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U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program

Katrina Archival & Historical Record Team (KART)

Katrina, 2005

Interviewee: CDR Patrick Flynn , USCG

Executive Officer
ISC New Orleans

Interviewer: Not Mentioned
Date of Interview:  27 October 2005
Place: Alexandria, Louisiana 


Abstract:

CDR Flynn supported the ICP in Alexandria. His first job was to account for the ISC personnel and to recall people. Because the two local area codes were down, it took approximately five days before everyone was accounted for. Flynn provided necessary entitlement information to the members. He also located resources such as water, fuel, RVs, and diesel fuel. He even rented a houseboat. Flynn said that ICS structure worked well, however, if people don’t understand the structure it then becomes difficult. A challenge was not being able to communicate with the people in theatre with any regularity. Ham radio operators helped with the communications. Another challenge was the lack of good data in PeopleSoft. He said that there should be two improvements: First, all members need to update their emergency data in PeopleSoft to include a telephone number for someone who does not live near the member. The Coast Guard could then contact that person to see if the member has been in touch with them and locate the member that way. The other improvement is for single parents and member-to-member couples with children to have a plan for their children. This way they know that their children are safe and they are free to focus on the mission. 


Q: Okay, would you please state your first name, your last name, and spell your last name.

CDR Flynn: Patrick Flynn; F-L-Y-N-N.

Q: And your rank in the Coast Guard?

CDR Flynn: I’m a Commander.

Q: Okay, and could you briefly give us an overview of your career path that led to you being stationed at ISC New Orleans?

CDR Flynn: I’m a Warrant to Lieutenant. I enlisted in the Coast Guard in October of 1973. I came through the ranks as a Chief Petty Officer, a Chief Warrant Officer, an Assignment Officer and a Group Supply Officer. I became a Lieutenant in 1992 as the Deputy Comptroller, Training Center Petaluma, Comptroller at ISC Alameda and Comptroller at Training Center Yorktown. I’ve been the Executive Officer of ISC New Orleans since July of this year. 

Q: So you recently came here?

CDR Flynn: Actually I’ve been the Executive Officer since we’ve been at the Convention Center longer than I was the Executive Officer at the base [chuckle].

Q: Okay. Now just prior to Katrina hitting the Gulf Coast what kind of preparations were you making at ISC?

CDR Flynn: We were watching the storm that week as it blew up in the Caribbean and started to come across Florida. The Friday before the storm . . . we had watched the storm early that morning. The FOT Branch Chief; Lieutenant Commander Schaffer, was the storm watcher and he had come to the office about ten o’clock that morning and said, “Yes, this is not likely to come here but we should do our hurricane preps”, so we brought ourselves up to a hurricane condition; ready for a hurricane. We had moved the records upstairs and did the general routine things that are in a Hurricane Plan to do to prepare for the storm. That afternoon we left. When we left Friday afternoon the storm was going to Florida. Saturday morning the storm had shifted Tac. I called the Hurricane Duty Section and had them report into the base. The Standing Order for the Hurricane Duty Section would be that, “If the hurricane is actually going to hit in New Orleans we’re going to secure the property.” They were going to seek safe haven at the LORAN Station in Grangeville, then return the day after the storm to assess damage. So Sunday morning before the storm hit I talked to the duty section about nine. I told them to lock the base up about noon and let me know what they had left. They did not leave until about noon because they got involved with finishing some things at the base and went over and secured the REPFAC, the Admiral’s house; boarded up the windows and made sure that the building was all secure. Then once they left the base and headed for Grangeville I left my home in Slidell. Since the nearest hotel room I could find was in Memphis I drove to Memphis and waited there for the storm. 

Q: Okay, so when did you eventually come back down to Alexandria at which you indicated first?

CDR Flynn: Right, I came to Alexandria.  During the storm I was in touch with my CO; Captain Regan, who was here in Alexandria. We set up a conference call between the Division Officers, compliments of CG-8 who gave us the conference call capability. 

The day of the storm . . . the wind was still blowing. The ICP Logistics Section called looking for some help; a Yeoman and a Storekeeper, so I called the Comptroller who at that time was in Orlando with this family. We arranged to have some people come and start augmenting the ICP staffing so there were some people coming. Monday afternoon we had people on their way here. I personally left Memphis Tuesday morning. I left Memphis, drove home to Slidell to pick up some uniforms and other things I’d left behind. My home was still there. It was very nice and . . . 

Q: You didn’t get any damage?

