APWA leadership witnesses Katrina aftermath

Scene "defies adequate description, and that's why we came"

Dan Jensen
Government Affairs Manager
APWA Washington office

Note: In January the APWA Executive Committee traveled to the Gulf region to meet with fellow members and tour hurricane-affected areas. Accompanying President Bob Freudenthal, President-Elect Bill Verkest and Past President Tom Trice were Board members Diane Linderman and Shelby LaSalle, former Board member Ben Wolfe, Executive Director Peter King and Government Affairs Manager Dan Jensen. The purpose of the trip was to hear directly from our members about their experiences and to learn how APWA can assist them and other members who will face emergency management issues in the future.

Recently, the American Public Works Association Executive Committee had the opportunity to travel to the Katrina-ravaged Gulf States to get a firsthand account of what our membership is facing in that region. Since APWA represents a large number of first responders, emergency officials and waste management crews, we knew we would have a great deal of work to do in the Gulf. Finding out what we can do to properly advocate for our priorities based on the unique needs faced after this destructive hurricane is a major priority of the APWA leadership.

The following is a travelogue which documents our daily experiences on the trip.

Day 1
We arrived in New Orleans at 3:30 p.m. on a Sunday. The descent in the city, while not without a sense of foreboding, seemed relatively ordinary. However, that sense quickly changed once we were able to see the tops of the houses throughout the city. As the plane made its final approach into the airport, we were amazed to see blue, plastic tarps covering the roofs of almost every home for miles. Apparently, the wind damage in New Orleans was just as significant as anywhere else. But because of the flooding, the wind damage has been overlooked by most media outlets. That was our first surprise—the first of many more to come.

Upon exiting the aircraft, a slight odor that smelled like mildew—while not overpowering—was present in the air. The wind also carried with it the distant scent of burning debris. In a city with so much debris, the need for fire was apparent.

Bayou La Batre, AL: Even at distances over 100 miles from where the eye of Katrina made landfall, storm surge damage to this waterfront access road is apparent in coastal Alabama.

Since our first meetings on Monday were to take place in Mobile, AL (150 miles away), we hopped on the I-10 and headed east. Since that freeway heads right through one of the hardest hit areas, we could see everything. Entire neighborhoods were completely evacuated. Every single home we saw was without a roof, glass or doors. You could see visible flood lines on the paint as high as 12 feet on some homes. Huge trees were totally uprooted (taking power lines, pipes and infrastructure with them) and sat on top of homes, stores and gas stations. We saw a major department store that looked like it was cracked in half. Gas stations had their entire carports knocked over, and trees littered the streets everywhere.

One can't begin to describe the debris. There were literally mountains of it. We could see trash and vegetation hanging from telephone wires—30 feet high! Even on the freeway, there were still overturned cars with their windows blown out, covered with mud and completely stripped. Keep in mind the hurricane hit in August.

As darkness descended, all we could see was blackness from the lack of electricity where neighborhoods should be. The scene was reminiscent of nuclear devastation. Nothing prepares you for seeing this scale of destruction in person. It defies adequate description, and that's why we came.

Pascagoula, MS: The mansions that line the waterfront in old Pascagoula—some over 150 years old—were not spared the devastation of high surf and winds.

Day 2
Monday was spent in Mobile, AL, and because of its distance from the eye of Hurricane Katrina, we weren't able to see much damage. Our morning began with a productive and enlightening meeting with public works officials from around southern Alabama. We talked about some of the problems they've been facing individually, as a city or county and asked about what APWA could do to help. The overall tone of the meeting focused on the problems each official faced in getting the communities back on their feet.

After the meetings, we drove down to the Bayou. We passed Dauphin Island, which was closed because of the amount of damage there. Ninety-five percent of the homes on Dauphin Island are completely gone. Because of the road closures, however, we weren't able to see that damage firsthand. But in Bayou La Batre, our next stop, we saw a lot worse.

Pascagoula: Massive storm surges of over 20 feet swept away large homes, their contents and foundations in southern Mississippi cities.

