“What we signed up for.”
The Untold Story of the Louisiana National Guard, Katrina, Questions of Command, the Law and the Battle to Save Lives
In any ordinary early Friday evening, 19-year-old Anthony Harrison would be helping out during the weekend rush at Fanta’s Seafood in Tioga, in the piney central Louisiana hills outside Alexandria.
But instead, on the first Friday of September, dressed in his military camouflage fatigues, rifle on his shoulder, Harrison was on patrol outside the boarded-up Harrah’s Casino New Orleans at one of the key roadblocks around the perimeter of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, still packed with thousands of stranded victims of Hurricane Katrina who had gathered since the storm passed four days earlier.
Harrison and his buddy, Pfc. Eric Overgaard, 20, had been on the job for a week after the National Hurricane Center moved the projected path of Katrina toward Louisiana. After providing security in the Superdome, they shifted duty to securing the eerily quiet Poydras Street in the Central Business District, blocking the few vehicles or individuals that ventured down the deserted thoroughfare as the sun set over a city without power.
Nearby, on Convention Center Boulevard, calm Katrina victims were settling in for another dark and scary night made safer by the National Guard MPs. They had divided into community groups, parents taking turns sleeping and watching the children, men taking turns watching over the group and the latrine areas on the boulevard designated for men and for women, former strangers now taking care of each other. They were awaiting their turns to get on the buses that were coming in by day – also driven by National Guard members.
“We’ve got control of this area,” said a confident Overgaard, who had pulled a 72-hour shift, during which he had a three-hour nap on top of a military Humvee.
“We don’t mind being here,” said the youngster, who in his civilian life works at The Home Depot in Alexandria. Harrison finished the thought: “This is what we signed up for.”
What they signed up for was the Louisiana National Guard, the state’s military force that reports to the governor, citizen-soldiers who can be called into service by the governor or called into active duty in the U.S. Army by the president of the United States.
In their private lives, they are college students, professors, shift workers, police officers, doctors, lawyers, clerks, teachers, secretaries, bus drivers, sales personnel, dentists, nurses, business owners. They range in age from their teens to their 50s.
As soldiers, in normal times, the men and women in the National Guard work every other weekend and two weeks every year, sharpening their military skills in such esoteric areas as laying fiber-optic cable, engineering, or, in the case of Harrison and Overgaard, providing law-enforcement services as part of the Rapides Parish-based 228 MP (Military Police) Company of the Louisiana National Guard.
The National Guard is the nation’s oldest institution, founded in 1636 as a citizens militia to assist Colonial governors of the first English Colonies, according to Col. Pete Schneider, the Louisiana National Guard public-information officer who provided a history of the Guard. “The National Guard is the oldest branch of the military,” Schneider said.
The colonies were responsible for their own defense, so Colonial leaders followed English military tradition to organize their able-bodied male citizens into militias. The militia guarded the Colonies originally from Indian attack and foreign invaders and later fought in the American Revolutionary War.
The U.S. Constitution created the guard’s unique dual status, with control of the states’ guards resting with their governors as commanders in chief – unless they are called into active duty by the president of the United States.
The authors of the Constitution empowered Congress to provide for organizing, arming and disciplining the militia but reserved the appointment of officers and training of the militia to the individual states. That dual state-federal role of the guard remains to this day.
In 1903, national defense legislation increased the role of the National Guard, as the militia became known, as a reserve force for the U.S. Army. When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, the National Guard made up 40 percent of the combat divisions in France.
During the Vietnam War, some 23,000 Army and Air guardsmen were called up for a year of active duty, about 8,700 sent to Vietnam. More than 75,000 Army and Air guardsmen were called to active duty in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The National Guard members, once called “weekend warriors,” bristle at that sobriquet today; since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, most guardsmen have served beyond the usual drills every other weekend and two weeks a year.
“That is a completely inappropriate term since 9/11,” said Schneider. “We’ve all done much more than that.”
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, 9,000 Louisiana National Guardsmen have been mobilized for duty in the Middle East, serving in Afghanistan, Iraq or Kuwait.
When Hurricane Katrina crossed Florida into the Gulf of Mexico, 3,200 of Louisiana’s 11,000 National Guard troops were in the Middle East.
That fateful Aug. 26, Louisiana State Police were put on storm alert that morning. Both the state police and the National Guard, part of the emergency-operations center controlled by the state Office of Emergency Preparedness, had already been monitoring the tempest when it was but a tropical storm headed for South Florida.
