9 de septiembre de 2008

SAR in Katrina 2005


Search and Rescue

Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge and subsequent flooding necessitated one of the largest search and rescue operations in the Nation’s history. Thousands of firefighters, police officers, and medical personnel across all levels of government, together with citizen volunteers, braved life-threatening conditions to rescue people and animals from flooded buildings. Search and rescue missions were most urgent in New Orleans, where thousands needed to be plucked from rooftops and attics after the levee system failed. As Mayor Ray Nagin stated: “Thousands of people were stranded on their rooftops, or in attics, needing to be rescued. . . . Our first responders were jumping into the water to rescue people as 911 operators were consumed with traumatic calls for rescue. They received thousand upon thousands of frantic and desperate calls.70
Federal search and rescue assets from the Coast Guard, FEMA Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Task Forces,71the Department of Defense (DOD),72 and other Federal agencies worked in concert with State and local responders to rescue tens of thousands of people. Coast Guard teams alone ultimately rescued and evacuated over 33,000 people—over six times the number in an average year—73earning themselves the name the “New Orleans Saints.74 Immediately following Hurricane Katrina’s second landfall, Coast Guard assets began conducting rescue operations throughout the Gulf Region. Governor Barbour later testified that, “The night Katrina struck, Coast Guard helicopter crews from Mobile conducted search and rescue operations on the Coast. These fearless young men, who hung from helicopters on ropes, dangling through the air in the dark that first night, pulled people off of roofs and out of trees.75 FEMA US&R teams also performed exceptionally well, ultimately rescuing over 6,500 people.76 Within four hours of landfall, Army National Guard helicopters were airborne and actively performing rescue missions, with other National Guard personnel joining the effort on the ground.77
Despite these successes, search and rescue efforts revealed the need for greater coordination between the two constituent components of search and rescue: Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) and civil search and rescue (SAR). US&R refers to the specialized mission of rescuing victims trapped in collapsed structures.78 In contrast, SAR constitutes all other missions, such as maritime, aeronautical, and land rescues.79However, there is no overarching plan that incorporates both aspects of search and rescue. The absence of such a plan led to coordination problems between US&R teams and SAR teams. Some teams displayed their own initiative to fill the gap in unified command, determining their own rescue priorities, areas to be searched, and locations to drop off the people they rescued.80 Unfortunately, in some cases, rescuers were forced to leave people on highways where they were exposed to the elements and in continuing need of transportation, food, and water.82

Lessons Learned

The Department of Homeland Security should lead an interagency review of current policies and procedures to ensure effective integration of all Federal search and rescue

Under the NRP, FEMA is authorized as the primary agency to coordinate US&R through Emergency Support Function-9 (ESF-9).82 However, because the NRP focuses only on urban search and rescue, combined with the fact that US&R teams are neither adequately nor consistently trained or equipped to perform rescues in a water environment, the NRP failed to anticipate, plan for, and ultimately integrate all of the Federal government’s search and rescue assets during Katrina. For example, the Department of Interior (DOI) has valuable expertise in operating watercraft and conducting civil search and rescue operations. Unfortunately, because DOI is not formally considered a part of ESF-9, DOI’s offers to deploy shallow-water rescue boats during the response apparently never reached the operational level. Had DOI been considered a supporting agency under ESF-9, its water assets would likely have been effectively integrated into response operations.