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Lessons of Hurricane Katrina Learned Firsthand: Part One

Ten years ago, Louisiana looked directly into the eye of a killer hurricane, a massive storm that attained Category 5 status in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Her name was Katrina, and Monday, August 29, 2005, was a day we will never forget.

Many lessons were learned and there is no doubt that they were learned the hard way. The Gulf Coast states saw the loss of more than 1,500 lives. Many of these were lost within the City of New Orleans. Property damage and loss was historic. The pictures told the story for months and even years to come.

Nestled in the midst of the flooded area was a small state office – the New Orleans Support Enforcement Services office, a cinder-block building that served as a daytime home to about 50 employees. The water pooled within the facility at about 4 ½ feet and the contents were a total loss. Though it seems we came to a tragic end, this was not the end of the story. We eventually walked away from a restored building with lighter spirits, greater knowledge about disaster preparedness, and stronger confidence that we have what it takes to weather future storms.

Over the next few weeks, I will share my lessons learned from Katrina with the hope that readers will find help and hope in preparing for and responding to other disasters. My comments relate to these categories:

  1. Supporting people first – staff and customers;
  2. Continuing the mission and the work;
  3. Recovering and rebuilding for the future.

And so, it began like this…..

Friday, August 26, 2005 was an interesting day, but not overly stressful. A named storm had entered the Gulf of Mexico, and Louisiana State employees were involved in emergency preparedness procedures we had learned, reviewed, and practiced for days like this. Through 30 years of state employment, I had seen a number of hurricanes make landfall in our state. We had always been ready and able to deal with the issues they caused.

The Department of Social Services (DSS) emergency coordinator sent a message at mid-day advising that Hurricane Katrina was in the Gulf and projected to hit the Florida panhandle. The staff at the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was placed on standby and lead shelter managers were to monitor the storm and be prepared to open shelters if the storm began a westward track. This storm did not seem to be a threat to Louisiana. At closing time, we said our usual good-byes: “See you Monday. Have a great weekend!” With that, we locked the doors and headed home.

Overnight, our future changed drastically. Hurricane Katrina took a westward course, strengthening quickly over the warm waters of the Gulf. We received a notice that said, “The projected path for Hurricane Katrina takes the storm straight into Louisiana.  At this time there could be changes but we are preparing for a direct impact in the Grand Isle area moving into the metropolitan New Orleans Area.” The instructions stated that four large shelters would be opened on Saturday, and the New Orleans Superdome would open as a “shelter of last resort” on Sunday morning at 8 a.m.

This was it – the dreaded direct hit on New Orleans was going to happen. All of our experience, plans, and preparation would be tested. If the levees held and the pumps worked, New Orleans would be okay. There was no time to worry. This was the time to work.


[This is the first installment in a four-part series about Robbie Endris’ personal experience as the Executive Director of the state’s child support agency in New Orleans during the 2005 arrival and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Visit the blog next week for the next installment or subscribe to be notified of updates here.]