Hurricane response shows gaps in public-private coordination

After Katrina, corporate officials and federal employees relied on personal connections, fortunate coincidences to join forces.

On Thursday, August 25, as Hurricane Katrina roared toward the coast, the global operations center went to full alert.

A small crew had tracked Katrina 24 hours a day since it formed as a nameless tropical depression. Now dozens of personnel, drawn from different specialties, packed the operations center and readied the mobile command posts for deployment. Managers kept one eye on the storm's advance and another on the progress of the supply trucks laden with food, water, generators, and even diapers that were heading toward staging areas.

That afternoon, Katrina plowed through Florida and then made its fateful turn toward New Orleans. The operations center sent urgent orders to local managers all along the Gulf Coast: Board up your stores.

All of these preparations -- the command post, the forecasting, the pre-positioning of supplies -- were being made by an organization entirely independent of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. military, and the state of Louisiana. They were being made by Wal-Mart.

America's giant corporations have their own emergency-management systems, separate from and parallel to the government's. They cannot afford not to: These businesses have billions in assets -- facilities, goods, and personnel -- to protect. And if those private assets survive intact, they can help fill a tremendous public need during disaster-recovery efforts, if the private and public sectors can bridge their differences and work together.

"Those companies that were well prepared weathered the storm far, far better, and, by the way, were able to help their neighbors," said Alfonso Martinez-Fonts, head of the small private-sector outreach office at the Homeland Security Department. The private resources available are staggering: The Gulf Coast utility company Entergy alone mobilized more than 15,000 workers from across the country to restore power after Katrina.

The question, according to Martinez-Fonts, is, "How can we piggyback on that tremendous strength of the private sector?"

Working on the answer is Ern Blackwelder, a senior vice president of the advocacy group Business Executives for National Security, whose initiatives in mobilizing corporations for homeland-security missions have been hailed by Martinez-Fonts and others as a national model.

"It takes some effort to put business and government together," Blackwelder said. "Both sides want to work together, but oftentimes don't know how."

No company demonstrates more clearly how much can be done -- and how much is still to be done -- than Wal-Mart. With its facilities concentrated in the storm-prone Southeastern states, the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer had hurricane plans in place long before Katrina. Checklists prompt store managers to pack their refrigerators with dry ice if the power goes out, to barricade entrances against potential looters, and to shrink-wrap air-conditioning vents to keep floodwaters out.

Data from past storms instruct supply-chain staff to pre-position caches of "what we call 'disaster merchandise,' like blankets, ready-to-eat foods, 5-gallon gas cans, and generators," said Kenneth Senser, a former CIA spy catcher who is now Wal-Mart's vice president for global security. Strawberry Pop-Tarts are a particular favorite.

In the first three weeks after Katrina, Wal-Mart sent almost 2,500 truckloads of supplies to the stricken states, most of it for sale to individuals or relief agencies; 100 of those loads were outright donations.

Doing good on this scale requires good organization. "One tractor-trailer holds 24 pallets of water," Senser said. That's 4,032 cases, totaling more than 12,000 gallons: "You have to have something on the other end to manage the process of offloading; it's not just 'drop 'em off.' "

Although Wal-Mart, plagued by bad publicity over its personnel policies, prefers to focus on its post-Katrina successes, the company sometimes struggled to coordinate with the Louisiana National Guard and other government agencies about what to send, how to dispense it, and what to charge. Shipments were held up needlessly, turned back at checkpoints, or delivered without clear agreement on whether the supplies were to be given away or sold.

Some such confusion is inevitable in a crisis -- that's precisely why officials at Wal-Mart, or the National Guard for that matter, plan so carefully ahead of time. But it turned out that the planning on both sides had a blind spot big enough for a hurricane to swirl through.

The Guard had rehearsed its role in a disaster; Wal-Mart had refined its checklists to secure its stores; but neither had thought through how to work with the other. As organized as Wal-Mart was internally, its cooperation with the government was often "totally off-the-cuff," Senser said.

Wal-Mart had participated in the federal disaster-recovery exercise "Topoff 3" in April, and the company had Red Cross representatives in its command post when Katrina struck. But it was only weeks later, as Hurricane Rita bore down, that Wal-Mart finally managed to put a company liaison in the Texas state operations center.

