Hurricane Katrina: Looking back, moving forward

August 29, 2006

Copyright © 2006 PRSA.  All rights reserved.

From the September 2006 issue of PR Tactics

This time last year, the residents of New Orleans and other affected regions were coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  One year later, members of PRSA’s New Orleans Chapter share their experiences and provide perspective on living through a crippling natural disaster.

Employees fight to keep infants safe

By Cathleen Randon, director of public affairs, Children’s Hospital 

Each hurricane season, residents of Southern Louisiana keep a close watch on the weather when a storm begins to form in the tropics. Last Aug. 26 was no different. Hurricane Katrina entered the Gulf and was expected to affect Florida. By early Aug. 27, forecasts predicted that New Orleans could receive the major brunt of the storm. At Children’s Hospital, preparations were being made to ready the campus for the possibility of high winds and heavy rain.
Power was lost around 6:30 a.m. on Aug. 28, but the hospital’s generator provided uninterrupted service.
The following afternoon came with much relief; everyone assumed the city had been spared. By the evening of Aug. 29, however, reports came that the levees around town were being breached.
Because of the changing events, Children’s Hospital President and CEO Steve Worley began meeting with the entire staff twice daily. The meetings helped calm employees and, in turn, patients and their families. On Aug. 29, the hospital’s medical director of the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) called from University Hospital to say that he had two babies on ventilators who were in danger of dying if the backup power stopped. The neonates would have to be evacuated by boat because of rising water.
A bassinet was readied and secured in a fire truck, and NICU staff set out Tuesday morning to pick up the critically ill babies. The team waited for the small boat to arrive. Two residents paddled, and one in the middle manually ventilated the patients. One at a time, the babies were carefully delivered to the waiting fire truck, and both were safely transferred to Children’s Hospital.
By the morning of Sept. 3, we lost water. Once the city water system shut down, the air-conditioning system would not be able to stay on. An administrative meeting was held, and Worley announced that the hospital would need to be evacuated.
Louisiana hospitals, as well as children’s hospitals across the country, accepted patients. Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., arranged for two C-130 helicopters to pick up more than 30 acute-care patients and their families.
A makeshift helipad was erected, and event lights were used to direct helicopters flying throughout the night. Patients were flown to Baton Rouge, La., and fixed-wing planes transported them to hospitals elsewhere.
Of the 100 patients, 72 were transferred, and the rest were discharged. By Thursday morning, nearly 24 hours later, the last patient was transported by helicopter.
Once everyone was out of the building, Worley locked the doors. For the first time in its 50-year history, the hospital closed.
The hospital immediately set up temporary offices in Baton Rouge. When the hospital shut off power, the Web site and e-mail system went down as well. A much smaller version of the site was hastily created for employees to check in and receive messages about their employment. It was also used for patient families to find out where their doctors had relocated. This was a critical step in communications after the evacuation. In addition, information from the CEO was posted almost daily.
A clinic building was purchased so that displaced pediatric specialists could see patients who had evacuated to the Baton Rouge area. Clinic space was leased in Lafayette, La., for the same purpose. Full-page ads were placed in regional newspapers to communicate this to patient families. Press releases requested air-time to find employees who had relocated to different parts of the country.
After five weeks, Children’s Hospital reopened its doors. Full-page ads were placed in The Times-Picayune to inform the public about the reopening. Signs were also posted around town announcing the hospital was open.
Children’s Hospital will be forever grateful for those members of the medical community who helped us when we needed them most.

Let relationships become your safety net

By Ann Barks, APR, Ann Barks Public Relations

Before Hurricane Katrina, I was part of a loose coalition made up of four female, independent, senior-level PR practitioners.  After Hurricane Katrina, we were all in similar circumstances — virtually no income, clients we weren’t sure would ever recover, no confidence that the economy would recover in the foreseeable future to generate enough new business. We were also dealing with personal losses and concerns that weighed heavily on our spirits and pocketbooks.
My home office is in Slidell, La., a community that the eye of the hurricane came directly over, producing a storm surge of historic and devastating force. My husband and I were fortunate because our home wasn’t flooded. Though we had structural damage, most losses are being covered by insurance. We did not evacuate far and managed to return along shattered roadways within two days. Conditions, however, were primitive and tenuous for weeks.
We spent the first six weeks digging out our home from the damage, doing emergency repairs and helping friends who were not as lucky. I tried not to be afraid of professional uncertainties, but my business was basically destroyed — of my four major clients, three were put out of business by the storm’s destruction.
Our group of independents, along with two new independents whose corporate jobs had been lost because of Katrina, met together about 10 weeks after the storm to come up with a plan to generate new business. Well, first we had a group pity session, and then we came up with a plan.
We had just started implementing it when, about two weeks later, new work started trickling in for each of us. Within a few more weeks, we were each overwhelmed with new clients, projects and media contacts. We all took on projects that gave us an opportunity to help with the recovery.
The pace has not slowed down since. I’ve rebuilt my business with old and new clients, both long-term and recovery-related.
My relationships with fellow PR professionals through the New Orleans PRSA Chapter were my salvation, as a lot of my new work came through members. I was also shown tremendous loyalty by Montgomery Stire Partners, a New Orleans advertising agency that I did a lot of work for before Hurricane Katrina. Even though they struggled like every other agency, they went out of their way to bring me in on projects.
Hurricane Katrina had unexpected positive consequences. I value my life, family, friends and community with a renewed passion. I am stronger and more confident in my profession. It is still hard down here, as huge swaths of the city have not recovered. But that’s why we’re sticking around — to be part of the reason our region recovers.  And it will. I have faith in us.