At the Louisiana National Guard headquarters in historic Jackson Barracks in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward – the Louisiana guard’s base since 1835 – the first general alarm bells went off late that Friday afternoon, the last normal Friday in the Crescent City. The 4 p.m. advisory from the National Hurricane Center moved the projected path of Katrina, until then a Category 1 hurricane predicted to go up the west coast of Florida, and predicted the storm was moving more westerly before it would turn north. Suddenly, New Orleans was in the cone of projected possible landfall.
“A lot of people were going home for the weekend,” recalled Schneider, the Louisiana National Guard’s public-information officer. “Then we saw the track of that storm start to change.”
Maj. Gen. Benny Landreneau, Louisiana National Guard commander, contacted Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Within the hour, her office began contacting media outlets, saying the governor would declare a state of emergency, which came at 5:02 p.m. “She acted very quickly,” Landreneau said. Blanco’s declaration came a day before Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s. On Saturday, at Blanco’s request, President George W. Bush declared a national state of emergency also.
Those declarations trigger all kinds of actions, including preparations by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, emergency powers of the governor, an official call for help to other states and National Guard mobilization.
On Friday evening, the National Guard headquarters began calling unit commanders in the parish armories and mobilized 2,000 troops. As it was not a regular weekend drill, the commanders had to contact the soldiers.
“During the night Friday night, we kept getting indications Katrina was shifting to the west, but it was predicted it would still hit the coast,” Landreneau said.
By 10:30 p.m. Friday, the governor’s office had contacted news media outlets to warn that the National Hurricane Center’s revised forecast indicated Katrina would have a major impact on southeast Louisiana and conditions were ripe for it to grow into Category 4 or Category 5 as it moved across the gulf.
Early that Saturday morning, the Louisiana National Guard activated another 2,000 troops, and by 7 a.m., the State Office of Homeland Security had activated its Baton Rouge Emergency Operations Center, and the guard opened triplicate communications headquarters systems at Jackson Barracks in New Orleans, the Gillis Long Center at Carville, and the guard’s Camp Beauregard facility in Rapides Parish. It would prove to be a wise move.
When the officers began phoning local guard units, most of them reported guard troops had already begun arriving, even though it was an “off” weekend.
Part of the guard’s duty is to respond to any state emergency, so when troops hear of a tornado or storm, they show up before they are called.
“By the time we mobilize, we find they are already at the units standing around waiting,” Landreneau said. “I have called commanders, who have told me they were looking at their soldiers sitting around at tables. That’s just a response these citizen-soldiers have.”
In central Louisiana, Pfc. Anthony Harrison’s flight from his training in Italy landed at Alexandria International Airport. “I did not go home. I went straight to my unit,” he said.
As the storm approached, the guard helped with the contra-flow evacuation on the interstates and brought cots, blankets, food and water to the Superdome, which opened Sunday as a shelter of last resort. Under the state’s emergency plan, guardsmen were sent to all Louisiana State Police regional offices in the projected storm area.
The National Guard hunkered down at the Superdome, Jackson Barracks, Carville, Baton Rouge and Camp Beauregard to ride out the storm. By the time it passed, 4,600 Louisiana citizen-soldiers were in the New Orleans area.
The guard’s emergency communications command center was on the third floor of a Jackson Barracks building constructed to withstand 200 mph winds. Because the 400 soldiers were there, the guard had what Gen. Landreneau called “situational awareness” of the flooding in the Lower 9th Ward and the adjacent St. Bernard Parish. After the storm, the communications system at Jackson Barracks still worked, even as communications failed among local government offices.
Brig. Gen. Hunt Downer said the Barracks campus went underwater, with a low of 4 feet to a high of 20 feet on the back side, located on the lake side of North Claiborne Avenue. “But the National Guard knows what to do,” Downer said. “We were neighbors helping neighbors.”
Guardsmen in 100 boats set out to move other guardsmen and rescue stranded citizens in the Lower 9th Ward and Arabi, just over the Orleans Parish line in St. Bernard, adjacent to the Barracks.
The guard’s communications system was shifted to Carville only for a half-hour while soldiers moved the Jackson Barracks system to the Superdome, which became command central.
Some 300 soldiers were relocated from Jackson Barracks to the Superdome by boat and helicopter.
The guard set about its two primary missions: securing the area and providing search-and-rescue operations, always supporting another agency. The guard assisted the New Orleans Police Department in law enforcement and the state’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, which had set out in their boat armada – when the storm dropped to mere gale force winds of 40 mph – in order to rescue people who were stranded on their rooftops, second floors, highway overpasses, car roofs, in trees, wherever they were.