So in the first, desperate days after Katrina slammed ashore, corporate officials and public servants had to improvise ways of working together, based on personal connections and fortunate coincidences. At the point where all procedures failed, people, regardless of whom they reported to, just banded together to save lives as best they could.

One of them was Trent Ward.

Wal-Mart Minutemen

Trent Ward's Army career ended in Saudi Arabia during the first Persian Gulf War, cut short not by hostile fire but by a disabling knee injury that even today requires occasional surgery. He came home to Louisiana to care for his ailing father and to work at Wal-Mart, in "every part of the store, from the optician to the tire department," Ward said.

By August 2005, he had become a "loss-prevention associate" -- a Wal-Mart security officer, paid by the hour. He and a colleague were responsible for pre-Katrina preparations at the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Kenner, La., just north of New Orleans International Airport.

By the time Ward got the store buttoned down on the day before Katrina hit, "traffic was just at a standstill," he recalled. So instead of trying to evacuate, he got a room on the seventh floor of a nearby Radisson Hotel, "which was fine, until the windows blew in."

City officials just happened to be holed up at the same hotel. In the lobby the next morning, with water 6 feet deep outside, Ward ran into Kenner's emergency-supplies director, Keith Conley. "I had never met [Ward] before," Conley said. But when Ward offered to help, Conley quickly sent a high-water truck to take him back to the store.

"There were gators coming across the front of the truck," Ward recalled. "You couldn't even tell where the streets were." Telephone poles and trees were scattered as if "God took a box of toothpicks and threw 'em in the air. What happened to my world?" he remembered thinking. "You could hear the waves popping up against the houses. It was deathly quiet."

Then Ward and the driver heard someone calling for help. Buses that were supposed to evacuate a local nursing home had not shown up in time, and now a hundred residents and staff were trapped, and already out of drinkable water. "Two of them had passed away already," Ward said.

He flagged down some police officers he knew. "Kenner's not a big place," he said, and from working with the police on shoplifting cases, he knew "everybody from the chief on down." Ward got a little water from the police. And then he made the 4-mile, two-hour drive through floodwaters to the Wal-Mart he had barricaded just the day before, and popped open the loading-dock door with a forklift.

That first day, Ward got two pallets of bottled water, more than a thousand gallons, to the nursing home. Next, he delivered a pallet of ice to a hospital. Officers and firefighters soaked in sludge came by the store for clean socks and underwear. Mothers came for diapers.

And 1,600 people who were stuck in shelters needed food: "We would sit up until 2:30 in the morning making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches," Ward recalled. Unlike some of his colleagues at other Wal-Marts, Ward even removed the guns from his store before they could be looted, organizing a National Guard escort to take the weapons to the Kenner City Hall.

In the first critical days, more than 90 percent of the city's supplies were coming from Ward's Wal-Mart, said Kenner Fire Chief Michael Zito: "If we had waited on the state or federal government, we would've starved to death, no joking."

While Ward was improvising his own city-corporate-military task forces on the fly, Wal-Mart regional Vice President Ronny Hayes was bringing in a small team from corporate headquarters. Working the company's law enforcement contacts, Hayes got through the roadblocks and into the staging area -- which happened to be the parking lot of a Wal-Mart Sam's Club superstore in Metairie, La., just outside of New Orleans proper -- where Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee was rallying the government response.

"I'd never met him before," said Sheriff Lee. "Hayes stood there waiting while I was talking to FEMA [officials], then walked up to me and introduced himself."

Lee's deputies were already requisitioning supplies from the store, keeping a record on a yellow legal pad for later reimbursement. Hayes told them to forget about paying Wal-Mart back. Cop and corporation struck an instant alliance. Government workers could take anything they needed, for free, but only from selected stores that Wal-Mart would keep resupplied, in return for police escorts for its people and supplies.

"We needed to control it," Hayes said. "That relationship allowed me to get into parts of New Orleans that other people couldn't, so I could assess the damage to our facilities."

By the third day, Wal-Mart trucks began hauling supplies for Sheriff Lee and other local officials: free shipments of water, food, clothing, work gloves, even chainsaws for clearing fallen trees. Wal-Mart ultimately handed over 25 of its facilities to the relief effort, for use as supply depots, shelters for homeless citizens and officers, even a dialysis clinic.

