Hurricane Katrina and the Pony Express: Intergovernmental Communication after the Storm

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Hurricane Katrina and the Pony Express: Intergovernmental Communication after the Storm
Anderson, Casey
Kellerman, Ed ( Mentor )
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Gainesville, Fla.
University of Florida
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Journ31l of in.nderr.3adu.3:e R-esearch

..Oluinie , issue 4 - la.3rch ..' 'pril I.ii.

Hurricane Katrina and the Pony Express: Intergovernmental
Communication after the Storm

Casey Anderson


In the organizational disaster following Hurricane Katrina, Ray Chidester learned quickly how

communication problems between government agencies can hamper recovery efforts. Chidester, Director of

the Livingston Parish Office of Emergency Preparedness, spent those critical days trying to direct essential supplies

to storm victims who needed them. Before Katrina's landfall in New Orleans on August 29, 2005, President

Bush declared that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would lead the relief effort and manage

the administration of resources. Chidester saw the needs of distressed residents, and, when he managed to

contact FEMA, he asked for fresh water. When trucks arrived in Livingston Parish, they were hauling thousands

of empty bottles1.

Government officials across the state shared Chidester's frustration. Isolated from the rest of the nation by

a complete loss of communications capability and impassable roads, rural Washington Parish waited for help that

was not coming. Help went instead to New Orleans-a center of media attention-and to less-damaged parishes

that could still communicate their needs. By the time Livingston received the requested shipments of water,

the parish had already restored its wells. Parish officials convoyed supply trucks to Washington Parish, where

water was needed badly. For weeks, Livingston continued receiving truckloads of supplies no longer necessary to

the parish, but vital elsewhere. Chidester and local officials arranged a staging area to route supplies to

parishes where they were needed.

Officials in Livingston and East Baton Rouge learned to act on their own to meet the apparent need in other

parishes. Those in regions more remote to the devastation waited for instructions from state or federal

authorities. Lacking protocol or assigned roles, these officials saw their resources wasted while they awaited direction.

Local government officials knew the conditions and needs of their towns and parishes first-hand, but lacked

supplies or working communications to obtain them. Some officials surveyed for this study named the only

working medium for communication "the Pony Express," messages by word of mouth. The metaphor was apt:

the Pony Express took ten days to deliver mail between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts in 1860. When Katrina hit

in 2005, it took ten days on average before local officials were able to contact any representative of FEMA,

according to local officials . When external communication was possible, these officials experienced an inability

to speak to anyone with the authority to solve their problems. Most officials felt that no uniform,

effective communication system existed to ensure that people received adequate help and supplies.

This is a descriptive study of intergovernmental communication after Katrina and problems that led to setbacks

in recovery. The study is not intended to accuse, but to examine specific communication problems, their origins

and symptoms, and to explore government officials' perceptions of what still needs to be done to better prepare

for future disasters. Several studies have evaluated administrative problems within FEMA, and some

have investigated communication problems between state and federal government. Little attention has been given

to local officials' experiences and perceptions of communication after the storm. These officials can offer

important insights into the problems that occurred and possible means for improved planning and response.


This study examined opinions of municipal, parish, and state government officials about communication after

Katrina. Their opinions were collected through survey responses and interviews. About 200 surveys were

distributed to a convenience sample of municipal, parish, and state officials in Louisiana. The distribution

included officials of every parish in the state. Of those surveys, 80 responses were returned. The resulting

data represent officials of 11 municipalities, 27 parishes, and the state of Louisiana. Participants included

parish presidents, sheriffs, police chiefs, fire chiefs, Office of Emergency Preparedness directors, municipal and

parish council members, mayors, and legislators.

On the survey, officials recorded their perceptions regarding communication effectiveness of local, state, federal,

and nongovernmental agencies involved in recovery. Participants rated each agency for its

communication accessibility and effectiveness. Ratings scaled one to five, with one indicating completely

ineffective communication, three indicating adequacy, and five indicating total efficacy. Participants gave each

agency two ratings, one for the first 48 hours after the storm and another for communication during the

subsequent three weeks of storm relief.

