Col. John Smart, chief operations officer for Joint Task Force Katrina West, reports that, as of Saturday afternoon, 42,000 people have been evacuated from New Orleans by bus, air and Amtrak trains.
FEMA director Brown warns that “hot spots” of crime remain in New Orleans. “Some of these kids think this is a game. They have a gun and they think it is a game they are playing,” he said. Brown also says that any “idiots with a gun on a rooftop” would soon be meeting with force from active-duty troops. Brown declines to estimate how many stranded New Orleanians remain to be rescued: “There is no humanly possible way of knowing at this stage how many people like that still exist in this vast urban area,” he says.
The body of Sgt. Paul Accardo, a New Orleans police officer, is found in an unmarked patrol car in a downtown parking lot. The cause of death is suicide.
Rosalie Guidry Daste, a 100-year-old woman who had been stuck in her flooded nursing home for four days, dies moments after she’s rescued from the facility.
At a press briefing in Washington, DHS secretary Chertoff expresses “full confidence” in FEMA director Brown. Chertoff also deflects responsibility for the disaster’s handling, saying the reason federal support did not arrive more quickly was “because our constitutional system really places the primary authority in each state with the governor.”
New Orleans deputy police commander W.S. Riley counters with criticism of the federal response: “My biggest disappointment is with the federal government and the National Guard. The Guard arrived 48 hours after the hurricane with 40 trucks. They drove their trucks in and went to sleep. For 72 hours this police department and the fire department and handful of citizens were alone rescuing people. We have people who died while the National Guard sat and played cards. I understand why we are not winning the war in Iraq if this is what we have.”
Sunday, Sept. 4
FEMA announces that “one hundred percent of evacuees housed in the New Orleans Superdome and Convention Center have been evacuated.” FEMA anticipates that more evacuees will arrive at the Superdome and convention center, and that they will be relocated on a flow basis. Authorities in New Orleans will report that 24 people died in the convention center and 10 died at the Superdome, though causes of death are not yet known.
Also in FEMA’s progress report: All patients from New Orleans’ top 12 hospitals have been evacuated; 563 shelters in 10 states are housing a total population of 151,409 evacuees; and cruise ships are being brought into the coastal areas to provide temporary housing to approximately 8,000 additional evacuees.
Jefferson Parish, La., president Aaron Broussard appears on NBC’s Meet the Press, along with DHS secretary Chertoff, and claims that FEMA prevented aid from reaching his parish. Broussard cries when telling the story of an elderly woman who was promised aid for days before drowning on Friday. “Bureaucracy has committed murder here in the greater New Orleans area, and bureaucracy has to stand trial before Congress now…,” he says. “Nobody’s coming to get us. The secretary has promised. Everybody’s promised. They’ve had press conferences. I’m sick of the press conferences. For God sakes, shut up and send us somebody.”
The Times-Picayune of New Orleans runs an open letter to President Bush criticizing the federal response to the disaster saying, “Every official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be fired, Director Michael Brown especially.”
The Chicago Tribune reports that the massive Marine ship the USS Bataan, which has been in the region since the worst of the storm subsided, has offered its extensive hospital facility and supplies to the relief effort, but that so far federal authorities haven’t made use of most of the ship’s resources. Though helicopters from the Bataan’s deck were involved in early rescue efforts in New Orleans, relief efforts have not made use of the ship’s doctors, six operating rooms, 600 hospital beds, food and water supplies, or its ability to produce 100,000 gallons of clean, fresh water each day.
New Orleans police shoot and kill at least five residents, after those residents open fire on a group of 14 government contractors traveling across the city’s Danziger Bridge to make repairs.
Monday, Sept. 5
President Bush returns to Louisiana, visiting with evacuees at the Bethany World Prayer Center in Baton Rouge and at Pearl River Community College in Poplarville. Staff members in Gov. Blanco‘s office says the White House didn’t notify them that Bush would be visiting, and that they found out he was coming by watching the news.
Kellogg, Brown & Root Services, long criticized for its lucrative no-bid Iraq reconstruction contract, begins work on a $500 million U.S. Navy contract for emergency cleanup and repairs following Hurricane Katrina.
The patching of New Orleans’s 17th Street Canal breach with 300-pound sandbags and bags of rock is completed. The canal is reopened, so it can be used to pump water out of the city. Army engineers report that the breach in the London Avenue Canal is also closed.
