Note: This was adapted from a piece published in March 2014, called “Silver Linings, Federal Response to Katrina,” and is the first of four pieces we’ve put together for the 10-year anniversary of Katrina. Brandon and I reported to the U.S. Coast Guard’s Public Information Assist Team the summer of 2005. Our team was in the disaster zone from Aug. 28, the day before landfall, until Feb. 8.
The events that unfolded after the landfall of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 are well documented, as are the failures – real and perceived – of the federal, state and local responses in Louisiana. As the last week of August 2015 passes, those well-documented failures will be revisited, re-scrutinized and, for many, relived.
Yet, in the midst of the criticism 10 years ago, the Coast Guard stood out as a shining star in a blemished federal response effort and to this day, many of us are still told by residents of New Orleans and surrounding parishes that the Coast Guard can really do no wrong.
This perception was no doubt fueled by near instantaneous imagery of our helicopters hovering over flooded neighborhoods and our rescue swimmers hacking through rooftops with axes to get at survivors stuck in attics.
In reality, the sky was filled with more than just our helicopters in those first days. We saw local law enforcement, air ambulances, Marine Corps, Navy, National Guard – even news helicopters – buzzing around the city looking for survivors. There were so many aircraft in such a limited airspace, our pilots would later say it was a historical feat of aviation skill that no mid-air collisions occurred.
So why did the Coast Guard’s efforts become the good news story of the federal response? Because while other agencies had a story to tell that was similar to ours, we seemed to be the only one actually willing to tell it. That has always been one of the Coast Guard’s core crisis communication philosophies – tell the story.
Actually, there were a lot of things we were doing right when our sister agencies were struggling, but I’ll narrow it down to those that apply to all successful communications during response operations.
1. We were the best source of information
We were the only federal agency to position public information teams in potential impact areas before landfall. The story can’t be told accurately from behind a desk hundreds of miles away from the scene, and information from that far away doesn’t help people impacted at ground zero.
2. We were proactive
We established relationships and primary and secondary lines of communication with local media and emergency operations centers before the chaos – because the aftermath is not the time to be establishing those contacts.
3. We were accessible
It’s standard operating procedure for Coast Guard communicators to issue advisories with safety messages and emergency information in the days leading up to landfall of a hurricane. This establishes us as a reliable source of information and gets our contact information out there to people who will need it after a storm hits.
4. We were embedded in operations
Coast Guard photojournalists were on the first aircraft flying into the city after landfall. The air crews that did not have photographers on board had hand-held video cameras and hoist cameras mounted to the airframe. This meant we were the first to get imagery of the response to both rescue planners and the public.
5. We were transparent
We put crewmembers coming off the front line in front of the camera or on the phone with the media – not the commanding officers, not the admirals, but the flight mechanics, pilots and rescue swimmers.
These factors drove the media to us. This allowed us to tell our story. This helped us become the redeeming face of the federal response.
Within a week, every elected official or federal agency head wanted an over-flight of the devastation aboard a Coast Guard helicopter; President Bush began doing briefings aboard Coast Guard air bases – wanting rescue helicopters in the background – and Oprah wanted to ride a Coast Guard helicopter into the hard hit New Orleans 9th Ward neighborhood to deliver relief supplies.
Which sets me up nicely to point out the most critical factor to our success – in fact, without it the first five might have been for naught.
6. We did the right things, right
Our operators and air crews did the right things, the right way, for the right reasons, which meant we, as communicators, only needed to worry about our part in communicating the images, events and operations of the day. Because “at the end of the day” (to coin an oft used phrase by a fellow Katrina veteran) operations drive public information. If ops are good, the information should be good, and if ops are bad, well….