Bayou La Batre is a shrimping town and was featured in the movie Forrest Gump. While not an especially wealthy community before the storm, Bayou La Batre is much worse now. The town itself looked run-down, but we couldn't tell if that was due to damage or if was just made up of older structures. Going to the shore answered that question. There were boats hundreds of yards inland, strewn about people's yards. Stores were collapsed, roads were buckled and the trees were littered with debris.

We took a lot of pictures in Bayou La Batre before the sky opened up and the rain started to pour. Despite that, it was a humid 75 degrees and very pleasant. The next day, we headed to Pascagoula and Biloxi, Mississippi.

Day 3
It's hard to sum up the things we saw in Mississippi. We didn't have to pick out a special view this time as we did in Alabama. In Pascagoula, almost every street we saw for miles looked like a completely destroyed urban war zone. Neighborhoods were gone.

We started off our day traveling from Mobile, Alabama to Pascagoula, Mississippi—right along the Gulf Coast. When we finally arrived in town, we had trouble interpreting what we saw. Blocks after blocks of houses had trailers on the front lawns. At first glance, the houses looked undamaged and otherwise somewhat normal. But upon closer inspection, you could see that there was nothing inside. No walls, no furniture and no people. Instead, the families were each living in FEMA-issued trailers parked in front of the shells that used to be their homes. For the next ten blocks it was the same thing, until we got closer to the shore.

Biloxi: This bridge was no match for Katrina. The vital link connecting Biloxi to Pascagoula was swept 30 feet off its pylons and cast into the sea. The bridge remains closed almost six months after the storm.

Gone were the yard trailers. In fact, none of the properties we saw along the shoreline had yards at all. There were no houses, no shells. There were only piles of debris. Toilets, bathtubs and appliances were everywhere. Where large, beautiful homes once stood only bare foundations remained. Even the pipes had been blown out of the ground.

From what we were told, this area was hit with 100-plus mph winds while simultaneously being buried under 20 feet of storm surge. A frame stood here and there, but most of the landscape consisted of nothing but splinters. Homes that had stood since the 1800s were now totally gone. Senator Trent Lott (R-MS), who is a Pascagoula native, lost his house in the storm. There only remained a lone flag pole (with colors waving) in his yard.

The rest of the properties were sad sights to behold. Families who had once lived on top of the bare concrete foundations had obviously gone back to pick up any remaining pieces of value. Boards and walls were left with spray-painted urban search and rescue markings that indicated the names of the occupants, if anyone died inside and the name of the insurance company. A few families had put lawn chairs on the bare concrete facing the street. Every so often you could see people sitting in the chairs. They wore sad expressions and never looked up from the debris lying at their feet. We didn't take pictures of them.

Further down the coast, we saw a two-mile, four-lane concrete bridge pushed 30 feet off the foundations and toppled into the water. In fact, we saw a few bridges like this. And far across the inlet in Biloxi, we could see the giant river casinos leaning into the water, mostly submerged. It wasn't hard to picture what our nation might look like in the aftermath of some great war with this scene spread out before us.

New Orleans: This abandoned house, once completely covered by water, stands empty while its mud-covered flag remains.

As the sun went down, we made our way into New Orleans for our final round of meetings. As we traveled along I-10 back into the city, we went for ten straight miles without seeing a single occupied home. The homes in this part of the city are right off the freeway and easy to see. There is no wall or barricade blocking the devastation. What made it especially disturbing was how urban it was. This could be any city in the country. Think of any place you know, a ten-mile stretch filled with thousands of homes. Now picture all of these homes smashed, cracked and windowless. This is what New Orleans looked like in the suburbs. There is no one left. Over 400,000 people are gone.

Day 4
Yesterday, our last day in New Orleans, had the deepest emotional impact of any other experience on the trip. Our day started calmly enough. We ate at Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter, a famous eatery known for its coffee and beignets. On any day before Katrina, breakfast lines averaged 30 minutes. We walked straight to the counter.

New Orleans: Like a scene from a war zone, entire neighborhoods have been left desolate with empty homes and abandoned cars.