Other information and quotes included in this report were drawn from participants' responses to open-ended

survey questions and from interviews with government officials about their experiences with communication after

the storm.

These data illustrate the main factors in communication problems as perceived by local and state officials as well

as symptoms and proposed solutions to such problems. This report will emphasize recurring themes drawn

from these data. Participants were instructed to skip any questions which they felt unqualified or unwilling to

answer. Names of participants appear in this report with their consent, and names of officials requesting

anonymity have not been used.


The first half of the survey consisted of two grids to record participants' ratings for each agency's
communication during the first 48 hours after Katrina and during the subsequent three weeks. Average scores
from these questions represent trends in the opinions of the various officials. The following tables and
graphs represent average scores for each agency in both time frames, drawn from responding participants'
mean response when prompted to indicate their opinionof each agency or group's communication accessibility
and effectiveness, based on the scale: 1-Totally ineffective 2-Very ineffective 3-Adequately effective 4-
Very Effective 5-Totally effective. Ratings for the first 48 hours are displayed graphically in Figure 1, and ratings
for the subsequent three weeks are displayed in Figure 2.

Table 1.
Average Ratings for Agencies' Communication Accessibility and Effeciveness

First 48 hours:

Parish President 3.9
Fire and Rescue 4.1
Law Enforcement 4.1
OEP 3.7
Public Works 4.0

Governor's Office 2.3
DHH 2.6
National Guard 3.3
State Police 3.5
Wildlife and Fisheries 3.5

White House 2.2
FEMA 1.8
Coast Guard 3.1
Corps of Engineers 2.3

Red Cross 2.9
Area Media 3.5
Schools 3.9
Churches 4.1

Subsequent three weeks:

Parish President 4.1
Fire and Rescue 4.4
Law Enforcement 4.4
OEP 4.0
Public Works 4.2

Governor's Office 2.7
DHH 2.9
National Guard 3.7
State Police 3.9
Wildlife and Fisheries 3.8

White House 2.6
FEMA 2.2
Coast Guard 3.3
Corps ofEngineers 2.6

Red Cross 3.2
Area Media 3.9
Schools 4.0
Churches 4.2

Officials rated FEMA's communication least effective of all agencies in both time periods. The White House
received the second-lowest ratings. Agencies on the local level demonstrated consistently more
effective communication, local law enforcement topping the list with a 4.4 average rating, between "Very

Effective" and "Totally effective" in the second time period. Most nongovernmental agencies received above-

adequate ratings.

Despite Katrina's heavy blow to infrastructural communications systems such as radio and cell-phone towers,

these trends show that local officials achieved consistent, effective communication among agencies on their

level. These officials found state and federal agencies more inaccessible and ineffective. Generally,

communication efficacy fell as administrative authority rose.

Communication Durrig First 48 Hours After Katrina
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1-ToWlly inffectv 2-Vary Inoffettive 3-Adcly lrttyco 4--Vey Ecctr*v 5-Tota*y Wfedtive

Figure 1. Mean Ratings for Agencies' Communication During First 48 Hours After Katrina

Communication During Subsequent Three Weeks
Mean cwes fo r fedete1 (d) . s~at. yellow Ioal (l~u) and NGO (eem) agency$' iommu(cautito
1-Tofly inff ivt 2-Vwy Inotfiv 3-Aqdimty �*0�4-Vt iy Effoirvt 5-Tot*- Mfbt

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Figure 2: Mean Ratings for Agencies' Communication During Subsequent Three Weeks of Relief

Within each level of government, administrative agencies (parish presidents, the Governor's Office, FEMA, and

the White House) displayed less effective communication than agencies of protection and law enforcement

(local police, fire and rescue, state police, the National Guard, and the Coast Guard). At the same

time, administrative officials participating in the survey expressed more optimism than law enforcement

officials about communication on the local level. Survey responses from administrators such as mayors and

parish presidents yielded higher ratings for every local agency (including law enforcement) than responses

from sheriffs and police chiefs.

