On this day five years ago, I was sitting in a hanger in Alabama waiting to board a bus to Hattiesburg, Mississippi as part of the advanced team for the 1500 person Task Force Buckeye in support of the state of Mississippi’s response to Hurricane Katrina. This state of affairs came about because Ohio had a reciprocal aid agreement with Mississippi and the unit to which I belonged was tasked by Ohio to provide communications support for such things.
Needless to say, everyplace from Alabama to Hattiesburg to Stennis where we finally ended up was in complete chaos after that monster storm, yet it still pains me to hear the media and, as a result, the popular characterization of the events of those first days. You see, any disaster response is chaos at first. No one knows what’s going on, the lines of command and control are blurred between individuals, and local, state, and federal agencies. No one was sure how bad it really was. The flooding in New Orleans had just started. People were rushing to provide aid and to help those who needed to get out.
Yet, in spite of that chaos, amazing things occurred. All four branches of the active military, the Coast Guard, multiple states’ national guards, the Red Cross, hundreds of emergency management agencies, and countless others were already on their way. Helicopters were already plucking people from the floods. Methods of moving the displaced from the coast to places where they could be cared for were already in place. In some places, like Stennis, the crush of those coming to help would raise the population from what it had been before the storm.
Yes, bad things did happen, but they always do in those kinds of situations. You see, what happened on the Gulf Coast on 29 August was, in a lot of ways, like what happened to the great cities of Germany or Japan during World War II. The Gulf Coast, from Mobile to Galveston, was thoroughly destroyed in a fashion unimaginable by even those who were there and in a fashion rivaled by very few other natural disasters in US history.
So, it is no wonder that, five years on, things still aren’t right, mistakes are still being made, and progress seems to be measured in decades rather than months or years. Even though things have not happened at the pace people want them to happen, they are happening, and just like so many other places have risen from the devastation, the Gulf Coast will rise above Katrina. And they will rise above it because people still care and are willing to go down and lend a hand with their skills, their labor, and even their tourist dollars.