Wal-Mart gas stations refueled emergency vehicles. Wal-Mart refrigerator trucks stored food supplies. Wal-Mart mobile generators recharged police radios. And in Kenner, Trent Ward -- who initially had feared he would be fired for his recovery efforts -- led an escort of his police buddies to rendezvous with a Wal-Mart convoy.

"They beat FEMA to us, that's for sure," Conley said of the Wal-Mart trucks. "They were loaded down. It was a miracle to see them rolling in."

In the post-Katrina debate over how to do better next time, pundit after pundit proclaimed, " 'Nobody does logistics better than the U.S. military,' " recalled homeland-security analyst Randall Larsen, a retired Air Force pilot. "Wrong! Nobody does logistics better than Wal-Mart."

Six Degrees of Katrina

The power of Wal-Mart is its sheer size. But all sorts of companies, small and large, can provide key pieces of a disaster response -- if business and government can make the right connections in a crisis. In Jefferson Parish, restaurants and supermarkets offered Sheriff Lee's deputies free food; one even cooked them meals.

With power out and temperatures in the 100s, however, tons of food went bad even as people went hungry. But one of Lee's officers, Col. John Fortunato, had the brainstorm to borrow "eight huge refrigerator trucks" from a local wholesaler, Frank Christiana, who ultimately donated the use of 17 of his 38 trucks to various local agencies.

"That was improvised," Fortunato said. "I knew of Mr. Christiana's business [because] his daughter lives across the street from me."

In the chaos of Katrina, such lucky connections often closed the public-private gap where formal plans fell short.

Consider these six degrees of separation: 1) The sheriff of St. Charles Parish appealed for help from 2) the national Fraternal Order of Police, whose 3) District of Columbia Lodge had a field kitchen on wheels, but no way to haul it hundreds of miles southward. So the D.C. lodge called, among others, 4) the International Association of Machinists, which got in touch with 5) the government-relations office of United Parcel Service, which donated the use of 6) a UPS truck and driver, which hauled the field kitchen to St. Charles, where it fed 6,000 people a day.

Everyone's eagerness to help in a crisis is heartwarming. The process, however, is clumsy.

Even where the public-private connection could not have been closer, crucial resources were sometimes tantalizingly out of reach. In Belle Chasse, La., for example, on the hard-hit Plaquemines Peninsula just south of New Orleans, the ConocoPhillips oil refinery sits just outside of town. The refinery's safety director and the city's fire chief are the same person, Roy Robichaux.

Refinery and city teams train, plan, and respond to fires and chemical leaks together, Robichaux said. "We've always worked closely together."

So when rescue workers on the flooded peninsula were running out of gasoline, Robichaux naturally looked to the huge tanks at the refinery -- but he couldn't tap them:

The refinery could feed only pipelines and seagoing supertankers, not individual vehicles. ConocoPhillips headquarters in Houston sent tanker trucks, but the winding drive around the flood zones took too long for the supply to keep up with demand. So company helicopters flew in teams of engineers, who designed and built a vehicle-fueling facility on site within 10 days.

Close cooperation with local emergency responders is commonplace in industries that deal with hazardous and tightly regulated chemicals, but the Katrina effort was "exceptional," said ConocoPhillips Gulf Coast Operations President R.J. Hassler, who ultimately donated more than 100,000 gallons of fuel to Katrina relief efforts. "We made an on-the-spot decision and executed" it.

Good intentions and improvisation were not always enough, however. Former Michigan Gov. John Engler, now president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said that one of the problems for businesses in Louisiana was not knowing the right point of contact. Engler's member companies donated everything from bottled water to search-and-rescue boats to socks.

Donors who happened to have local contacts in Louisiana could get their shipments through the chaos, but "people who didn't know anybody -- the system couldn't really use them," Engler said. "You had trucks in staging areas, full of supplies, stuck. I don't think there's one right way to do it, but what's clearly wrong is not having a plan, not contemplating the potential for outside help, and not having a way to manage that."