When in doubt, overpack

By Ann Christian, APR, president, Ann Christian Public Relations

Like many others, I fled New Orleans in the wee hours of Aug. 28.  Figuring I would be back in two days, packing consisted of stuffing an extra golf shirt, pair of pants and pajamas into an overnight bag.  I grabbed my laptop, put my dog in the car, boarded up the house and left.
My planned two-day evacuation ended up being three months.  In the two weeks following Hurricane Katrina, I slept in seven different cities, bouncing from friends to family to hotels. My business was gone. When reality hit that I wasn’t going home, I ended up driving to Denver to stay with my brother. Close to 1,900 miles of driving later, the only thing I knew was that I owned a laptop, two pairs of pants, two shirts and a pair of pajamas.
One moment I was a PR specialist in New Orleans, the next an evacuee in Denver.
I began to crave normalcy, so I called a PR firm to see if they needed some temporary help. I got a positive response, and shortly thereafter I met with the agency president. Sounds normal, right? It wasn’t until I was sitting in the waiting area of JohnstonWells, Inc., a Denver-based PR firm, shaking the hand of the president, that it occured to me. I was making my first impression in a rumpled pair of khaki pants, tennis shoes that had seen better days and a golf shirt that somewhere along the evacuation route had acquired a noticeable stain. I had been in the same clothes for so long that I didn’t even think about what I was wearing.  At that point, what could I do? I laughed, apologized for my jumbled appearance and quickly added, “It was either this or my pajamas.” 
I can’t say enough about the great folks at JohnstonWells. They took me in and promised to give me some work to keep me busy.  In return, I promised to go buy some new clothes.
Now that we are in another hurricane season, I can say there have been many lessons learned.  For me, it comes down to:  The next time I evacuate, I’ll pack more clothes.

Friends torn apart by Hurricane Katrina

By Meg Courtney, communications manager, Peoples Health

I convinced one of my closest friends and fellow PRSA member Cheryn Robles to evacuate the New Orleans area, leaving at 4 a.m. early Aug. 28. Road trips with PR people can be interesting — I don’t know that anyone else would have appreciated that we began naming newspapers and TV stations for every town we passed. Cheryn even knew the circulation for some. We drove to Shreveport, La., about five hours northwest of New Orleans.
We didn’t sleep that week; we just watched the news. While checking e-mail on Aug. 30, I spoke with the CEO of my company and began working right away — getting messages to our employees, health plan members and providers through our Web site. Working with a Medicare health plan meant that we had more than 37,000 members across the country who needed dialysis, oxygen, diabetic supplies and prescription drugs. We wanted to make sure they knew they could find the health care they needed.
As I was setting up Internet access in my friend’s dining room and preparing to work from there for the next month, Cheryn was beginning to realize her job wouldn’t be the same. She worked for an agency in New Orleans, and all their clients were local. Cheryn decided to move back to San Diego, where she grew up. I drove her to the airport in Dallas on Sept. 2, saying goodbye to a friend I thought of as family.
I continued working from Shreveport, La. Key messages changed daily, as teams formerly based in New Orleans worked from places they relocated to across the country. We went about placing advertising to reach our members, employees and providers, arranging community meetings to answer questions and trying to solve immediate concerns and reassuring them that we weren’t going anywhere.
Work brought me to Baton Rouge for October, Puerto Rico for November and then back home to New Orleans.
Cheryn found a job in San Diego, is buying a house and joining the local PRSA Chapter there. I miss her and so many others that Hurricane Katrina displaced. Like everyone, I took good and bad things away from Hurricane Katrina. I am one of the lucky ones — I had a place to go and a way to get there. In addition, something else unexpected happened along the way — I met someone. Who’d have thought I would meet a guy? But I did, a good one, and I’ve been dating him for the last nine months.
The work I did in those months, the experiences — what we think of as “triage” public relations — I will learn from for the rest of my life.