Former First Lady Barbara Bush, accompanying President George H.W. Bush on a tour of the evacuation center at Houston’s Astrodome, opines that many of the Gulf Coast’s evacuees are better off: “What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this — this [she chuckles slightly] is working very well for them.”
Tuesday, Sept. 6
Mayor Nagin orders a forced evacuation of New Orleans. Police and National Guard forces go door-to-door to usher an estimated 10,000 holdouts into boats and helicopters.
The Associated Press reports that hundreds of firefighters who have volunteered to assist in hurricane relief efforts “have instead been playing cards, taking classes on the history of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and lounging at an Atlanta airport hotel for days while they await orders. Some have been waiting for four days. FEMA’s Tony Russell says only that the agency is trying to deploy the firefighters as quickly as possible but that it us unsure where to send them — FEMA “wants to make certain they are sent to the right places,” he says. Meanwhile, the Salt Lake Tribune reports that approximately 1,000 firefighters, many of whom thought they had volunteered to be emergency workers, were instead being trained in Atlanta to be public relations officers for FEMA.
FEMA denies journalists’ requests to ride in rescue boats as they search for storm victims. An agency spokesperson tells newswire service Reuters, “We have requested that no photographs of the deceased be made by the media.”
With the Army Corps of Engineers pumping water out of the New Orleans via the 17th Street Canal, the floodwaters are beginning to drop. Mayor Nagin estimates that 60 percent of the city remains under water. “Even in areas where the water was as high as the rooftops, I started to see parts of the buildings,” he says after taking an aerial tour. “I’m starting to see rays of light.”
Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barbara Mikulski call for FEMA director Brown to resign. They also introduce legislation that would separate FEMA from the Homeland Security Department, restoring it to being an independent Cabinet-level federal agency. Meanwhile, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi tells President Bush she thinks Brown should be fired. According to Pelosi, Bush thanks her for her suggestion.
Responding to criticism of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, President Bush volunteers to lead an investigation into the relief effort. Bush also announces that Vice President Dick Cheney will tour the devastated region on Thursday — a week and a half after the hurricane struck.
Wednesday, Sept. 7
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief Dr. Julie Gerberding announces that sewage-related bacteria in the New Orleans floodwaters are at 10 times the maximum allowable level and warns those still in the city not to touch the water.
The White House announces that it will request Congress to approve $51.8 billion in supplemental hurricane-relief funding, in addition to the $10.5 billion that went through the previous Friday. Press secretary Scott McClellan says $50 billion of the supplemental request will go to FEMA, $1.4 billion will go to the Defense Department, and $400 million will go to the Army Corps of Engineers.
NBC’s Brian Williams reports that he and his film crew have been prevented from filming members of the National Guard at work in New Orleans, and that a member of the local police aimed her gun at several members of the media who were reporting on the relief effort.
Without consulting congressional Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert announce that a bipartisan joint congressional committee will investigate the hurricane relief effort. Republicans would have the majority on such a committee, allowing them to determine the focus and scope of the investigation.
At the annual meeting of the National Baptist Convention of America in Miami, Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean says that race played a role in the government’s hurricane response efforts: “We must … come to terms with the ugly truth that skin color, age and economics played a deadly role in who survived and who did not.”
Thursday, Sept. 8
President Bush, citing a national emergency, signs an executive order suspending the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931, effectively allowing reconstruction efforts in storm-ravaged areas to pay workers less than prevailing local wages.
Time magazine raises questions about FEMA director Brown‘s résumé, noting discrepancies in online profile and his official biography and suggesting that the Bush administration inflated his credentials.
The state of Mississippi has recorded 201 deaths resulting from the storm, and Louisiana has recorded 83, bringing the total death toll near 290.
Friday, Sept. 9
The Bush administration removes FEMA director Brown from his role as the head of hurricane relief efforts. Brown is still head of FEMA, but the Coast Guard’s chief of staff, Vice Adm. Thad Allen, will oversee the federal response to the storm. Of his immediate plans, Brown says, “I’m going to go home and walk my dog and hug my wife and, maybe get a good Mexican meal and a stiff margarita and a full night’s sleep. And then I’m going to go right back to FEMA and continue to do all I can to help these victims.”
Officials in New Orleans announce a “zero access” media policy for New Orleans. The announcement is made by Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, who is overseeing the federal relief effort in the city, and Terry Ebbert, the city’s homeland security director; Ebbert justifies the ban by saying that they consider photographing corpses to be improper.