So many offers of private help flooded into FEMA headquarters that the overloaded agency set up a toll-free hotline -- after the storm made landfall -- to handle the load. And the Homeland Security Department's private-sector liaison office hastily rolled out its prototype "National Emergency Resource Registry" (, an online database. "It's like eBay for the government," said Martinez-Fonts. "People put stuff on there that they want to sell or donate, and [relief agencies] pick stuff off that tremendous shopping list." At its peak, the registry listed some 75,000 offers.

Anyone with an Internet connection can put an offer and contact information into the resource registry. Anyone with a government-provided password can search the resulting database. The software sorts entries by distance from the area in need, by whether they are donations or offers to sell, and by an elaborate hierarchy of categories, from mobile generators to foodstuffs to aircraft to homeless shelters.

The registry includes entries from technology companies, from families willing to take in refugees, from individuals looking for a job. Users have to vet each offer's seriousness, call or e-mail the offerer, arrange delivery, and subtract the resources they use from the online database.

"We don't know how many things were actually utilized, and that's a problem," admitted Martinez-Fonts, whose office has been upgrading the registry's software post-Katrina. "We're trying to figure out a way to track it."

As a way to manage the flood of offers that any tragedy inspires, the National Emergency Resource Registry is certainly superior to making every would-be helper play "six degrees of separation" amid the crisis.

But building an ad hoc eBay is not exactly a plan. Jury-rigging a refinery to provide fuel 10 days after a disaster is no substitute for building the capability beforehand. And counting on someone with the courage and the contacts of Trent Ward being stuck in your devastated city by a happy accident is taking a big chance.

"You need to think these things through, years before" a crisis, said James Gilmore, the former Virginia governor who chaired a federal commission on terrorism from 1999 to 2004. "We need to have designated representatives in corporations around this country who understand what their company's vulnerabilities are, what they need to do in a time of crisis, and what they can do to help."

Two thousand miles from the storm-wracked Gulf Coast, atop the San Andreas Fault, sheriffs and CEOs are coming together to do just that.

Wish They All Could Be California

After Katrina hit, people from across the country mobilized to send supplies to the Gulf Coast. Jefferson Parish Sheriff Lee recalled one truckload of police equipment that came all the way from Orange County, Calif. Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona had gotten the gear together and rounded up a volunteer crew of deputies to drive it down -- but his department did not have a tractor-trailer for the 2,000-mile haul, or the money to rent one.

What the Orange County sheriff does have that most local agencies do not, however, is a staff member who works public-private coordination full-time. Heather Houston sent an e-mail to her corporate contacts, "made one phone call," and, she later recalled, "within 40 minutes, it was a done deal: We had people waiting for a deputy to pick up a 45-foot trailer," pledged by Stater Bros. supermarkets.

In the end, a different vehicle was used, but the bottom line remains: O.C. isn't playing six degrees of separation anymore.

It took the county and neighboring Los Angeles years of work to get there, though. When the 1994 Northridge earthquake left more than 30,000 Los Angelenos homeless, no plan was in place to meet their needs, nor was there any contact list of contractors. Then-Mayor Richard Riordan broke out his Rolodex and "just immediately called people I knew one way or another," he recounted to National Journal, from supermarkets, to a company that rented party tents, to his own downtown restaurant.

But Riordan, unlike many mayors, had spent his life in business. "A lot of people," he allowed, "because they haven't grown up working with the private sector, don't feel comfortable calling."

And business people often distrust politicians and bureaucrats right back: " 'If they're so bright, why aren't they making money?' " is a common attitude, said Marc Nathanson, an L.A. cable TV entrepreneur who served on the federal Broadcasting Board of Governors. But after 9/11, he said, it was clear that neither government nor the private sector could go it alone.

In December 2001 -- seven years after the Northridge quake -- Nathanson, L.A. County Sheriff Leroy Baca, O.C. Sheriff Carona, and O.C. entrepreneur Donald Sheetz co-founded a Homeland Security Advisory Council, now 60 members strong.

"What we've done," Don Sheetz explained, "is, brought together executives at the highest level, chairmen and CEOs," from major corporations across the two counties. The council holds general meetings and special seminars, lobbies for homeland-security funding, and, above all, chips away at each side's ignorance about the other.