Arrogance can lead to greater disasters

By Gerard Braud, president, Braud Communications

Friends know me as “The Crisis Guy.” When hurricanes come, they call to find out if I’m evacuating. I learned to appreciate the fury of even the small ones after chasing nearly every hurricane in America for 15 years as a journalist.
So it was, on Aug. 26, when the 4 p.m. advisory first listed New Orleans as ground zero. Friends called for evacuation advice, actually alerting me to the storm.
In 18 hours my home was secure — windows boarded, patio furniture moved to the garage, safe drinking water stored in huge plastic tubs for our return, hard drives backed up and taken with us, computers wrapped in triple trash bags, my desk wrapped in waterproof plastic sheets secured with duct tape, home movies and photo albums placed in the car and those that didn’t fit in the car placed in waterproof containers and moved to the second floor. With one daughter safely at college, my wife, youngest daughter and I evacuated well in advance of the highway gridlock; by sunset Aug. 27, a one-hour trip took an average of four hours — by sunrise Aug. 28, the day before the storm, it took from eight to 12 hours.
As we backed from the driveway I whispered to my wife, “Take a good look at the house, it may be the last time we ever see it.”  We each packed clothes for 10 days, anticipating the disaster and pending refugee status ahead.
Driving past the now-destroyed stately mansion on the Mississippi Gulf Coast on Aug. 27, I became enraged listening to news radio. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said, “I’m not ordering a mandatory evacuation today, but I might come back tomorrow and be more forceful.”
Why is it I knew to evacuate, but the Mayor of America’s 35th largest city didn’t have a clue? The answer is simple — been there, done that. I’ve been in hurricanes; lots of them. I’ve reported the aftermath and the suffering. Most important, I’ve learned.
That’s what I encourage you to do.
After covering the devastation of Hurricane Hugo in 1989, I returned to New Orleans asking what would happen if Hugo had hit us. The National Hurricane Center described the Hurricane Katrina scenario for me 15 years before it happened.
A year after Hurricane Katrina, there is still much to learn from the behavior of elected officials, business leaders, peers and citizens. I’ve identified three key combinations of behavior among so-called leaders. These are:
• Denial vs. reality
• Arrogance vs. action
• Blame vs. responsibility

Nagin neither ordered evacuations, nor did most citizens voluntarily evacuate, because they were unaware of how bad the situation could get. The mayor failed to follow emergency plans calling for evacuations with city-provided buses and trains because he was arrogant enough to think he could wing it. Now Nagin blames everyone for his struggles, rather than admitting his failures.
These same behavioral traits exist in your organization.
Help your organization understand the reality of a crisis, the action that must be taken and the responsibility you must exercise.

Storm leaves animals in danger

By Melissa Lee, APR, PR director, Audubon Nature Institute

Most of the fish were dead. The few survivors struggled in the heat and filthy water. Employees worked feverishly to save animals after fuel lines clogged the backup power generators running the sophisticated life support systems at Audubon Aquarium of the Americas. Hurricane Katrina left the most popular tourist attraction in Louisiana lifeless, stiflingly hot and without communication.
With incredible media attention on the city, interest in the aquarium’s fate was intense, yet speaking with reporters was nearly impossible due to lack of cell phone reception. To compound matters, I was stranded at my home, two now-useless bridges away from my office in New Orleans. Occasionally, a telephone call would get through from the aquarium, and I’d find out the latest and could update media accordingly.
Twelve days after Hurricane Katrina hit, we evacuated surviving animals to temporary homes, including airlifting our penguin colony and two sea otters to California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium. Handling media remotely with barely functioning telephones was not possible. Coordinating with PR colleagues at Monterey and other facilities receiving our animals was vital. I was able to speak with the PR team at Monterey to share information and maintained communication with them as much as possible throughout the transfer. Through their efforts, media coverage of the airlift was successful. Their long-distance support and compassion are something I’ll always remember.
Initial crisis aside, we realized we needed a way to reach out to the media and provide information. Faced with inoperable phones, lack of mail and delivery service and power outages that made computer use a rarity, we enlisted the help of a long-time friend at Qorvis Communications in Washington, D.C.  Working from a distance, my friend was able to use national media contacts to help cover our story as it was happening in New Orleans.  They became lifelines of communication.
Other aquariums and zoos involved in our rescue and recovery efforts helped with media during our months of rebuilding. Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium donated use of its research vessel as our team went to the Bahamas to collect new fish for our collection. The Chicago-based PR team helped secure coverage of the trip for local and national media. In addition, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association spearheaded fund-raising efforts and provided information to media when we were unable to do so.