After breakfast, we drove into the lower 9th Ward of New Orleans. As most of you probably know from news reports, this was one of the hardest hit areas. It differed greatly from what we experienced in Pascagoula where there was mainly wind damage. In New Orleans, which also suffered its share of damage from the 100-plus mph winds, the main story was the flood damage. Driving into the 9th Ward was like driving into a waking nightmare. The streets, utterly devoid of any human activity other than our small group, were littered with more debris than most of us had ever witnessed.

In this section of the city, tens of thousands of homes have been completely abandoned by their owners. There is nothing salvageable. There is nothing to be saved. Again, the houses looked intact from a distance, but closer inspection revealed the totality of their destruction. The yards were littered with cars (some upside down), television sets, appliances and other symbols of a destroyed civilization. Dried out, spoiled food products were everywhere, along with their containers. Thick coats of mud covered everything from rooftops to abandoned SUVs and sports cars. It seemed as if the residents just disappeared and let the place deteriorate. The reality, however, which was worse, was that this all happened in a few short hours.

New Orleans: Homes like this number in the tens of thousands. Wrecked beyond repair and off their foundations, this area of the 9th Ward saw some of the worst damage in the entire Gulf.

Holes were in almost every roof, visible proof of daring escapes made by the former occupants. As in Pascagoula, each house was marked with a spray painted "X"—indications left by urban search and rescue teams. The X's were filled out with numbers indicating when the home was searched for survivors, who did the search and if any bodies were found. We saw many homes that showed a death toll. In some cases, the number was more than one.

We drove for blocks and blocks covering hundreds of square miles. All of the houses were dead. Of course, electricity didn't work anywhere (and that still rings true for half the city). There was no need for traffic lights, because there was no traffic. We slowly made our way through the streets, snapping pictures of overturned cars, boarded up storefronts and abandoned houses. The infrastructure that once supported a human civilization had failed.

We eventually made our way through the middle-class neighborhoods. It was the same story except that the abandoned houses were much bigger. Only about one house out of a hundred had someone working to repair it. Those represented the lucky people who had flood insurance. On each house was a brown line stained into the paint by Mother Nature. This represented the waterline. On some homes, it was only a few feet high (yet enough to render the entire house a complete loss), and on others reached the second story.

Every corner of New Orleans, every single one, had a pile of debris. Some piles had been somewhat organized by the city or local residents. However, most debris remained scattered in intersections, yards, and parks—it even hung from the trees. Debris cleanup is probably the biggest obstacle the city faces. From one estimate given to us by a local engineer, the City of New Orleans is 43 years behind in garbage removal. Seeing the amount of trash on the streets, that seems like a conservative estimate. Even in the relatively undamaged, working parts of the city, telephone poles lay in the gutter and stores have parking lots full of wall paneling. Rotting carpet and broken signs litter the remainder of the landscape.

There are signs of life, however. While 400,000 residents have left the city (the biggest mass exodus of any American region since the Great Depression), 125,000 remain. Those people are determined to make the city work. It may not be the same, but it will stay on the map. The city has a five-year projection to double the population to 250,000 (still less than half the previous level). Some semblance of normalcy will return, eventually. But for now, the city has a cloud of doom in the air. And as for the 9th Ward and other hard-hit areas, those 100,000 homes will have to be destroyed—probably never to rise again.

Dan Jensen can be reached at (202) 218-6734 or djensen@apwa.net.

We heard a lot of stories, such as how the concrete pier in Fairhope, Alabama on Mobile Bay was sheered off and destroyed. Jennifer Fidler, the Public Works Director in Fairhope, explained that the greatest task they had was getting enough trucks and equipment along with trained personnel to do the debris removal. John Bell, the Public Works Director in Mobile, explained that it has been four months and they are still cleaning up yards.

They discussed how difficult it has been for their employees to work seven-day work weeks from dawn to dusk and maintain their homes and families. They talked about being flexible with the folks that worked for them and allowing them to secure their loved ones before returning to work, while they maintained a small work force to respond to the emergencies at hand.