CDR Flynn: I have some minor roof damage to my house. I had five trees down in my backyard, all of which fell away from the house. They fell through the fence. All things considered - I have 50 people working with me that are homeless - all things considered I had nothing happen to me in this.

Q: So when you got here what was happening in Alexandria?

CDR Flynn: Alexandria was a beehive of activity. There were a couple hundred people here from the Sector and the District. The ISC was coming in. We came here simply because the ICP was here and once the CO realized the magnitude of the storm he decided to reconstitute the command in this location in order to support the ICP in the efforts going on in New Orleans.

Q: And what were you doing day-to-day here?

CDR Flynn: Well my initial job as Executive Officer was trying to account for the crew so we started immediately by getting a roster and checking off whom we had heard from, who had called in, who had checked in with us; between us and the people still up in St. Louis, who we had heard from, who we hadn’t heard from, and then we started dialing numbers from the Recall List to see who we could get a hold of. Telephones were terrible. The 504 area code was offline. The 985 area code was essentially offline. Those are the two area codes most of our people lived in. We had an 800 number people could call for information. It was a couple of days before we could update that number and when we did CGDN was down so we didn’t have our regular email, so we had set up a hotmail account that said ISCNOLA@hotmail.com and we changed our 800 message. We had people . . . they got choices. They could call my cell phone. They could text message to my personal cell phone. They could send us an email at the hotmail account or they could call the People Cell in St. Louis. So we gave people one of four ways to, “Please contact us”, and let us know that they were okay and a way to get back a hold of them.

Q: And were they able to, for the most part, get in touch with you?

CDR Flynn: It took a couple days. It probably took five days before we accounted for everyone. The hardest group to account for was the Reserves because they had scattered to the wind. Getting information out of PeopleSoft proved to be almost impossible. The information there was not necessarily very good. The civilian employees, particularly with the information in PeopleSoft, was . . . they were there but there’s no information; no phone numbers. There was no way to get a hold of them. They were the hardest group to find.

Q: Is that why there is a sign out here about updating PeopleSoft?

CDR Flynn: I don’t know. Well people do have to update it. I mean I went up there to my phone numbers, my work phone number; people look up my work phone number in the Global and they dial a number in New Orleans that doesn’t work anymore. We would tell people to update it. Part of that is to make sure they update their mailing address. That’s really getting ahead of the tax season; make sure people’s W-2s . . . because the Tax Man will come the 15th of April, so just make sure people get their W-2’s and that process begins in the next month or so.

Q: So what next were you doing; what was going on day-to-day here? Can you take us through your progression?

CDR Flynn: Early on the day-to-day operations, at least for the ISC, were tracking down people and finding resources for the ICP. Our contracting shop . . . we were trying to put our contracting shop back together within a day or two. We immediately started procuring all matters of things from water to fuel to things that were not available in this area and my Contracting Officers were hunting all over the country for RVs, diesel fuel from Texas and all kinds of other things just to have things available. At one point I think we rented out a houseboat for one of the Stations; someplace to live. 

Day-to-day they were very long days. We got here about six in the morning and we stayed until ten or eleven at night. There were Ops briefs at eight in the morning. There was another one at noon. There was another one at eight in the evening. And we, at some point, spun off a People Group where we talked about people issues, which became at the IMT the People Cell eventually. We talked about issues concerning people. We talked about Evac Orders. Very early on we had the Evacuation Order changed from the designated safe haven for the New Orleans area, which is in Mississippi, to, “You go take people anywhere you want”, and families pretty much scattered around the country at that point. 

Then a lot of things, you know, working on entitlement issues. From the ISC point of view it’s about support and so we spent a lot of time on entitlement issues to make sure we understood what people were entitled too and make sure we got the word out to the people what they’re entitled too so that people weren’t getting themselves into a financial hole or failing to do something because they didn’t think they were going to get reimbursed for it. 

The other side of the house over at the ICP, it’s a beehive of activity all the time there. There are Aviators here. Everybody was here. It was airplanes coming in and out of the airport. The ISC . . . after a while watching what was going on . . . we had a warehousemen who was here and we said, “Hey, you have a warehouse operation. We’ve got a guy that does warehouse for a living. Why don’t we run that for you?” So we took that over for the Sector. You know pretty much wherever we could help we just gave them help and whatever we could do to help the ICP get the mission done we just threw people or talent at it to get it done.

Q: So would you say that the ICS system was working to the best of its ability?