The second section of the survey included questions regarding the accessibility of state and federal authorities

for local officials requesting aid.

"About how many days elapsed between your initial aid request and its fulfillment?" On average, local officials

said that fulfillment took 16 days. This average accounts only for participants who gave numerical responses.

Four responded, "Never," one responded, "Too many," and one responded, "What aid?"

"How long after the storm did FEMA provide aid to your parish?" On average, officials reported that 27 days

passed before FEMA provided aid (again, not accounting for one "never" response).

Two questions, "About how many days after the storm were you first able to contact a FEMA representative?"

and, "About how many days after the storm were you first able to contact a state official?" compare the

accessibility of FEMA and the state. Though two officials answered that they were never able to contact

FEMA, average response indicated that it took local officials about ten days to get in touch with a representative

of the agency, and only three days to contact a state official.

The trends among responses to the rating section and the questions listed above show which agencies

maintained solid communication and which agencies failed, according to officials surveyed in Louisiana. However,

the scores don't indicate why agencies performed as they did, or what specific problems occurred in any

agency's communication. A thematic analysis of responses to open-ended questions and interviews will elaborate

on the preceding numerical data. Participants' responses in this section demonstrate key factors perceived

in communication problems, the symptoms of poor communication, and consensus on what the government needs

to do now to avoid costly problems in future emergencies.

Misinformation and Waste

After Katrina's initial blow to Southeast Louisiana, the storm left officials with a second disaster on their hands-

flood. High water drove residents from their homes without food, shelter, or basic supplies. Local officials used

what resources were available and struggled to acquire enough to support the crowd.

This was a crucial time for intergovernmental communication. FEMA possessed all federal resources intended for

the victims. Officials in devastated areas tried to communicate their needs to coordinate provisions, while those

in less-damaged parishes offered FEMA their help and resources, but FEMA often failed to link the availability with

the needs. Survey participants reported frequently that misinformation resulted in the waste of vital resources,

and caused general confusion that was counterproductive to the task at hand. Participants directed most

complaints about misinformation toward FEMA, but the problem extended to local and state agencies, and to

Red Cross.

Officials criticized FEMA for inconsistency with information. "They would send different representatives and each

one would give a different response to the same question," said Ronald Cotton, Director of Livingston

Parish Emergency Communications4.

Officials in parishes farther from the coast tried to employ their own resources, but miscommunication with

FEMA limited their ability to provide effective help. The OEP director in one parish complained that "evacuees

needed trailers and [FEMA] gave us misleading answers concerning placing those people. After trailers were set up

it was weeks before they were occupied." One sheriff experienced a similar problem. "Information received

about evacuees that were to be bused in was misleading. Agencies would be prepared and no buses would

come," while full shelters in other parishes received busloads of unexpected evacuees. Officials of these

inland parishes lost no technical communications capability, but good information was a rare commodity.

Dean Dozier, Ouachita Parish OEP Director, felt that the abundance of bad information stemmed partly from

rumors. Communication of inaccurate information multiplied as people receiving messages passed them

along, illustrating an elementary communication principle-misinformation propagates further

misinformation. "Widespread repetition of false information spread throughout agencies without critical

review," explained Joseph Suhayda, Director of Louisiana Water Resources.

Colonel Greg Phares, Sheriff of East Baton Rouge Parish, said that rumors distorted information about crime in

New Orleanss5. His department performed rescue operations in New Orleans, staying together in a single unit

because of reports of looting and armed gangs. "About the second day we were down there we realized this was

a lie," he said. "I never felt any threat from civilians." These misinformed "perceptions of warfare" limited the

service the department could perform. "We could have split our work four ways," he said. Denham Springs

Police Chief Jeff Wesley agreed: "The rumor mill was incredible-rioting at Wal-Mart, bands of armed people

parading through the streets, shooting people and raping women."6

Survey responses indicate that misinformation was a widespread problem, not exclusive to any agency.