Good things can come out of disasters

By Jason W. Melancon,
PR manager
It was close to noon on Aug. 28 and Hurricane Katrina would make landfall on the Louisiana Coast in less than 12 hours. I was seated on the sofa in my living room, watching my wife pace across the room as she spoke with her boss over the phone. (She works for an ambulance company in New Orleans.)
Even though she is 5 feet 2 inches tall, works in sales and marketing and is not trained in emergency medical care or medicine, she was asked to stay during the storm, and, if need be, drive an ambulance in the event of an emergency.
While she spoke, I protested quietly, “You’re not staying.”  When she got off of the phone, she looked at me with confusion and said, “I have to . . . It’s my job.”
Ultimately, she was granted leave at 1 p.m., only after volunteering to flee the city with her boss’ mother’s cats. By 2 p.m., we hit the road with my wife’s brother, a few bottles of water, several tins of sardines, a couple of pairs of shorts, jeans, a few T-shirts and the cats. Not to mention our new kitten and basset hound.
While Hurricane Katrina made landfall, we reached our destination — Alexandria, La., a small town north of New Orleans. It’s usually a three-hour drive. Under the circumstances, it took us 13 hours.
A few weeks later, after purchasing a few pairs of pants, dress shirts and a laptop, my co-worker and I, along with our CEO, landed on the steps of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals in Baton Rogue, seeking to be put to good use (by now our office building was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina).
I began working with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals on a project called Stay Healthy Louisiana, a public education program focused on informing residents about the health hazards they were likely to experience when returning to the city. I also worked with staffers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on a project to develop a prevention framework for the rebuilding of the health care system in New Orleans. These experiences provided me with a form of professional development that I would never have imagined otherwise.
The moral of this story? Good things can and do come out of disasters. I’m sure some of my PRSA colleagues would agree, as hurricane-related work continues to develop nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina hit, and will likely continue to do so.

Preparing for the worst
Based on their experiences following Hurricane Katrina, these New Orleans-based PR professionals provide crisis preparedness advice. Here are their suggestions:


Ann Barks, APR
Lessons learned:

• In a disaster that affects a geographic area, remember that the local media have also been impacted, both personally and professionally. In New Orleans, members of our local media lost homes, cars and community, just like the rest of us. Even national media is emotionally impacted by their experiences during a disaster like this. Put every story in terms of its impact on a real person —more than ever, this is what the media will be looking to convey because covering such an important story has to be done through the individual eyes of those affected.
• Acknowledge your own losses. You will see the world around you and your job in a different light. Learn how to make that work for you, but don’t discount how the disaster impacts you.
• Get involved with other PR professionals and PIOs well before any disaster or crisis. When the time comes, this is a cadre of individuals who speak the same language and are an invaluable network, both professionally and personally.
• Do your own risk assessment for your business if you are an independent practitioner. Plan how you can take your business with you if you need to set up a temporary shop in another city or region. Everything you need to do your work for clients should be portable, including equipment. Invest in jump drives but also waterproof containers for client files and media materials.
• Take your portfolio and work samples with you in an evacuation. You may need them if you must apply for new work wherever you settle in during a long-term evacuation. If you lose your office, these are items that will likely be irreplaceable and needed in the future.
• Buy a prepaid cell phone with an area code from a region entirely away from yours and put it in your evacuation box. If communications towers in your area are blown away or lose generator power, your regular cell phone will not be reliable even if you are calling from a city well away from the disaster area. However, the other cell phone will work since it will use other initial towers to make connections. Make sure your critical contacts have this emergency cell phone number before you leave.
• National agencies with clients in the affected disaster area should hook up with a local PR professional. Every message given in the affected area is going to be measured against a shifting emotional public reaction on the disaster recovery. Because he/she will have that intimate handle on this public sentiment, a local PR professional could be your greatest asset in reputation management and communicating with the media covering the disaster.