After Al Qaeda used cellphones to set off bombs in Madrid, for example, law enforcement officials briefed the council on their quest for funding to study the misuse of cell technology. "One of the members, the regional head of Nextel, said, 'You don't need to do that,' " recalled Nathanson. " 'There's a laboratory the industry uses in El Segundo. We have every cellphone in the world there, and we'd be happy to have our scientists work with you.' Law enforcement didn't even know it existed."

While the bicounty council brings together sheriffs and CEOs, a separate program that, so far, is unique to Orange County brings together law enforcement captains and corporate security chiefs: the Private-Sector Terrorism Response Group. Its meetings focus on brutally practical topics like bomb threats and chemical-proof suits.

After the mentally ill music director of the evangelical Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., began shooting at random and stood off police for nine hours before killing himself, the cathedral's security director briefed the group on lessons learned -- like "having keys and blueprints ready for SWAT," Houston said.

One of the group's subcommittees found the 45-foot trailer for Sheriff Carona's Katrina relief in just 40 minutes. And although focused on protecting their own facilities, the group's corporate members recently practiced their response to a terrorist attack in which the companies provided food, water, and shelter to area victims.

The strategic advisory council, meanwhile, is organizing an exercise in which companies help public health authorities vaccinate tens of thousands of people against an epidemic. The council has also inventoried the privately owned helicopters in the area that could help relief efforts if an earthquake again crumbles the area's freeways -- as happened in 1994 -- and it is planning to build a broader database of corporate assets.

These are ambitious projects. But aiding the advisory council is a group that has already performed similar tasks: the Washington-based Business Executives for National Security.

Businesses as Militia

BENS was founded in 1982 by mining entrepreneur Stanley Weiss, who often said that companies needed to get involved in security debates because "being dead is bad for business."

The nonprofit BENS spent its first decades working the Washington policy debates over military base closures, Pentagon management practices, and arms proliferation. Then 9/11 shocked the good-government group into a bold experiment in practical action. Beginning with the improbably named "New Jersey Business Force" in February 2003, BENS chapters began connecting with state and local governments to mobilize their member companies as a kind of emergency militia in case of catastrophe.

Last July, the "Georgia Business Force" turned out 1,200 volunteers for a field exercise -- a simulated anthrax attack -- with public health officials. The federal government maintains a Strategic National Stockpile of pharmaceuticals bundled into "push packs" for overnight delivery in just such a crisis.

But, homeland security analyst Larsen said, "I've been told by people who left the White House not long ago that there's not a city in the country that's ready to distribute a push pack in the required time."

Ern Blackwelder, who directs the nationwide Business Force program for BENS, said, "Metropolitan Atlanta has about 5 million residents -- if we needed to vaccinate all of them in four days, it would take around 50,000 people to manage that mass vaccination." But Atlanta has only about 2,000 public health workers. The numbers don't add up.

So in the July exercise, teams of hastily trained volunteers from local businesses helped to staff the dispensing sites, reducing by half the number of public health workers required. Ultimately, BENS hopes to have just a handful of government officials at each site, overseeing an army of volunteers.

Like Wal-Mart's work with Louisiana sheriffs, the Georgia Business Force is an exercise in enlightened self-interest. Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin set up one of the mock mass-vaccination sites in its cavernous aircraft factory and provided volunteers to help public health officials run it.

"They have thousands of employees and family members," said BENS's Atlanta director, Conrad Busch. "Those people were taken care of." But in return for such access to care for their own people, Busch emphasized, the companies commit to caring for the general public as well.

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and most recently in the metro Kansas City area, BENS chapters are building computer databases of assets that their member companies can make available in a crisis. Like the federal government's National Emergency Resource Registry, the BENS system is an online catalog of resources, including trucks, generators, shelters, structural engineers, and more.

Unlike the Resource Registry, the BENS database is invitation-only. Based on official plans, state governments input prioritized lists of what they expect to need. Then BENS invites participating companies to enter information on what they could donate -- no sales pitches are allowed -- complete with 24-hour contact information and a commitment to deliver, set up, and if necessary operate the offered equipment.

The database software even has a tracking system to issue directions and credentials, so that corporate volunteers don't get stuck at police roadblocks or in staging areas.

