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What to expect when you try to "expect the unexpected"

By Chuck Remsberg
Senior PoliceOne.com Contributor
Sponsored by Blauer

Ever think about what you'd do if alligators were swimming through the yards and streets of your beat? Of if your patrol fleet was suddenly zapped with 400 flat tires? Or if you had no place to put the suspects you arrested because you had no working jails or prisons?

Most of the street cops and administrators responsible for law and order when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated New Orleans and the Gulf coast hadn't contemplated these kinds of challenges, either. Yet these are but a few examples from the seemingly infinite plague of unanticipated problems they had to cope with, and now they want to share what they learned so you can better respond when a natural or manmade disaster strikes your community.

"We've all prepared for an emergency," says Supt. Warren Riley, a 25-year veteran of New Orleans PD. "Now we have to prepare for a catastrophe, far beyond an emergency."

During a panel presentation at the IACP's recent annual conference in Boston, Riley and other LE survivors who were in the vortex of these monster storms and their aftermath offered a sampling of seat-of-the-pants lessons to contemplate.

Keep in mind the context: more than 90,000 square miles were affected…23 feet of water drowned some areas in less than 30 minutes; 11 feet flooded New Orleans police headquarters…the storms touched off the largest migration in U.S. history, greater than the Civil War and the Dust Bowl…50,000 people defied mandatory evacuation orders and stayed in the disaster zone, which authorities "never imagined"…122 million cubic yards of debris was left behind…80% of New Orleans officers alone lost their homes; some, according to one observer, "had nothing left but T-shirts."

1. Expect animal aberrations.

"One thing we had not prepared for in our emergency planning was alligators swimming around" outside their normal confines, remarked Chief Donald Dixon of Lake Charles (La.) PD, who assisted in New Orleans and whose own community was then hit after Katrina by Hurricane Rita.

New Orleans officers and outside volunteers encountered venomous snakes and hundreds of domesticated animals during rescue searches. These included pitbulls and other pets who were "very nasty because they hadn't seen their masters," said Maj. John Hunt of the NJ State Police, who headed an emergency assistance task force. "Get SPCA [animal welfare] people involved to help," he advised.

2. Anticipate unusual patrol vehicle needs.

Dixon's squad cars suffered "more than 400 flat tires in the first few days" because of roofing nails that carpeted the streets from "roofs blown off and destroyed." As one Rita survivor put it, the tires "looked like porcupines." Dixon assigned crews to work full time repairing them.

When he was helping out in New Orleans after Katrina, he "noticed that cars in parking garages were undamaged" by the storm. So when Rita threatened Lake Charles, he ordered PD vehicles not in use split among elevated garages while the 140-mph winds raged.

In New Orleans, Riley put 60% of his department's fleet in fortress-like warehouses to keep the vehicles safe. Even then, because of the flooding, his forces needed to recruit 24 high-water vehicles from the National Guard.

3. Prepare to control the night.

"Nothing in 34 years of law enforcement had prepared" Dixon for the hurricanes' destruction and what he saw afterwards. He knew "if we were going to get control of the situation, we had to control the night." But with power outages "how were we going to patrol at night?"

A curfew imposed on vehicle and foot traffic between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m., with a $1,000 fine and six-month jail term for violators, "gave us peace." Choppers circled the city all night. "People couldn't even go out and walk their dogs without being noticed," Dixon said. "Special night ops personnel also saturated certain areas."

In the face of persistent power outages, night vision equipment also was deployed extensively to assist patrols in New Orleans after Katrina. ITT Night Vision, the leading manufacturer of the latest image intensifier technology for LE, dispatched instructors to conduct immediate on-scene training in the use of night vision equipment. [Stay tuned for more information on how departments are using night vision equipment for patrol functions in an upcoming PoliceOne report.]

4. Plan for arrestees.

When flooding forced New Orleans to evacuate more than 6,000 inmates, there was no space left for new arrestees. "Never for a moment did we think we would not have prisons to bring people to," Riley admitted. This futility played a major role in looting continuing in the stricken city for eight chaotic days.

In the future, Riley plans to station prison buses outside the city when a potential need is anticipated. "When the storm is over, they can come in" and shuttle arrestees to holding facilities "40 to 60 miles away if our local prisons are flooded."

5. Take care of your own.

Most officers suffered major structural damage if not total destruction to their own properties. "One of the smartest things we did" was address that problem within three days of Rita, Dixon said. He asked for a group of 20 volunteers, "handy guys" on the department, and sent them out "to repair cops' roofs" with the help of cherry pickers provided by civilian sources. "Officers on duty didn't have to worry about their houses because they knew they were being repaired. It was great for morale."

