The New Orleans Experience

TORONTO — As the nation watched with jaws dropped in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the staff at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport soon found themselves not running an airport but operating the city’s central evacuation center and triage facility. During the September annual meeting of the Airports Council International-North America, New Orleans aviation director Roy Williams shared with attendees the experience at an impromptu presentation and at a news conference that followed. Here’s a report of that session.

In all, reports Williams, some 30,000 people were evacuated through the airport. More than 1,000 people were treated medically within the first 24 hours, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency took over Terminal D for treatment of patients. The airport also served as a morgue, with more than 20 people dying on site, he says.

The U.S. Forest Service put up a makeshift kitchen to feed the 6,000 to 8,000 evacuees the airport held each night following the storm. The last evacuation flight, says Williams, occurred on 9/11.

Williams estimates that the airport itself suffered some $55 million in damages to facilities, and daily losses in revenues amount to some $170,000. Some 40-50 percent of airport employees lost their homes, and an employee relief fund was set up to assist them.

Following are some outtakes from the Williams press briefing.

On the overall role of the airport in the Katrina disaster ...

“The airport’s role is really a series of stages. Stage one was our classic role in the aftermath of any significant storm event; that is, in the immediate aftermath, as we reopen many people want to get out. They’ve been delayed in their departure because of the storm. Those are the normal evacuees.

“We then transitioned into the second evacuee category, and that’s the medical evacuees. With the lack of normal transport and the damage done to the hospital infrastructure, the medical evacuation became very, very important.

“That was combined with the variation of taking people off of roofs or out of damaged houses. Oftentimes, they’d been there without water, in high temperatures, and they have medical concerns that they didn’t have when they first got on that roof.

“Then the third category was the mass evacuation. As groups had gathered at various points in the city and needed to be evacuated, many of them made it to the airport. That’s where we got the vast majority of the 30,000 — general evacuees arriving at the airport by bus from other evacuation gathering sites, and looking at that point to get on another bus or a plane and get out of the region and get to safety.”

On the role of the airport as a medical triage facility ...

“Actually, none of these roles except the first one of evacuating travelers, none are in the standard plan. The standard plan is that the airport will not serve as a shelter or as a major transfer point for evacuees. There was no playbook; we were inventing it as we went along.” On lessons learned ...

“The lesson learned is the one we learn from every major event: you will be surprised. For example, most of us rely on cell phones. Well, the cell phone system did collapse pretty thoroughly, while the landlines at the airport remained functional throughout the entire event. Be flexible; be creative.

“Without a doubt, the most important thing to do with your evacuees is to get them back to the regular world, where there is power and light and safety staff and resources. We just could not get the resources fast enough to evacuate the people as fast as they poured in upon us.

“Looking forward, you have to be realistic and say, you might be a shelter, so how would you change to provide the best resource to the community? As an example, in our terminal building there is no space that truly has no glass. You could design a public space, very pleasant and well lit, but that did not have any glass penetrations to the outside.”

On the situation at New Orleans International, moving forward ...

“The first of what will be hundreds of manufactured housing units have begun to arrive at the airport. We will develop a temporary city or cities around the perimeter of the airfield to house my personnel and other aviation-related personnel and other evacuation and rescue forces, and to provide housing to local people who have lost their housing. We have a fair amount of available flat land and will be developing quite a residential operation.”

On the impact on employees ...

“To be working at the airport and see on the one channel we were getting [a] shot that showed the breach was destroying a person’s home, to see that in my staff and the other people who work at the airport is a phenomenal, indescribable loss. And yet, here are professionals who turn right back to the job and do their best to help with the disaster recovery.”