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Conference Calls Detail Katrina Concerns, Failings

Emergency Manager Walter Maestri of Jefferson Parish is one official who became frustrated with the federal response to Katrina in the conference calls.
Daniel Zwerdling, NPR
Emergency Manager Walter Maestri of Jefferson Parish is one official who became frustrated with the federal response to Katrina in the conference calls.
Maestri recorded the emergency response calls beginning with an Aug. 26 telephone conference.
/ Daniel Zwerdling, NPR
/
Daniel Zwerdling, NPR
Maestri recorded the emergency response calls beginning with an Aug. 26 telephone conference.

In the days before Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, officials in local, state and federal governments held a series of telephone conference calls aimed at coordinating their responses to the storm. The sessions were recorded by Walter Maestri, emergency manager for Jefferson Parish, who shared them with NPR.

In tapes of the disaster planning meetings, emergency managers and civic officials evinced a growing concern with the strengthening hurricane's possible effects -- and after the storm made landfall, a growing frustration with the aid effort mounted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

As emergency preparations gave way to coordinated actions and pleas for equipment, the recorded calls depict an emergency command center in Baton Rouge that became a center of frenzied activity.

As late as Saturday morning -- 48 hours before the storm struck -- officials were debating how best to handle an evacuation. At one point, Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans brought up a troubling issue: If community leaders simultaneously told residents to leave, gridlock could result.

Throughout the weekend, local officials continued in their plans to open disaster shelters. In detailed plans drawn up several years ago, state and federal governments agreed on the need for a network of "special needs" shelters, with emergency generators that could power medical equipment. But in a series of phone calls, officials complained they couldn't find the generators they needed.

Dozens of key officials from state and federal agencies spoke with local counterparts like Maestri, of Jefferson Parish, a large suburb of New Orleans hit hard by the storm surge and the flooding that followed.

On the morning of Monday, Aug. 29, with Katrina making its way inland from the Gulf Coast, Maestri said on the call: "Things are collapsing." And questions persisted over who was in charge: "So FEMA will coordinate emergency supplies?" Maestri asked. Soon after, communications were lost, and the next conference call took place nearly two weeks later.

The calls could play a role in any investigation -- whether by the White House or by Congress -- into why the initial response to Katrina failed to match the scale of the hurricane's impact on the region.

This piece was produced by NPR's Kate Davidson.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Daniel Zwerdling
Daniel Zwerdling is a correspondent in NPR's Investigations Unit.