Katrina Archival & Historical Record Team (KART)
Q: Commander Sir, if you could give me your name and spell your last name please.
CDR LaChance: Yes, it’s Commander Don LaChance. The last name is spelled L-A-C-H-A-N-C-E.
I’m the Logistics Officer here at MLC Atlantic. My staff symbol is MDL here.
Q: And Sir.
LCDR Whitehead: Steven Whitehead, that’s S-T-E-V-E-N, W-H-I-T-E-H-E-A-D and I’m Chief of Contingency Planning, which really works as the Deputy for Commander LaChance in Logistics.
Q: Can you give me a sense of how you got into this job; what you’re career path has been before you got here?
CDR LaChance: Sure. My career track or specialty, I’m a civil engineer. I had prior civil engineering tours and billets. I came here from Integrated Support Command Kodiak Alaska. I came down here in the summer of 2002. I’m not exactly sure how I got assigned to this billet. I don’t think the civil engineering background is a requirement for this job. I think any kind of engineering or planning expertise would be good for my billet.
Q: Yes. Are you Academy or OCS?
CDR LaChance: No, I’m a direct commission, prior Navy service.
Q: What did you do in the Navy?
CDR LaChance: I was a civil engineer, Civil Engineer Corps, eight years with the Navy. I came in the Coast Guard in 2002.
Q: Yes, okay.
CDR LaChance: I mean actually that’s not right [chuckle], 1991
CDR LaChance: Right.
Q: You just lost 11 years there [chuckle].
CDR LaChance: Ah, that’s okay, whatever, they all lump together.
Q: How about you Sir?
LCDR Whitehead: I’m operational law enforcement background.
LCDR Whitehead: That’s where my background is. And so again, I don’t know how that comes into contingency planning or logistics. Well sort of the planning maybe but not too much.
Q: We were just talking about this with the Admiral, about how, “If every Marine is a rifleman what’s every Coast Guardsman”, and I have yet to hear an Admiral give me a coherent bumper sticker answer to that because I don’t think there is one.
LCDR Whitehead: Yes.
Q: Are they lifesavers, are they law enforcement, are they this, are they that? You know what value did the Coast Guard have . . . ?
LCDR Whitehead: The sad thing is we don’t know anymore. You’re either a planner or a responder now, aren’t you?
Q: Is that what it is?
LCDR Whitehead: It’s planning responses . . .
Q: If every Marine is a rifleman every Coast Guardsman is a planner.
CDR LaChance: Prevention.
LCDR Whitehead: Or prevention, yes. You’re either a preventor or a responder.
Q: Not very sexy for a bumper sticker though.
LCDR Whitehead: [Chuckle].
Q: So you’re in charge of logistics for the MLC and you . . . this we have kind of an institutional memory of what happens when one of these things starts coming along, I mean different from 9/11 because they got some advance warning. In the days before this - as this is a tropical depression, tropical storm - starts coming across Florida, what are the sorts of things that you’re dealing with to try to prepare for it?
CDR LaChance: Well certainly these storms; Katrina, then obviously the follow-on Rita hurricane, were really a little bit different because of the magnitude of them and the magnitude of the devastation it caused. But in general the logistics staff here for the MLC supporting the Area and the affected Districts for any hurricanes through each summer in the hurricane season, our kind of support is to gear up for those storms. For those impacts we have our field commands; the Integrated Support Commands. Through them and our Civil Engineering offices we provide Damage Assessment Teams and then Emergency Response Reconstruction Teams and really focus it on the facility and infrastructure; communication network, the facilities themselves, assuming there are going to be some impacts from basically any hurricane or tropical storm, it’s just the magnitude of these that made it so much different. But as you said, watching the weather reports, that kind of thing, we know a storm’s coming, follow the storm’s projected path, track, ETA; when it’s going to make landfall, what particular states – in our case it may hit or it’s going to hit – and then what we try to do is preposition our Damage Assessment Teams so they can get on scene as soon as possible after a storm hits, assess the damage obviously and then direct what we call Emergency Reconstruction. Not the full blown repair of the building if it’s long term or a big ticket item, it’s really emergency quick-fixes; maybe set up emergency generators, patch a hole in a roof to prevent further water intrusion or that kind of stuff, debris removal. Just try to get the Station in some sense of operating order as soon as possible and then we’ll continue on a long term path really through the Civil Engineering units to do the permanent repairs or the more expensive repairs.