CDR Flynn: ICS works well. This has gone on for a very long time. The ICS is not necessarily designed for long term. Early on ICS worked fine. ICS works if everyone understands ICS. ICS has a hard time I think when people don’t understand it. People forget that one of the key elements of ICS is the person with the expertise is the person in charge of that, you know, whoever knows the most, be that Admiral or Ensign or Third Class Petty Officer, you know the most about that issue then you’re the person who should be in charge of that issue. Did it work here? Yes, it worked here. People understood their roles. There are some gaps in ICS in an operation this size. It became apparent as time went on that Planning and Logistics weren’t always talking to each other. Planning wanted to do something and Logistics didn’t know about it or they wanted to do something in Logistics; they were going to procure whatever they needed, and it was such a fluid and dynamic situation that sometimes when things arrived the mission was overtaken by events and they didn’t need that or they needed something else. But they worked very well together. 
Pretty much everyone was doing the 12 to 16 hour days. People were walking around tired. Halfway through the week people were kind of tired but people were still very excited by the fact that the mission was going on. You know we pulled all those people off rooftops and out of buildings and we got them to safety, and quite frankly the Coast Guard worked when everyone else failed. You know that was pretty apparent from here too.

Q: Now the chain of communication between your chain of command, was that smooth? Were you able to contact them or because of lack of communications; the equipment working, did that cause problems?

CDR Flynn: Within the Command, within the ISC?

Q: Well within the Coast Guard structure.

CDR Flynn: Well there were clearly gaps. We, organizationally; our society, have come to rely a lot on cell phones and cell phones often just didn’t work. Text messaging seemed to work for some odd reason. If you’d get any signal at all you’d get a text message out where you could. Many times you couldn’t actually get a phone line but if you got any signal off text messaging it worked, which became . . . we figured that out very quickly that this works. So if you had any kind of signal at all where you might not be able to make a phone call you could sometimes get a text message out, although within New Orleans it was spotty and to this day is still spotty. The phones are working much better now than they did two months ago but there are still sections where the Nextels don’t work and Cingular doesn’t work. And a lot of people have different phones. I carry a personal phone and a work phone from different companies. You know you look at the phone to see which one works and use that one. I think all of us use our personal phones and luckily I don’t think any of us got billed for it [chuckle] so it worked out well. It was hard but I think with a disaster of this magnitude, you know when it took down the cell towers, knocked out power, all communication, quite frankly, relies on some type of power and a lack of power was not going to help, you know the lack of power without connectivity. You know we don’t have our connectivity by radio anymore, it’s through computers, and when power goes down the computers don’t work either. The radios may have worked, the computers didn’t. I do know that we did have HAM Radio operators set up here about the second day so the backbone of emergency communication has been for 60 years HAM Radio operators, and they were here. They set up and they were good to go. 

Q: Did you have Auxiliarists down here too?

CDR Flynn: We had Auxiliarists, yes. There were all kinds of Auxiliarists. All team Coast Guard was here; the Reservists were here, the Auxiliarists were here, the civilians were here. Everyone that we call “Team Coast Guard”, including some retirees that wandered in, they were all here. All those people were here. But we even got people that were not Auxiliarists. The HAM operators were not Auxiliarists. We had people dropping things off.

Q: Did they just show up here prior to the Coast Guard getting here or were they already here?

CDR Flynn: Which ones?

Q: The HAM operators.

CDR Flynn: No, they showed up afterwards. They were here about Day Three.

Q: Okay.

CDR Flynn: So I’m sure the ICP had that communication somewhere. I don’t know. They were here. Suddenly there’s guys setting up radios and I went home. We have HAM Operators, which are very convenient. Auxiliary Air was here. There were lots and lots of people here. Pretty much everyone we needed showed up. People showed up and said, “What do you need me to do?” So we had Lieutenant Commanders driving RVs and everybody doing everything, you know, “I need this.” “Okay, I can do that”, and people would go do it. 

Q: So everyone kind of pulled together and didn’t kind of recoil in their rank structure. They just said, “There’s a need . . . .” 

CDR Flynn: It was clear, “Here’s a need. How can I fill the need? I need somebody to do this. I don’t have anybody available.” “I can do that.” Personally I ordered uniforms for everybody because someone had to do it and so I said, “I can do that.” “Do you have time?” “Yes, I can make time.” It wasn’t a difficult thing to do so I ordered uniforms for everybody. I mean I think everyone did what everyone had to do. Everyone said, “What does he need done.” “I need this.” “I can do that.” “Okay.” I don’t think there was anyone wandering around here going, “Hey, I’m a Commander. I don’t do that kind of stuff.” I think we had people wandering around saying, “How can I help you?” You know, “We need to move this stuff over here”, and you’d look and there’d be a work party moving gear around and rank or rate had no . . . nobody seemed to be objecting to helping. You know clearly on the ICP side of it; the Incident Command Post, clearly this was the Incident Commander, the Deputy Incident Commander, here’s the Logistics Section Chief, here’s the Air Boss, there’s the guy in charge of Planning, these are the people who were in charge; “What can I do for you today”, and everyone understood that that was the person in charge and if you had a question you went to them. And it seemed from outside the ICP observation it worked rather well. 