Livingston Mayor D.D. Jones felt that the state failed to inform local officials about procedures. "The

state [Department of Health and Hospitals] failed to keep town officials apprised of plans to distribute

emergency food stamps, leaving us to deal with lines of thousands of applicants over a two week period," Jones

said. Ricky Edwards, Sheriff of Jefferson Davis Parish claimed, "U.S. Surgeon General's Office and FEO

health inspectors actually made up non-existent information on their reports." The OEP director in one

heavily-damaged parish said that Red Cross promised to distribute food at relief sites that did not exist.

False Assurance

A similar problem appeared regularly in survey responses-the communication of unrealistic promises.

Unlike complaints about miscommunication, these targeted two agencies almost exclusively-FEMA and Red

Cross. False claims about available resources and services left local officials banking on help that wasn't coming.

One search and rescue operations commander reported, "FEMA promised immediate help, supplies and

shelter. Eleven months later, we are still waiting for assistance." St. Landry Parish Sheriff Vernon Marks said

that FEMA and Red Cross "promised support but did not show." The burden FEMA and Red Cross failed to support

fell to local agencies, churches, and volunteers. "It became very apparent to us on the third day that no help

was coming. Had it not been for the churches, we would have had another disaster on our hands-we would not

have been able to feed the people," said Denham Springs Police Chief Jeff Wesley.

Most responses regarding Red Cross suggest that the agency took action, but was too overwhelmed to fulfill

its promises. "Red Cross agreed to set up a shelter, set it up and left after one day," said Union Parish Sheriff

Bob Buckley. "Area churches prepared and fed three meals a day for over a month."

Officials in Washington Parish received no outside information at all for 72 hours after the storm, and had no

effective communications systems for ten days, according to Parish President Toye Taylor. The isolated region

was counting on support the White House had promised before the storm hit. "[Federal government] promised

help before Katrina landfall," said Taylor, but "despite an unprecedented presidential decree, we were 100% our

own. Communication is now a greater need than food, water, and oxygen. Without communication you

cannot receive the basics to sustain life."

Elusive Leadership and Counterproductive Management

Officials in areas with or without working communications generally agreed that FEMA's inaccessibility

caused needless difficulty in obtaining resources and help. Despite having working telephones, one West Baton

Rouge Parish official said she was unable to make an effective aid request because, "No one seemed to know

where the people we needed to get information from were located." A LaSalle Parish official complained that

FEMA representatives operated out of Baton Rouge and "commuted daily to other places but did not stay long,

and only called [our agencies] when they needed help."

When local officials were able to contact FEMA, they faced another difficulty. "Representatives and

administration were constantly changing," said Deputy Vernon Marks of St. Landry Parish. This caused

"constant change of rules and strategy," and made it impossible to "establish a uniform procedure." Other

officials identified such unpredictable leadership as a key cause of misinformation and indecision. There were

"too many chiefs," said Kearny Foster, acting Chief of Operations for the Livingston Parish Sheriff's Office.

"One person would make a decision and someone else would change the plan." One OEP director attributed

the problem to "people of little knowledge about the procedures answering the phone, giving out wrong

information," and "people in authority with no knowledge of the plans tested, tried, and in place." Another

parish president explained, "Each time you meet they change personnel," so that "you never talk to the

same person." Livingston Mayor D.D. Jones said, "Each communication from FEMA changed from the previous

one. No one seemed certain about the rules." To aggravate the problem, she said, "FEMA contractors used

sub-contractors who used other sub-contractors, and caused communication havoc."