LCDR Whitehead: The goal is not to . . . our one thing to be concerned with when we say ERT, which in the ICS system there are reconstruction teams as well, and like the Commander said, it’s just emergent stuff that’s really related to the Coast Guard units where sometimes there’s a . . . people; until they understand they think that we’re going in there rebuilding all kinds of stuff. I mean the reality is it’s to get the operator back operating or get the Station back into an ability to operate if possible.
Q: And in this situation you’ve got not only facilities that have taken a hit but people themselves knocked out of houses and so forth. Was that something you had dealt with before or, or I’m sure probably not on that scale?
LCDR Whitehead: Only government housing knows whenever it comes into play with ERTs. In other words like in Isabel in the years past we had the housing at Cape Hatteras, which had major damage to the roofing. Then if it’s a Coast Guard asset and housing is considered part of the asset then it would be under repair or the same with Florida off of LORAN station Jupiter, I believe, has Coast Guard housing as well. But individual Coast Guard housing or leases that are not owned by the Coast Guard doesn’t fall under the same auspices.
Q: What about, say people who are knocked out of those types of housing? Was there any planning or response done to get those people into temporary, say Coast Guard housing so they could do their jobs?
CDR LaChance: After the immediate aftermath and really the Logistics Office is really concerned with the immediate storm impact time period and then those first few days afterwards. The MLC is a broader unit and support unit through, again, its field units; the ISCs and/or our staff here. We’ll cover that full gamut of any kind of personnel or any kind of broader logistic issues. So if people are displaced from housing, whether its Coast Guard owned or maybe just Coast Guard leased housing or even private housing, then whether its our personnel shop or our legal shop providing claim assistance, or again, the personnel shop maybe finding other government housing available or helping somebody get a new lease or a new apartment set up or something, so we’ll support the Coast Guard both from an operational standpoint and a personnel standpoint here at the MLC. It just depends what the need is at the time and what that timing is.
Q: On a typical day when you’re supporting the fleet; maintenance and all that sort of stuff, how are your responsibilities divided? I mean you’ve got a whole Area to cover. This obviously takes all of your focus and throws it into one area. But before that, give me a sense of what your jobs are when you’re dealing with the whole Area in the absence of, say a big focusing incident like this.
CDR LaChance: Well again, the MLC as a unit, I mean we have our various divisions and their programs that they do from Heath and Safety, Naval Engineering, Civil Engineering, Legal, Personnel, Financial Comptroller shop and so forth. My office, particularly the logistic staff if you will, is kind of a focused staff element working directly for the Deputy and the Admiral here that really, on a non-contingency/non-emergency basis, we’re more into the long term planning preparedness kind of focus that obviously as you alluded to, if an actual incident hits, whether it be severe weather or any kind of natural disaster, terrorist events; the 9/11 scenario; that kind of thing, then immediately we’ll go into that incident management mode of thinking. We’ll activate our Logistics Command Center here similar to the LANT Area standing up their Incident Management Team.
Q: Is this the cell that I’m hearing about; the logistics cell?
CDR LaChance: I guess you could call it that but really when the Atlantic Area stands up an Incident Management Team the MLC is an arm of the Area, which really functions as their logistics section and their personnel/admin/finance section of an Incident Command type system setup, and we’ll do that typically from this building here and downstairs we have a dedicated room as our Command Center if you will. We call it our LCC; our Logistics Command Center.
Q: And in this situation you actually sent somebody over there to sit in on their IMT?
CDR LaChance: We did and that’s really kind of their call depending on the Op-Tempo; how busy they are, what’s going on and so forth, and this again was a much broader scale than we’ve really had to deal with in the last several years, so at their request they asked to have some additional manpower, if you will, sitting on their staff. We don’t typically do that every time. Generally we’ll just support them from this building here if you will. So this was kind of, I don’t want to say unusual but not the typical way that we would do that but we certainly can anytime they ask us to do that.
Q: Did you feel like the contingencies were adequate for what the specialty became, you know your preplanning, pre-staging folks; response teams, Damage Assessment Teams and so forth; as things developed were those adequate to the situation as it developed?