Q: Well what would you say were the biggest challenges working in this environment?

CDR Flynn: The lack of communication in theater, for those of us who were not directly involved in the operation, trying to contact people in New Orleans; the lack of good data from PeopleSoft, which we have toted as our premier Human Relations software. It just wasn’t there. I think there are probably some things we need to fix about how we approach . . . systematically how we put that into that system. Beyond that it’s the Coast Guard being the Coast Guard. 

Q: When did they get the computers up and running?

CDR Flynn: We had internet connectivity fairly quickly. We had internet connectivity within two days. I actually got here Tuesday. Wednesday we had WIFY connectivity in the building here so there was some connectivity fairly quickly. I don’t remember. You know the weeks have all kind of run together. I do know it was a week or so after the storm that we went down to New Orleans and actually pulled a lot of equipment out of the ESU building. But the ESU was already up and running so they brought some equipment in from somewhere else to gain the connectivity back but it was slow. Again, once the equipment came in place the communication team was working very well. Then ESU New Orleans and ESD New Orleans all showed up and they came with their skill and a whole bunch of IT folks starting showing up and it came together fairly quickly once we had the people and got the equipment in. 

Q: How many people were based out of your unit to ensure the ICP was really up and running?

CDR Flynn: I don’t know, four or five hundred. 

Q: And they came from all over; Reservists?

CDR Flynn: Yes, Reservists from all over. There were all kinds of people here; a lot of people from the area and a lot of people coming in immediately from out of the area. 

Q: Did everybody grasp the scope of the disaster there? I mean it just seems like the whole disaster was beyond what people can imagine.

CDR Flynn: I think everyone here, and quite frankly I had no idea what was going on for about fourteen days. I went by snippets. I’d get a phone call from someone or something and snippets of things going on. Everyone here understood that there were thousands of people on rooftops. There again, everyone here . . . you know I was going to Ops briefs so I clearly had an understanding of what was being discussed in the Ops brief but everyone understood that the devastation was widespread. You know occasionally we’d get to see pictures. We’d get some pictures on TV and just see the utter destruction everywhere. But everyone here was really busy with whatever their piece was and I’m not sure that at first . . . we understood there was huge devastation. We understood that Station Gulfport had been destroyed, that Station New Orleans had been abandoned due to weather, which is on the wrong side of the levee to withstand a heavy storm, and it’s designed so water will come under the building, so it’s part of the design of the Station. So we knew that station had been looted before we got back in. We knew there were thousands of people in the Super Dome. We knew about the Convention Center. The average person; the person not going to the brief, knew those things. That much information was getting out. People were getting information out to us. Some of the other stuff that we read about later was interesting. 

Q: But when you started realizing - I’m sure you were getting reports here - that there were thousands of people being transported say to the Cloverleaf and these different areas, what was going on here; were people trying to figure out how they could resolve this problem of these people just sitting here in these evacuation areas?

CDR Flynn: A lot of what was happening here was how to get water and food to these people. We had C-130s coming in and out of here a couple times a day, other transport type aircraft in and out of here a couple times a day, moving water and MREs down in New Orleans. The helo crews would kick them out the door and if they did nothing else they dropped water and food to people. There was a “What do we do” and there was a great understanding and there was a great knowledge. There were lots of people there. At one time one of the meetings talked about that the Secretary or the President wanted a Coast Guard assessment of what was going on at the Convention Center. You know we have an assessment, it wasn’t a Coast Guard assessment, they wanted someone from the Coast Guard to go look and then report back. So they sent a crew in there. The assessment was going on in the Convention Center. It surprised a lot of people that there were a lot of people left in New Orleans for some reason. You know this is an poor urban community; people rode the bus, and people who ride buses a lot don’t drive cars. And particularly in a poor urban community people aren’t going to drive cars. I mean most big cities you have lots and lots of people that don’t drive. They just never learned to drive. They don’t need to drive. They have mass transit and cars are a nuisance. In New Orleans you have a lot of poor people who rode the bus. The mass transit system worked. People got from where they lived to where they had to work. They didn’t have cars. They had no way to get out so there were a lot of people. I think the shear number of people, which I guess was 40 or 50 thousand that were left in the city, that was 10 percent of the population. Percentage wise it’s about what you would expect. The number just caught a lot of people off guard and I don’t think the city was prepared. 