The apparent void of authority led many officials to conclude that no real chain of command existed. "No one

was clearly in charge," said Lori Lamm-Williams of the Denham Springs Council. She emphasized the need for

a "clear person on the top" from whom information "quickly trickles down to responding agencies within

the parishes." State Representative Dale Erdey said, "Mass communication failures within administration, both

state and federal, caused major chaos and confusion." He cited the problems of "indecisiveness from

state administration and lack of competent and trained leadership." This theme among survey responses indicates

a paradoxical problem-federal government imposed an administrative structure requiring authorization for

recovery measures, while failing to construct any apparent means for local officials to access that administration.

Some officials reported that this obfuscation of authority caused major setbacks and obstructed local operations.

One official in Jefferson Parish complained that FEMA officials disconnected his agency's working radio repeaters

for their own use. Denham Springs Police Chief Jeff Wesley said, "I don't think there was a direct chain of

command from top to bottom, and people were unable to get what they needed." Wesley reported seeing

volunteers with boats and supplies attempting to help with rescue operations, but "they were told that if they

were needed, they would be called. They were obviously needed." He suggested that in some cases, agencies had

to bypass these authorities to perform help that was obviously needed. "We have rules and procedures that we like

to follow. Under normal circumstances, those rules and procedures work very well. But there comes a time,

when peoples' lives are at stake, that you've just got to throw the book out of the window and fly by the seat of

your pants."

Coordination of Technical Systems

Katrina caused massive damage to radio and cell-phone towers, power lines, and other communication

media, leaving no universal, working medium for communication between governments. Many officials reported

that they had working radios, but their radio frequencies were incompatible with other parishes' systems, leaving

no outlet for external communications but the Pony Express.

A basic principle of communication illustrates the problem-messages cannot be sent or received without a

medium for transmission. This principle may seem obvious, but officials should keep it in mind when planning

for communication. Adequate disaster preparation requires anticipation of damage to infrastructure. Jerry

Bailey, Bogalusa Director of Administration, suggested that the state "acquire communication equipment that

does not totally depend on electricity, towers, or cables." Many officials are looking to satellite phones to fit this

role, since that medium works above conditions on the ground. However, some pointed out that satellite phones

were used in some areas, but often failed because personnel were unfamiliar with using the technology.

Satellite phones were "inoperable due to lack of training and experience," said State Representative Dale

Erdey. Practical planning should be in place not only to provide new systems immune to hurricanes, but to

avoid damage of existing equipment. "Communication equipment needs to be located above possible flood

levels," said Kent Shexnaydre of the Ascension Parish Council.

Adding to the problem of damaged infrastructure was the lack of coordination of technical systems and

procedures statewide. No plan was in place to ensure coordination and maintenance of communication between

all local and state agencies. Some parishes, such as Ascension, planned and funded interoperable systems

that established unified communication media and procedures throughout the parish, and such systems

proved effective where used. Survey participants emphasized the need for such compatibility statewide.

Livingston Parish suffered no internal communication loss, but the sheriff, Willie Graves, was "unable to

communicate with other agencies throughout the state, due to incompatible frequencies." New Orleans

Sheriff Edward LaFourcade said that a statewide radio contact will be necessary to improve communication in

future disasters. Such a system was promised, he said, but the promise went unfulfilled.


Officials in Louisiana attributed pervasive communication problems surrounding Hurricane Katrina to poor

technical coordination, inaccessibility of administrative agencies, failure of state and federal authorities to

establish fixed protocols and strategy, and the lack of an intergovernmental communication system

incorporating officials on each level of government. Symptoms of communication failure included widespread

false information, needless conflict between agencies, isolation of individual regions, inefficiency in

resource distribution, and mass confusion preventing effective action.

Government officials can address organizational communication problems only after reliable technical media

are ensured. Technical problems cannot be viewed independently of management problems, as the responsibility

of ensuring a medium for communication rests on government. One parish president said, "Technical systems

failed at all levels, but poor management at state and federal levels failed to address the technical issues."

Another hurricane season has passed, and officials feel that too little has been done to avoid repetition of

problems that occurred after Katrina.