Vice President Cheney arrives in the Gulf Coast region. While the vice president is answering questions on live television, a local doctor who lost his home yells out, “Go fuck yourself, Mr. Cheney,” a reference to the comment Cheney made to Sen. Patrick Leahy in 2004.
Relief workers in Houston announce that they have contained a viral outbreak that leaves hundreds of evacuees reporting vomiting and diarrhea. An estimated 700 evacuees are treated for the symptoms, and 40 evacuees remain quarantined.
In response to the zero-access media policy in New Orleans, CNN files suit against FEMA director Brown. CNN also files for a temporary restraining order against the policy, which U.S. District Court Judge Keith Ellison issues.
Former Bush Secretary of State Colin Powell criticizes the hurricane relief effort during an interview with Barbara Walters for ABC’s “20/20.” “When you look at those who weren’t able to get out, it should have been a blinding flash of the obvious to everybody that when you order a mandatory evacuation, you can’t expect everybody to evacuate on their own. These are people who don’t have credit cards; only one in 10 families at that economic level in New Orleans have a car. So it wasn’t a racial thing — but poverty disproportionately affects African-Americans in this country. And it happened because they were poor,” Powell says.
Saturday, Sept. 10
With CNN’s lawsuit pending and Judge Ellison considering issuing a permanent injunction against the zero-access media policy in New Orleans, Joint Task Force Katrina spokesperson Col. Christian deGraff announces that it will not enforce the policy. The task force, deGraff says, “has no plans to bar, impede or prevent news media from their news gathering and reporting activities in connection with the deceased Hurricane Katrina victim recovery efforts.”
The total number of hurricane-related deaths climbs to 372, with 154 confirmed dead in the New Orleans area.
The former associate dean at the University of Southern California Law School, donating her services to help people with emergency legal needs, arrives in Gulfport, Miss. She and other legal volunteers end up spending most of their time trying to track down a mobile kitchen and provide basic human needs. “It was day 13 after Katrina struck, and no one was coordinating the relief effort in one of the poorest communities along the coast. We never found a resident who had ever seen even one FEMA official,” Karen A. Lash wrote later.
Sunday, Sept. 11
Rescue and recovery personnel find 45 bodies in the flooded Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans, bringing state’s death toll near 280.
Monday, Sept. 12
Michael Brown resigns his directorship of FEMA. The White House appoints the head of FEMA’s preparedness division, R. David Paulison, as Brown’s interim successor.
President Bush denies that race played a role in hurricane relief: “When those Coast Guard choppers, many of who were first on the scene, were pulling people off roofs, they didn’t check the color of a person’s skin … The storm didn’t discriminate, and neither did the recovery effort.”
Water levels in New Orleans drop substantially and the streets become visible in even the most flooded neighborhoods, which only two days before were under 6 to 8 feet of water. A Guard staff sergeant in the city’s Lower 9th Ward says, “The water’s gone down so fast, we can’t keep up with it. It’s like the whole place dried up overnight.” But many of the city’s buildings, particularly those made of wood, are ruined after being under water for days and will have to be destroyed.
Rescue workers uncover four more bodies in Mississippi and 82 more in Louisiana, bringing the hurricane’s total death toll to 513.
Tuesday, Sept. 13
10:35 a.m. At a press conference with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in the White House’s East Room, President Bush acknowledges some personal responsibility for the failures of the hurricane relief effort: “Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government. And to the extent that the federal government didn’t fully do its job right, I take responsibility. I want to know what went right and what went wrong.”
Local authorities arrest the owners of St. Rita’s nursing home in St. Bernard Parish and charge them with 34 counts of negligent homicide for failing to evacuate their patients, 34 of whom perished in the flooding. Authorities offered to evacuate the facility’s inhabitants before the storm, but the owners, Mable and Salvador Mangano, declined the offer.
Louisiana’s Department of Health announces that the state’s official death toll has risen to 423, a marked increase from the previous day’s tally of 279. The total number of hurricane-related deaths in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi is currently 657. Estimates of the total cost of the hurricane’s damage range from slightly more than $100 billion to close to $200 billion.
Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.More Farhad Manjoo.
Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.More Page Rockwell.
Aaron Kinney is a writer in San Francisco. He has a blog.More Aaron Kinney.
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