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In Hattiesburg, Mississippi, some 100 miles from the coast, the eye of the storm passed through and devastated that area as well. Every signal and stop sign was literally blown away by what was then a Category 2 hurricane. Benny Sellers, Public Works Director in Hattiesburg, and Cathy Goolsby, Public Works Director in Brandon, echoed the same stories about the debris cleanup and what a great job Mississippi Power and Light did in restoring the power in a matter of a few days to a couple of weeks. Fifteen thousand homes in Hattiesburg sustained damage.

As we proceeded west on I-10 it was noticeable that there was debris north of the freeway in the trees. The billboards were bent, twisted or broken off. The "Golden Arches" took new shapes. The fallen trees began changing direction from pointing east in Alabama, north in eastern Mississippi, to west as we proceeded farther west. By the time we entered Slidell, Louisiana the trees were pointing south. This was an indication of the circular direction of the storm as it came ashore.

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We checked in and headed to a meeting with members of the Louisiana Chapter and the Director of Public Works for New Orleans, John Shires. We heard many of the things we heard in Alabama and Mississippi. The one thing that was much different between where we had been and New Orleans was that there was no real storm surge from the Gulf. The city survived the hurricane and succumbed to the failed levy system that broke. The live oak trees were blown over and each one that was uprooted brought with it water and gas mains. They broke and were left exposed and the floodwaters from the broken levies filled the city as well as the mains. Water had to be pumped from the mains before gas could be restored.

John Shires was very pointed in his remarks about emergencies that knock you out of business. You cannot depend on anyone other than your own forces. They know the area, the contractors, and the methods to get business done. You need to have enough funding in surplus to get you into the rebuilding stages because there are now no longer taxpayers there to support any efforts—there are simply no taxes coming in. People are gone, businesses are gone and properties are destroyed. The City has had to lay off some 3,000 of their 6,000 employees because they do not have the finances to support that size of a work force.

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The damage and destruction were everywhere you looked. We traveled nearly 200 miles along the coast to see how nature had decimated a large portion of our country.

These are my observations from a trip that I hope I will never have to take again. As it is said, you really have to see it firsthand to understand what really happened. And remember, this was four months after the disaster.

Submitted by Tom Trice, Director of Public Works, Bloomfield Township, Michigan, and APWA Past President (2004-05). He can be reached at (248) 433-7732 or ttrice@bloomfieldtwp.org.

My personal experience with Hurricanes Isabel and Gaston at the time seemed overwhelming but pale in comparison to the experiences these folks had. There were challenges in planning during the approach of the storm, knowing that employees were concerned about their families and property. The damage caused by the winds and the Gulf of Mexico was extremely devastating to personal property as well as public property. The dedication of public works employees was consistent along the coast—service to their community was a top priority.

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Standing on the bridge abutment of Route 90 at Ocean Springs and looking across the water at Biloxi is difficult to describe. The power of the water moved the bridge decks 20 feet north at the shore line and further as the bridge crossed the water until the decks totally disappeared into the water. This destruction of critical public infrastructure is going to have a long-term impact on the economic recovery of these communities. The obvious damage to buildings in Biloxi from a mile or so away strengthens the need for us to respect the power of our oceans. It is truly hard to comprehend how little water it takes to pick up a car or truck and float it away.

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The 9th Ward is located adjacent to the interstate. How strange to see street after street with no life. Homes still stood but were marked by search and rescue. Cars were still on the street but "parked" haphazardly. No life was visible. Parts of the city are alive—power has been restored, buildings repaired. But leaving the French Quarter after dark, we were greeted by truly dark areas—no traffic signals working, no streetlights, no lights in the windows. It is very difficult to comprehend how these areas will recover, if after four months basic services cannot be delivered.