TELLING THEIR STORY
From the outset, Blanco’s direction to the guard was clear. “She had our National Guard focused on saving lives,” Landreneau said.
Blanco said later she felt the state response was “a well-oiled machine.”
“We had some tough calls to make. The folks in the Superdome had food and water, so we made the decision to leave them in place. The people in the convention center were on high land and had shelter. The people on rooftops and overpasses had nothing, and they were baking in the sun.”
Landreneau said commanders, seeing the water wipe out their headquarters and most of the city, knew the Superdome with its raised plaza was key to operations.
“We recognized very quickly that the center of gravity, the search-and-rescue effort, was going to be from there at the Superdome, at the helipad. We had 100 helicopters flying out of the Superdome.”
The guard estimates it plucked 28,000 people out of the water and another 30,000 off high ground, such as the overpasses, levees and the Lakefront.
Contrary to national media reports, none of the helicopters was fired upon.
“We heard stories about helicopters being shot. But you’ve been in helicopters, and you know how noisy they are. The only way you know you have been shot at is if there’s a bullet hole,” Landreneau said. “There were no shots fired at our helicopters.”
Blanco said the media reports of people firing at potential rescuers in boats was another case of rumor being reported as fact, which proved damaging to the relief effort. “They were firing their guns off to the side, so rescuers would see them,” she said.
The national media reports of widespread violence and shootings “actually hampered the rescue effort,” Blanco said. It had become evident that FEMA was not responding rapidly. As one of Blanco’s aides said, FEMA director Michael Brown “was more interested in having his hair and make-up right for his next television appearance than he was in actually doing anything.” The worst of FEMA’s decisions resulted in its slowness in bring in getting to transport evacuees. Blanco’s office called on school-bus drivers to volunteer. “We had school-bus drivers come in and hand us their keys, saying they were not going to drive into all that,” Blanco said. “So we had to call back National Guard troops to drive the buses.”
Landreneau remembers being in the Superdome, talking to some of the evacuees who were there, when a national TV network news channel flashed a bulletin that rioting had erupted at the Dome. “I was standing there, inside the Superdome, when that news flash came on. I was standing right there talking calmly to them. There was no rioting,” Landreneau said.
Former New Orleans Police Supt. Eddie Compass and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin were among those spreading unconfirmed reports about violence in the Superdome and the convention center. In an exhaustive investigative story some three weeks later, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that very little violence occurred at either shelter, and only one person died of violence in the convention center. The second day after the story ran, Compass resigned. Nagin said he had just been repeating what was reported to him.
While those stories of violence whipped across the nation from a press corps isolated on high ground on Canal Street near the river, the National Guard and state responders set about doing their work.
Medical triage was set up at the Superdome and the Louis Armstrong International Airport. Medical personnel were also dispatched to the cloverleaf of Interstate 10 and Causeway Boulevard, which became a staging area for people to be removed by bus to Baton Rouge or the airport. The worst cases were airlifted to an emergency medical center set up at the LSU Assembly Center.
By the Friday after the storm, the evacuation of the flood victims was under control. The thousands who waded and walked to the Convention Center, the only large facility on high ground, were beginning to move out on buses rounded up by the state. Commercial airliners were flying out the medically needy.
And just outside the convention center, Pfcs. Harrison and Overgaard were among the National Guard troops who were helping the majority of NOPD officers who had stayed loyally on the job in the city.
Their Alexandria-based National Guard MP unit had first convoyed to Carville and then into New Orleans as the storm was passing, to the Superdome for three days, later to Convention Center Boulevard.
That same Friday that the Louisiana National Guard was ensuring calmness prevailed at the convention center, President Bush flew into the storm area, landing first in Mississippi, where he had congratulated Michael Brown, then still head of FEMA. “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie,” Bush said.
But on national television Thursday night, Brown had been attacked viciously by national news networks, grilled as to why he didn’t know people were stranded at the convention center and why FEMA buses were not there.
At the Baton Rouge airport that Friday afternoon, Republican President Bush summoned Democratic Gov. Blanco to a private meeting on Air Force One. White House staff refused to allow Blanco’s chief of staff, Andy Kopplin, on board with her. “I was standing there in the Secret Service tent, and Fox News was on. I heard some commentator say the feds should take over the National Guard and rescue effort because state and local officials weren’t getting the job down. That was the first time I heard that, and it played out from there.”
It was later reported that Karl Rove, the president’s chief political strategist, had advised top White House aides that day to start blaming state and local officials for fumbling the rescue effort that had been botched by FEMA’s Brown.