Q: Was there a sense of frustration as time went on when there were reports of the rioting in some areas and the hostility because of the evacuees being stuck in a certain location? Was there any kind of frustration here when you saw those things and knew that you were trying to do the best you could; you were extracting them but there was no place to really take these people?

CDR Flynn: I’m not sure many of us knew that at the time. We knew it later but at the time I’m not sure many of us knew. We knew there were a lot of people and we knew we were moving them from place to place. We moved them . . . for a while we moved them simply to roads. We simply moved them to the overpasses. We got people from the rooftops to the overpasses; to the freeways that were not underwater. I’m not sure here. We heard . . . we would get snippets of people, you know of a riot . . . there’s a Winn Dixie that was looted; people looting a supermarket. Most people understood the food part of that. I think they got confused with people walking with a TV. You know, “Where are you going with that?” [Chuckle] There’s no power. I think people just shook their heads and said, “Okay, there are some people being very irresponsible. The vast majority of these people are just stuck and we need to help get them out of there.” So I think there was a shaking of the heads and there are always the foolish that take advantage of any situation but I think the vast majority of people here understood that the vast majority of people stuck in New Orleans are not that group. 

Q: Well is there any particular story or instance that happened while you were - well you’re still here – but that happened during that operational period?

CDR Flynn: Well my duty section had gone off to Grangeville. There’s a LORAN Station in Grangeville. Grangeville is by Baton Rouge; its 80 some odd miles from New Orleans. Their job the next day was to go back to the ISC and assess the damage of the command. They borrowed a small boat from the LORAN Station; a little open outboard-boat, like two boats, so they could get back, and they knew there was some flooding – they didn’t have that much – they knew there was flooding so they took boats with them so they could get back to the base to assess the damage. They put their boats in the water and for about three days they picked people off rooftops so they did not . . . it was days before they finally got back to the Base to report the condition there. The base was severely damaged but that wouldn’t have made any difference. It was safe. It was surrounded by water. 

Q: Well is there any policy or procedure that you could see could be improved because this will be the first disaster like this to happen, but in the future is there something that you could see that could be improved?

CDR Flynn: From a people point of view, two things. Well we all have to update our Record of Emergency Data in who to be called in case something happens to us. We need to change that form to include a phone number - somewhere where you’re not - in some other part of the country when the person you would contact should be there. In a disaster you’re going to contact the Coast Guard so the Coast Guard could contact that person and find out if you’ve been in touch with them; One. 

Two: single parents and Member-to-Member marriages. I’m a single parent. I have a five year old grandson I adopted. My Dependent Care Plan in this type of emergency was to send him away. I sent him away. We have people that are Member-to-Member marriages with children.. Single parents and Member-to-Member marriages have to have a Care Plan that actually cares for their dependents and does not depend on the other member to care for them. What we need the members to do, we need the members to show up for work. With Member-to-Member marriages; we need both members here for however long we need them. They need to know their children are safe. Single parents are in the same situation. They need to be able to show up, do their job and know that they’ve taken care of their dependents. They’ve sent them somewhere where they can be safe so they can be focused on the mission because we have to stay focused on the mission. Those are the two personnel things I would do to make sure that when this happens next time it would be much easier for us to find the people; much easier for us to contact people. What members have to know is it’s their responsibility to call. You know locally we need to say, “Okay, if something happens here we have to call this number.” Again, somewhere else . . . in our case, in the 8th District, you know, “If there’s a disaster in this part of the District, call St. Louis.” There’s a number in St. Louis and we’re going to be better at publishing those numbers. But all of us in the Coast Guard have to say, “What’s our contingency should something happen in this area? Where do the employees check in”, and it has to be somewhere else and we need to establish where that somewhere else is, you know, what different part of the country it is. If I’m in California it can’t be California; any part of California, it has to be somewhere else, maybe Denver [chuckle]. If I’m in New York then that phone number has to be in Boston or in Miami. If I’m in Miami it has to be in Norfolk; somewhere distant so that the chance of the same catastrophe affecting both places are very slim. 

Q: Is there anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to share with us about this whole event?

CDR Flynn: Let the Coast Guard do what the Coast Guard does. If we get the Congress to fund Deepwater we can do it better.

Thanks.

Q: Alright, great, thanks a lot.

CDR Flynn: Alright.

END OF INTERVIEW


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