Local officials need to maintain existing communications equipment and anticipate flood damage, while

providing advanced training for operators of new systems such as satellite phones. State authorities should

act quickly to address major compatibility problems between local agencies. At minimum, all parishes

should establish a uniform statewide radio frequency for emergency communications. Legislators have refused

to confront the problem. A bill to improve disaster communications died in a House Committee on June 14,

2006. According to Will Sentell of The Advocate, the bill's proponents said that without approval of the bill,

"the Legislature will have failed to address one of the two biggest problems-communication and levees-that

arose after Hurricane Katrina."7 Despite the clear evidence that short-term spending will bear returns in

efficiency and saved lives in the future, a statewide interoperable system has not been planned or funded.

The difficulties officials in Louisiana described indicate that effective performance in an emergency requires

careful planning for organizational communication-a coordinated system needs to be in place ahead of time.

An emergency communication system should provide an upward link in which local officials can inform state

and federal authorities about conditions and needs in the field. Likewise, the system needs a downward link in

which state or federal officials can administer direction, authorization, and realistic information about

available resources. Such a system would ensure more efficient use of resources, as people managing

those resources would know what supplies were needed and where.

Joseph Suhayda, Director of Louisiana Water Resources, said, "Communication was, prior to the storm, identified as

a key critical capability that needed full recovery, but that didn't occur." If FEMA is to bear the same responsibilities

in future disasters, planning should be fixed and known by all levels of government. Livingston Mayor D.D.

Jones said, "There must be more planning that involves local government. The services that we are expected

to provide should be detailed in advance. We basically handled the Katrina event like on-the-job training. One

year later, I've still not been invited to participate in any additional planning."

Ray Chidester acted independently to circumvent the confusion that prevented resources from reaching

victims. Chidester recommended that FEMA officials be on hand in local offices during future emergencies, so

that supplies and relief can be approved without the lag of the Pony Express. William Jenkins of the

Government Accountability Office addressed this issue in his testimony before the House of Representatives.

"Fewer federal resources are needed to respond to a catastrophic disaster if state and local governments'

response capabilities are greater. . . FEMA is not a first responder, state and local government officials . . . must

take the lead in developing strategic and operational plans. . . That is because local officials are most

knowledgeable of their communities, including their needs and capabilities."8 If federal agencies expect local

officials to address those needs, future planning, needs to provide, as Chidester said, "more federal assets

and supplies available locally to the parishes," and endow those officials with the autonomy to mange those

resources appropriately.

Agencies with fixed chains of command and communication procedures central to their structure, such as

law enforcement, exhibited the most effective communication in this study, while administrative agencies

flagged. Many participants said that churches and volunteers, unhindered by bureaucratic red tape, performed

the most effective help amid the chaos and confusion. They opened their doors to the stranded and supplied food

and water to the hungry. Tangipahoa Parish President Gordon Burgess suggested that administration view

these groups as models for performance in future emergencies9. Churches and volunteers were interested in

saving lives. If administrative agencies such as FEMA share this goal, the time has come for government to install

a new communication structure sufficient that will better equip local officials for saving lives by meeting the

needs that officials have outlined in this report.


1. Surveys with local and state officials of Louisiana, conducted by Casey Anderson. June-August 2006.


1. Chidester, Ray. Personal Interview. 30 June 2006.

2. Surveys with local and state officials of Louisiana, conducted by Casey Anderson. June-August 2006.

3. Cotton, Ronald. Personal Interview. 30 June 2006.

4. Phares, Greg. Personal Interview. 27 July 2006.

5. Wesley, Jeff. Personal Interview. 27 July 2006.

6. Sentell, Will. "Disaster Communications Bill Dies." The Advocate 15 June 2006: 11A.

7. Jennings, William. Testimony before the Committee on Homeland Security, U.S. House of Representatives, 9

May 2006.

8. Burgess, Gordon. Personal Interview. 15 June 2006.


For reference, the survey for this study is attached here in the form used during data collection (PDF). The

University of Florida Institutional Review Board approved the survey.


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