On Air Force One, Bush proposed to Blanco that she turn over control of the National Guard to him. It was not a request that he made of the governors of Mississippi or Alabama, but then there were no national TV images of hungry, thirsty, dirty victims in those states who were awaiting FEMA rescue buses four days after the storm hit.
Blanco refused, telling Bush she would consider it.
Late that evening, close to midnight, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card faxed a lengthy legal document in which Blanco would surrender control of the National Guard to the president. Blanco again refused. Later the National Governors Association backed her up, saying governors should not surrender National Guard control to the president.
Her staff advised against it, both for political reasons – the rescue effort was beginning to work well, even without much help from the FEMA – and for a practical one: There is an argument that the federal Posse Comitatus Act might prevent the National Guard from exercising law-enforcement authority.
The original posse comitatus (from medieval Latin, meaning “force of the country,”) comes from English common law; a posse comitatus is a body of men a sheriff may summon to raise or repress a riot or for another purpose.
In reaction to the end of Reconstruction and to stop frontier abuses, the U.S. Congress adopted the 1878 prohibition against the U.S. Army or Navy from being used for law-enforcement purposes against its own citizens. The National Guard, which is under state control, was specifically exempted from the law-enforcement prohibition.
“Recent debates have been over what authorities troops should have during Hurricane Andrew relief operations, and how, or whether, troops could be employed to support the Olympic Games in Atlanta,” wrote Bonnie Baker in “The Origins of the Posse Comitatus,” in a 1999 Chronicles Online Journal, the Web publication of the U.S. Air Force.
John R. Brinkerhoff, who was assistant acting director for national preparedness for FEMA from 1981-83, writing in the Homeland Security Journal, argued that “the Posse Comitatus Act is inappropriate for modern times and needs to be replaced by a completely new law.”
Whatever legal maneuvering the White House wanted to waltz around the Posse Comitatus Act, or whether it would have, as many argue, removed the guard’s law-enforcement powers, Blanco refused to dance. Her staff, mindful that National Guard troops had clear law-enforcement authority on the streets of overstressed New Orleans as long as the governor was their commander in chief, didn’t think it was the wise course of action.
Blanco said later that her worst mistake was depending on the federal government to do what Brown and FEMA said they would do. “When all the stories are told,” Blanco said, “the story is going to be that Louisianians were saved by Louisianians.”
Many of those were Louisiana National Guard heroes and
Schneider said the guard never had time to stop and tell its story.
“We had the hurricane, then we had the flood. It was hard for troops to get back in on the ground. Our helicopters were the first ones in the air on Monday after the storm,” Schneider said.
“We did a good job, and this goes for all the National Guard troops from across the nation, but not [a good job] of telling our story. We spent so much time doing search and rescue that we never had time to tell our story. What everybody forgot is how fast we did this. We went from 4 o’clock on Friday afternoon alert to having 4,000 troops on duty the next day.”
Answering the call for assistance, governors from all 50 states, Guam and Puerto Rico sent 30,000 National Guard troops to help, all under the command of Gov. Blanco and Gen. Landreneau.
In Katrina’s aftermath, they brought the streets under control from the relatively small number of looters and thugs, protected the estimated 50,000 to 80,000 people who were left in the city, helped with evacuations, cleared the streets, bulldozed bricks from fallen buildings, pushed aside trees, cut up branches and removed enough debris to make New Orleans streets passable. They helped restore civilian communications systems, especially cell-phone towers, and guarded the French Quarter, Downtown, Uptown – all areas that did not flood – as well as guarded the New Orleans Museum of Art, Tulane and Loyola universities, and various hospitals.
Within a week, Oklahoma had sent more than 2,000 National Guard troops for a month, and before they left, they packed into Holy Name of Jesus Church on St. Charles Avenue for a memorial service for victims, afterward planting a redbud tree, the Oklahoma state tree, on the Loyola University grounds to commemorate their time here. Another big contingent came from Oregon, more from Ohio. The streets were full of men and women in uniform, rifles over their shoulders, helping Louisiana’s National Guard with the biggest natural disaster in American history.
“Many of our pilots and crews were flying right over their own flooded homes, or that of their grandparents, but they were continuing to focus on saving other people’s lives,” said Landreneau. “I am extremely proud of these men and women.”
A thousand National Guard soldiers lost their homes, “but they were there doing their job,” Schneider said.
“We were there before it hit. We were there during it. We were there immediately afterwards doing search and rescue, and we’re still there, doing the job,” he said. “After all, it’s our home, too.”
John Hill, the dean of state Capitol reporters, covers Louisiana government for Gannett newspapers.