Speaking with our public works friends in all three states was truly enlightening and reinforced my belief in the public works profession. Everyone we spoke to clearly showed their dedication to their community. Their relentless efforts to restore their communities were truly apparent, although not without challenges. Consistent was the knowledge of how to attack the response and recovery. Also clear was the frustration of dealing with FEMA. The intrusion of having to deal with the bureaucracy of FEMA's Public Assistance program and FHWA's Emergency Relief program got in the way of doing the job. However, the reality of needing to conform to their requirements to maximize the reimbursement to these now fiscally-stressed communities was also understood. Most felt that there had to be improvements in the required documentation—either simplifying or consistency (with training). Most had debris management plans and hazard mitigation plans, and those that did felt many lessons were learned and plans needed to be amended.

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Many communities north of the coast were challenged by significant increases in population due to the evacuation of the coast and the subsequent destruction of homes. Hattiesburg, Mississippi had a pre-storm population of about 50,000 people. They estimate that between 15,000 and 20,000 evacuees came to Hattiesburg and approximately 10,000 remain after four months. This significant increase impacts in the delivery of services as well as traffic. The storm damage alone isn't the only challenge some communities face.

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I am convinced it will happen again. It could be in Florida, South Carolina, Virginia or Texas. It could be a flood, hurricane, earthquake, or worse, a terrorist incident. I have the confidence that public works will always be there to respond. I also believe that there are initiatives and resources that APWA can provide to our membership to make them better prepared. The challenge will be determining how best to reach our membership and convince them of the need, particularly when the sun is out. The Katrina story, although often wrapped in politics, is an opportunity to grab the attention of our members to convince them of the need to be prepared for anything and that they are never alone.

Submitted by Diane Linderman, P.E., Director, Urban Infrastucture and Development, VHB, Inc., Richmond, Virginia, and APWA Director-at-Large, Public Works Management/Leadership. She can be reached at (804) 343-7100 or dlinderman@vhb.com.

Debris and the associated cleanup appear to be the biggest impact in Alabama with some storm damage along the very southern shore areas. Most were well underway with their cleanup activities and most were utilizing the Army Corps of Engineers to perform the work. I noted that the 25% local match was only matched by local governments and not by the state of Alabama—although all appeared to have an excellent relationship with the Alabama Emergency Management Agency.

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Mississippi was especially hard hit by Katrina, with severe damage as far inland as Hattiesburg and Meridian. Communication was lost during the height of the storm and the Jackson County EOC had to be evacuated because of storm damage. Local governments should possibly reconsider the location of their EOCs to be sure that they can continue to effectively operate in an emergency. Katrina has now set a new standard for impacts and damage previously held by Camille. Reconsideration should also be given to the designation and location of local shelters.

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The Corps of Engineers move quickly to fulfill their mission once they are given one. There is one area of concern expressed that since the Corps is not given direct authority over the day-to-day activities of their contractors, it hinders them and consequently local government in their response and cleanup efforts. Another area of concern was the delay in allowing or authorizing their contractors to assist in private property cleanup. This not only frustrates those directly affected but delays the rebuilding process that is so vital to the local economy.

All local units of government expressed issues with the long delay in receiving reimbursements from FEMA and MEMA. This is a vital concern. Some local governments cannot bear the financial burden for any extended period of time, with businesses not open. Sales tax is almost non-existent and property tax in Mississippi is not due until January, compounding local governments' ability to operate and, in some cases, even make payroll. Efforts need to be made to address an immediate influx of funds, based perhaps on initial estimates of damage so local government can continue to operate effectively.

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There were many issues reported in working with FEMA. Examples included problems with the consistency of interpretations and rules that varied among each local FEMA representative; issues with the high turnover and rotation of FEMA employees; and issues with the delay in FEMA arriving onsite. One possible recommendation that would address this delay would be for FEMA to consider pre-staging its designated response staff just outside of the cone of influence of a major storm so that they can immediately respond when disaster assistance is requested. If major utilities, the Red Cross and network television are able to respond then FEMA should not have any problem.

Submitted by Ben E. Wolfe, Jr., former Public Works Director, City of Jackson, Mississippi, former APWA Director of Region IV (1998-2004), and Chair, APWA Government Affairs Committee. He can be reached at WOLFEBEN@aol.com.