LCDR Whitehead: Initially yes, the DATs were properly placed. The ERTs were basically ready to respond and we actually had already . . . we have a Disaster Support Plan and we had already made . . . like there are things in there that are set up for different teams and we had already started making contact prior to the storm. We had been calling saying, “Hey, this is a pretty large storm. Make sure your teams are ready.” So there was a lot of pre-readiness going on. Obviously it expanded beyond, I mean in reality in the three years it was the first time we really started exercising that plan to its fullest extent. Normally we don’t go beyond providing the DATs and the ERTs through a storm.
Q: What’s your next level beyond that?
LCDR Whitehead: Well then you start adding in like, you know you need the cooks and then you need Crisis Intervention Teams and then you need – shoot, what are the other ones we had – legal folks going down in claims. And then we built beyond that. These teams started to grow in size to make sure that we could respond.
CDR LaChance: The difference with this storm from - Steve and I both got here in the summer of 2002 so we’ve been here for the last three or four summers - the big difference with this storm is most of the time we’ll go in and do damage assessments, do some emergency reconstruction efforts and that’s typically limited to patching some roofs, boarding up a broken window, fixing the door, the front gate or clearing some trees that fell down. We’ll assist people maybe with some personal claims or whatever but usually it’s a two/three day event, four/five days, whatever, and then the Groups, the Stations, whatever; the facilities, are relatively back in an operating mode. If necessary, again, through our Civil Engineering units we’ll do some higher dollar, big ticket longer term contracts. You know maybe we’ve patched a roof and then they’ll have a contractor come in and put a complete new roof on the building or something, or completely reside the building or something like that. But typically three/four/five days we’re relatively back in an operating mode. This storm was totally different than that. We needed emergency . . . we couldn’t use the facilities they were so damaged. We needed then to bring in trailers for temporary office space, trailers to live in, shower facilities, laundry facilities, basic food and water; MREs, bottled water. That’s well beyond what we normally do. So when you ask the question, “Were we able to do our typical damage assessments and emergency reconstruction”, I would say yes, particularly the assessments because these assessments were just of such a greater magnitude. We really couldn’t do a lot of emergency reconstruction. There was nothing to reconstruct.
LCDR Whitehead: Reconstruct, yes.
CDR LaChance: So it was more debris removal, help them clean up and get ready, clear a space maybe to bring in a temporary trailer or trailers; that kind of thing.
Q: Can you give me a sense of the transition of your thought process when you realized that it’s not going to be a two/three day event? At what point did you start to realize, “This is going to be a little bit more of a heavy lift”?
LCDR Whitehead: We kind of started seeing that when we started seeing the categories starting to reach into the four and five level that we knew that we were going to be in for a big storm and there was discussion that we’re probably not going to have . . . I mean we were already talking with the CEUs; CEU Miami, who kind of runs the Damage Assessment Teams for us and we oversight with them.
Q: Are they there with that unit geographically because they . . . ?
LCDR Whitehead: No, they work out of Miami.
Q: Because they hit every year it’s sort of like better to have them there already?
LCDR Whitehead: The DAT teams you mean or . . . ?
CDR LaChance: The ISCs, there’s an Integrated Support Command, which are our field units, in each of the Coast Guard Districts and they’re kind of the District level MLC for each of them and so geographically depending on where that storm hits; if its going to hit Florida, if it’s going to hit Louisiana, if it’s going to come up here, you know, in North Carolina or whatever, then the different ISCs that serve that area will probably be involved in supplying Emergency Recon Teams, which are the people that come out of the facility shops, the industrial shops, you know it’s the carpenters, the plumbers, the electricians, those kind of tradesmen type people who do the emergency reconstruction. Geographically we have three Civil Engineering Units; CEUs in Atlantic Area, one in Cleveland, one in Providence and one in Miami. By default the guy in Miami happens to be in the most common hurricane impact zone so typically CEU Miami, through their engineering staff, will provide the damage assessments. These are typical structural civil engineer types that will go in and really their main focus is, “Is this building safe to inhabit and use”, and then obviously, “What is that level of damage that has to be fixed, either immediately, short term or long term?” So again, just by an already pre-established Area of Operations for these units is who are probably going to get into play. For example, if a storm comes up here in the 5th District the Civil Engineering Unit out of Cleveland is the Civil Engineering base, or if you will, a unit for the 5th District. So they obviously would probably flow the Damage Assessment Teams. If there was some kind of a major winter storm for example up in Boston or something in the 1st District then Civil Engineering Unit Providence would probably have the Damage Assessment Teams.