Even so, the Business Force model has its weaknesses. All offers are assumed to be donations, but eligibility for FEMA reimbursement after the fact is still unresolved. So are some nagging questions of liability. "If I encourage an employee to help with a [vaccine] dispensing site, and they get ill or die, or if I volunteer trucks and drivers, and something bad happens, will I get sued?" Blackwelder asked.

The inconsistent "good Samaritan" shield laws across the country offer few clear answers, and BENS has not worked out compacts of its own with local authorities. And, ultimately, none of the offers that Business Force members make today carries a binding guarantee in an emergency tomorrow.

"We're not asking for memoranda of understanding or any legal document," Blackwelder said. "We're not asking [companies] to specify exactly what they'd make available."

There is a model that fills all these gaps -- a model with 50 years of history. For decades, the U.S. military has given small subsidies to commercial airlines in return for a commitment to fly troops and cargo overseas in wartime, a kind of flying militia known as the Civil Reserve Air Fleet. The agreements sat unused on the shelf until 1990, when the Pentagon suddenly needed to move 500,000 people to Saudi Arabia to confront Saddam Hussein's army in Kuwait.

Nearly two-thirds of the troops and 28 percent of the combat equipment for Operation Desert Shield flew to the war zone on commercial airliners. And with the air fleet, "everything was negotiated years in advance," emphasized Larsen, the now-retired Air Force colonel. "We knew exactly what we were paying and exactly what we could get -- instead of all these no-bid contracts at the last minute that are going to cost us a fortune" for Katrina relief.

In contrast to the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, BENS's Business Force is tiny, untested, and without federal endorsement, although it does have state support. "We've implemented this in two states from beginning to end, New Jersey and Massachusetts," Blackwelder said. The Atlanta and Kansas City chapters are just starting.

The problem is not that no one else is tackling these kinds of planning-for-disaster issues. It is that everyone is tackling them, independently. "There are a lot of people trying to reinvent the wheel in different localities," said Amy Zegart, a professor of national security organization at the University of California (Los Angeles). "If you're the mayor of Poughkeepsie or Atlanta or San Diego, it's not easy to know what the best practice is."

To make precisely those connections, 600 delegates from across the country -- mayors, emergency managers, sheriffs, fire chiefs, and, yes, business executives -- convened in Washington on November 16 for the first conference of the National Council on Readiness and Preparedness, a nonprofit group that wants to mobilize state and local leadership on homeland-security policy.

"The whole concept is to create a web of interaction, so the people in Iowa know what the people in Louisiana are doing," said former Gov. Gilmore, who founded the council this past spring.

At one of the conference's breakout sessions, a few dozen strangers on a hastily organized "Infrastructure/Economics Subcommittee" plunged headlong into the public-private gap. The dialogue leaped from vulnerability assessment planning to the value of BENS, from European Union fire-drill regulations to fundamental questions of democracy.

"You can't hold Wal-Mart accountable [the way] you expect to hold your government accountable," worried Mayor Larry Rogers of Harrisonburg, Va., who had sent food, water, and volunteers to help a sister city recover from Katrina. "They're looking at profits and losses."

Thomas Leto, emergency-management director for Herando County, Fla., responded that he brokers deals with businesses all the time that recognize the needs of the donating company. He'll have police escort a newspaper's delivery trucks through disaster zones in return for the paper's printing key emergency information on the front page, or he'll help the phone company's crews restore service in return for extra emergency circuits.

"Very few companies will have in their mission statement, 'Support the community in a time of disaster,' but they are a resource," agreed one business delegate, Darryl Moody, head of the homeland-security practice at the consulting firm BearingPoint. His firm has partnered with Fairfax County, Va., to train teams of employees in first aid, fire safety, and other emergency basics.

The volunteers are available to help the fire department in disasters -- but of course, the first place they make safer is their own office. With businesses, Moody said, "the good Samaritan appeal doesn't work as well as we'd like. What they will listen to is the company's own self-interest."

One person can be selfless; an entire company cannot. And even individual Samaritans need institutional backup -- communications, supply convoys, security, checklists, contact numbers, established procedures -- all of which takes money, time, and planning. "It has to be institutionalized," Zegart said, "so it's not dependent on individuals." One of the bitter lessons of Katrina is that the Trent Wards of the world can do only so much on their own.