There are many lessons that can be learned from a disaster as catastrophic as Hurricane Katrina. However, it will take public safety officials and law enforcement officers a long time to analyze all of the information and come up with definitive conclusions.
Barring such analysis, a good way to determine what should be done in response to future disasters is to talk to the officers who served on the front lines of Katrina. For our article, "Hell in High Water," we spoke with several ranking officers of the NOPD. And they offered the following advice to fellow officers who may face similar catastrophes.
Capt. John Bryson, commander of NOPD's Fifth District, takes exception to the language of disaster preparedness. He argues that cops can't stop a disaster or even mitigate its damage. "You can't plan for a disaster. You can only plan for its aftermath," he says.
Bryson, whose district includes the devastated Ninth Ward and Lower Ninth Ward, says that everything should be done in advance of a disaster to ensure that the responders have the tools they need to respond and the resources to alleviate the suffering of the injured and the dispossessed.
"You have to have the equipment in place," Bryson explains. "You have to have the food, the water, the medical supplies. And you also have to have the personnel, the emergency medical, the police, and even the military. They all have to be ready to come in after the disaster."
Of course, one of the problems that any city hit with a disaster will have to cope with is a delay in state and federal response. It takes time to move personnel and equipment into the area.
Capt. Tim Bayard, commander of the NOPD's narcotics and vice division, says that a police force coping with a major disaster has to do whatever it can to establish order and help the victims. "Whatever you need to do, you have to do it," he says. For example, immediately following the hurricane, NOPD officers commandeered boats and vehicles that would help them reach the victims.
Bryson adds that officers have to be flexible and inventive when responding to a disaster. "We need to do more to train our officers to work in rapidly changing environments," he says.
One thing that's likely to happen in the fluid and dangerous environment that follows a disaster is that ordinarily law-abiding citizens may commit acts that they wouldn't consider under better conditions. For example, desperate people will loot stores for necessities and creature comforts.
"One of the most important things you can do is guard the retail outlets, especially the grocery stores," says Bryson. "If they get looted, then you will have no way to feed people until relief comes."
When relief does arrive, it may be useless if no one is coordinating the relief effort. Bayard says that one of his greatest frustrations in the immediate aftermath of Katrina was that officers arriving from other jurisdiction were idled by the fact that no one was in charge of organizing them and sending them into the field.
Regardless of how much external relief comes to your aid, a major disaster will tax all of the resources of a city's police department. It will also physically exhaust the department's officers.
Katrina-stricken NOPD officers had little access to food, water, or sanitary facilities, and hardly any rest. Bryson says officers need to pay special attention to their physical well-being after a disaster.
He knows this subject intimately. The Friday after Katrina, Bryson was hospitalized with exhaustion. His advice to disaster responders is to make sure that they get at least four hours of sleep per day. "Regardless of the scope of the disaster, you have to find a way to rest. Otherwise, you're no good to anybody," he says.