Monday, September 12, 2011

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Speaker - Mr. Brian Bell

Former Trevian Mr. Brian  Bell -was invited as our speaker today. The main purposed of  U. S. Customs and Border Security to protect our nation against terrorism.

Bell was on the scene during Hurricane Katrina - August 29, 2005

1835 Gulf residents died in the hurrican and subsequent floods, the majority in Louisiana

It is a bowl which sits below sea level. 80% of New Orleans was flooded.

FEMA has emergency support functions (ESF) for when the President declares a disaster.  They only come in when called in by the Federal government.

September 6th 2005- U. S. Customs and Border Security called by FEMA for briefings in Washington, DC. Four officers were deployed for this meeting from Chicago.  Directions, instructions seemed confusing and unorganized. e.g. * always have dog biscuits in case you encounter wild dogs??

Then sent to Orlando FL for further training. Found out that their task was to be individual assistance; enter data in computer about victims.  Also got training on sexual harassment. Also had training on transportation systems they had no access to.

They had no idea what they were doing for the 4 days of training in Orlando.  They were asked where they'd like to go.  Everything was really casual and non-hurried.  Aggravation/frustration levels about ineffective instructions and training.

Arrived in  FEMA Joint Field Office in Baton Rouge, one hour from New Orleans.   It appeared like a war zone.  There was a lack of coordination.  Nobody knew who was doing what. Nothing set up for their sleeping arrangements. Options: Tent City - untenable due to the heat or JFO (Joint Field office).  3 showers for 400 people.  This was also a storage area for resources such as bottled water.  No provisions for how ready-to-eat meals/water to get delivered to the people.  There were no instructions for days.

They made their own decisions of where to go to help and how to get there.  Their group chose to go to an easy to access area - Lakeview which was almost overlooked because it was a more affluent area.  Went in boats, house to house to see if victims needed assistance.  They cut through roofs to search attics.  It took a few weeks to pump out the area and then do house to house searches. Any standing building was searched for people.  The moldy smell and lack of sound was overwhelming.   Bell showed us amazing photos of the devastation and destruction that the flooding and storm surge wrought upon the houses and neighborhoods.

There was really no accountability to FEMA.  This search team was on its own without FEMA support. They did what they could.  This team "did what they wanted" without any instructions from FEMA.  They checked in to a FEMA command post a few weeks later and were sent over to the SuperDome.  FEMA was a bad word by this time, so the team changed out of their official uniforms.  Civilian clothing was a must because the citizens were so outraged by the civilian population.   The environment was so volatile  that they didn't want to risk being recognized in public.

Then they were given an assignment to start fingerprinting contractors and new FEMA employees who were helping to clean up. There were background checks being done on those being allowed into this environment.
Hundreds of people coming in needed jobs and they spent time fingerprinting them.  The FBI asked them to go to Gonzales outside of Baton Rouge where there was a temporary morgue.  They had to fingerprint the dead at the morgue. The morgue was a very professional, serious site whose job it was to inform people about missing loved ones.

Next assignment was Grand Isle, which is a barrier island in southern Lousiana where Katrina first hit land. The damage knocked out satellite communications for television, radio, etc.  Here homes are built up on stilts to protect against storm surge.  Cars were strewn all over.  They did a search here for more victims. They spent about 45 days total in Louisiana doing search and rescue.

To what extent did FEMA mess up during the catastrophe?  They did not have proper organization and accountability during disaster response.  Many lessons have come out of this disaster.  As a rescuer it it very dangerous because you did not know what you would encounter.  FEMA is an absolutely essential function to protect the public for the response after the event. Disaster recovery funds are needed in many areas of the country which are prone to hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, and earthquakes.  Now there is much better inter-agency cooperation.

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