New Orleans PD went to 12-hour shifts during the Katrina crisis, which Riley now considers "a major mistake" when officers were so concerned about their own families and property. Lake Charles worked 12-hour shifts, too, but Dixon "had a masseuse come in" to give officers' massages for stress relief. "It pays dividends to let your people know how much you care for them and that you're proud of them," he said.

Many officers in afflicted areas were separated from their evacuated families, with spouses and kids scattered across 44 states, Riley pointed out. He'd like to see a hotline system established that would allow families to call in to let working officers know they are safe during a crisis, and also a system that would allow quick and reliable tracking of where families being evacuated are headed. Some of the New Orleans officers who turned their backs on their police responsibilities and failed to report for duty "did so to find their families," he said.

6. Remember the Murphy's Law of Equipment: whatever you're depending on will fail.

"If you are relying on power-based communications, you are doomed," Dixon declared. Power outages are virtually guaranteed, so "you need an alternate plan." Among the shortcomings of his emergency plan: "We didn't have enough generators." He recommended "getting natural gas generators with propane backup," and also found VHF radios good for "person-to-person, site-to-site communication, with repeaters as a backup system.

"When you're dealing with Mother Nature," he said, "you'd better be humble. Anything you think you're got, she'll hit."

7. Screen civilian "helpers" coming in.

"When the storm clears, it's unbelievable the work crews that show up from all over the country," saying they want to volunteer their services to help, Dixon said. "Some are just fronts for looting." He set up a temporary work permit system. Purported skilled tradesmen "had to have proof of being bonded and licensed." Without credentials, "they were run out of town, and the public was alerted to report" suspicious strangers.

8. If you're LE coming to help, be self-reliant.

"The cavalry coming to help can be a double-edged sword, because you have to have places to put them, to feed them and so on," Dixon explained. To be as helpful as possible you need to be as self-sufficient as possible.

"You don't want an ad hoc response," New Jersey's Hunt agreed. If that's your approach, "you're part of the problem." The five-week stay in New Orleans by his assistance team-600 personnel from a variety of emergency response agencies-is an exemplar of methodical planning.

After an advance team worked to coordinate with the locals, Hunt's group (called Operation LEAD, for Louisiana Emergency Assistance Deployment) used automobile carriers to efficiently transport their own police vehicles to the scene. They took their own CP bus. They brought their own food and their own caterers. They deployed their own crime scene investigators, and had their own critical stress experts along to monitor their people for physical and emotional overload. They employed their own mechanics, used their own communication gear. They made certain their people had email capability so they could maintain links back home, and so on.

Among other things, Operation LEAD searched some 8,000 dwellings (some of them three or four times), decontaminated 9,000 search-and-rescue workers, responded to 4,400 911 calls and helped recover 117 bodies, Hunt said. "The experience gave us a chance to practice our own emergency response plan."

Similar pre-response planning was described by Cmsr. Michael Brown of the California Highway Patrol, which sent 110 special ops officers, three helicopters, six flight crews, mechanics and various materiel in the CHP's first ever long-distance mutual aid deployment. "We made sure that all our people had their shots before they left California," Brown said.

Before the return home, CHP dispatched a three-member mobilization team to inventory equipment and the agency's on-scene arsenal and disassemble weaponry for transport. Like Hunt, "we discovered that some of our emergency operations plans needed updating," Brown said.

9. Feed the media maw.

To his regret, Riley said, he did not have any official media briefings for several days after Katrina hit. Now he would work to "keep the media on track" by holding briefings "at least two times a day. If you don't give them the story, they are going to make the story," and what they come up with may not reflect the perspective you know to be true.

10. And don't forget to:

…requisition more portable toilets than you think you'll ever need…ditto face masks, to blunt odors that will be beyond belief…address problems with a cooperative spirit; "This is not the time for territorial conflicts and ego battles," Dixon said…be aware, he added, that in a mass crisis "unbelievable emotions are put in play."

Bottom line: anything can happen. Keep your plans fluid.

[Note: OSHA and the Gulf Coast chapter of the American Society of Safety Engineers have developed a CD on disaster preparation resources that can help "ensure safe and healthful response and recovery operations" after natural disasters. This may be helpful as you review, develop and update your emergency preparedness plans. For a copy, email ASSE's Sarajenie Smith at ssmith@asse.org.]

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