Ann Christian, APR
Lessons learned:

• If possible with clients, get an alternate phone number (the number of a family member or someone well away from ground zero) so if cell phones don't work, you can try and communicate through someone else. If the client has an evacuation plan, get the phone number of where they are evacuating to so that if they need a release or something, you can find them via landline.
• Make it a habit to back up files on a jump drive or some other device and make the habit a weekly one.  I lost a lot of stuff because I didn't have time to back up and when my computer crashed, it took everything with it.
• Make a hard copy of your e-mail address book in the event you have to use another computer and always keep that copy in your evacuation bag.  It’s challenging to try to find someone and you don't have an email address and can't get them on the phone.
• I have counseled clients to establish a year-round toll-free number and make sure all employees are aware of and trained from date of hire about that number. My hotel client had a problem after Katrina because they were unable to locate employees. They established a 1-800 number after Katrina, but it was not effective since employees without access to a computer had no way of knowing where to call their employer.
• Finding the media was extremely difficult after Katrina — they had also evacuated and it was a challenge to find new phone numbers. If you have clients who have to get important messages out to the media during an emergency, call media contacts now and get their alternate contact information if they have something set up. Otherwise, call the state police or utility public information officer following the disaster as they will likely have already been in contact with relocated media.
• Clients said their biggest nightmare was their company computer server.  They left with backup copies of data, but when they had to relocate, they had to find someone to basically rebuild it on another computer system.
• Communication is the biggest thing.  You’ve got to have a plan to communicate when everything goes down.  Don’t rely on cell phones or anything.  Come up with a plan to communicate, especially those in charge of making life-and-death decisions.
• Lastly, don’t forget your Palm Pilot. I accidentally left mine on my desk, but didn't panic because I was going to be home in two days. Yeah right. Well, after three months, guess what happens to a palm pilot when not used?  Backing it up on a computer is such a pain, so in order to not lose all information, bring it with your charger. 
• When I got back from Katrina, I made a special kit with all my computer software.  I have all my programs in one carry kit and will bring that with me in the event I evacuate and need to reload a program, or in my case, needed to buy a new computer.  I even brought my printer with me and the software for that.  Just bring everything you would need to set up a mobile office.

Cathleen Randon
Lessons learned

• Web site: A company outside the state will host our Web site in the event of another disaster. Since the Web site will need to be updated during a disaster, a designated laptop computer will be outfitted with all necessary programs relating to the site. The Public Affairs Director will take it in the event of another citywide evacuation and be able to make updates and post messages for employees and patient families
• Phone system: We have augmented our existing communications systems with satellite phones. Two 800MHz radios will enable us to talk to other hospitals in the area as well as the Metropolitan Hospital Council.
• Call Tree: An immediate response system will be implemented during any crisis event where immediate notification of staff is necessary. Administrators on call will be alerted first; they will inform their personnel who will in turn signal the emergency to other departments.
• Media Specialist: One member of the media team from the Public Affairs Department will stay for any future disaster. 

• After the hospital closed, a team of armed security guards were hired from Kansas City to protect the hospital. Enlisting the help of that group again is certainly an option but on-campus accommodations for the 2nd District police and fire departments will reinforce existing security personnel. Further measures include issuing color-coded armbands for staff and patient families during a crisis. Patients themselves will be identified by their hospital bracelets.

Meg Courtney
Lessons Learned:

• Laptop and backup files are key
• Have available media contacts for the five-state area
• Don’t forget the hot sauce.
• Get direct deposit.
• Have alternate e-mail addresses based from non-local servers
• Have an out-of-state emergency contact that can be reached by phone and will know your plans.
• Talk to people and listen to them. The fellow ‘evacuees’ I met in the local library while waiting for Internet access truly shaped some of our messages and mediums we used — they helped pass some of our messages via e-mail to family and friends.

Melissa Lee, APR
Lessons Learned:

• Remember national or trade associations. They can serve as sources for information, background, or updates and are often used by reporters.
• Have fact sheets and information materials handy. In case of evacuation, take them with you on a jump drive or a CD so you can easily access it. This includes logo, letterhead, and stock images too.
• Pack your business cards in your emergency business evacuation kit. You’ll need them, even if the phones aren’t working!
• Other industry professionals can lend a hand. In our case, our colleagues at Monterey were able to handle the media about the animal arrivals in California when we did not have working communication systems.
• Seek communications help from other sources. Utilizing a major PR firm outside the “Katrina Zone” yielded terrific benefits for us. They were able to make contact with media outlets and help tell our story when we couldn’t make or receive telephone calls or e-mail.
• Make sure your staff is media trained. My co-workers at the aquarium were forced to handle media interviews in the middle of the crisis and their media training (and some middle of the night telephone conversations) really helped.

Jason W. Melancon
Lessons learned:

• Palm phones/pads are still not to the point of being able to effectively replace a computer.
• Buy a laptop if you don’t have one and make sure your files from your desktop can be transferred to it remotely or through some device like a thumb drive.
• Your life is more important than your job.
• Always remember to take some work clothes with you (we thought we would be back in a couple of days – it took two months to get home). 


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