Q: Do you know where the guys from Miami were pre-staged before the . . . where did you put them before the storm?
LCDR Whitehead: I’d have to go back and look at the message traffic on that one.
CDR LaChance: Basically our office does help coordinate that and it’s a best guess storm path. Obviously we don’t want to put our people in harm’s way so we try to balance putting them in a safe haven location yet in a close proximity that we can minimize travel time to an impacted station. So based on the storm’s path we’ll look at what Coast Guard units or facilities are probably going to be impacted. In this case; Katrina, we knew it was going to hit New Orleans kind of proximity so we know all the stations along that northeast part of the Gulf; Mississippi and the Panhandle of Florida, and those kinds of things. So again, as Steven mentioned, we’ll probably flow more people or have more people pre-staged for maybe only a Cat 1 or a Cat 2 storm and as the hurricane strength goes up obviously with the expectation probability of heavier damage, more severe, more widespread damage, will go up if it’s a 3, 4, Category 5 type thing. We’ll have more instead of maybe one or two Damage . . . Damage Assessment Teams are typically two or three people so we might have two groups of two, bigger storm three groups, four groups, it just depends where that path is. We might try to have one guy on the west side of the storm and one guy on the east side of the path. Again, just try to be someplace where it’s safe for them but relatively quick to get in because our goal is to get in as soon as the storm passes. Weather wise usually is not our problem, its road conditions. Either they’re impassable or traffic jams or whatever the issue is is really what slows us down most of the time, roads are flooded, you know trees falling down across the road and we can’t get there yet.
Q: It seems like they got their assessment back very quickly given the magnitude of the . . . the problem just to get to these places was . . . .
LCDR Whitehead: We had already been dealing with this storm because remember it did come across Florida and we already had Damage Assessment Teams even in that area and then we also had the ISC in Miami, which was also on the hook for the ERT. So in a lot of cases we were already dealing with this storm before it even came ashore in New Orleans and we were already discussing what that track was going to be coming up into the Gulf because we already had to deal with it. It was not a complete surprise.
Q: So as it comes ashore you’ve got the damage to not only these stations but then you’ve got this whole operational thing that you’ve got to support. Can you speak to that; besides getting the Stations up to some minimal level of functioning then you’ve got to provide this other level of support?
CDR LaChance: Right, so our main focus is that immediate one or two day aftermath assessment to get the Stations fixed. In this particular case the devastation was so great the Coast Guard obviously had a much bigger role in this storm than they would normally. We’re talking all the Search and Rescue efforts initially and that lasted so many days and whatnot and then into Pollution Response events and on and on, and we’re still working the issues today. So that, instead of typically maybe being three/four/five days or whatever level of effort for us and we’re somewhat back to normal business, I mean this is still ongoing. We still have Incident Management Teams stood up at Area, District and Sector. Our own Command Center is still functioning. So now we’re in more of a sustained . . . still emergent issues but more of a sustainment mode. This is where now people . . . we’re setting up those temporary office trailers; providing people offices to work out of, get Comms lines going back up, access to computer networks, message traffic, a place to sleep, eat, take a shower, wash your uniforms and all that kind of stuff. Normally we don’t have to get into that depth of support but obviously we did in this storm. So essentially then District 8 was the main operational focal point that got impacted by this storm and established their Incident Management Team in Saint Louis. Sector Nola also stood up an Incident Management Team in Alexandria, Louisiana, and so those really two folks, in true fashion, set up an incident command structure with the whole operations, logistics, personnel, planning sections, then really they went into action and then really kind of drove the needs; identified the needs. When they couldn’t fill them themselves, which was typically the case, at least in the initial days, then they would go up the operational chain; they would go up to the Incident Management Team one hierarchy up at LANT Area, and vet that need. And then again, as I mentioned, MLC being their personnel and logistics arm of that, if it was a personnel issue or any kind of logistics issue it got bumped over to us either through our rep there on that team or over here to the building, and then we vetted that through the different programs here to figure out how we’re going to get a source of bottled water down there. MREs; our procurement staff would go out and purchase those or buy them someplace and get them flown in. Our Civil Engineering Division would have the lead on coordinating through Civil Engineering Unit Miami, who works programmatically for the Civil Engineering Division here at MLC, renting office trailers, getting shower trailers, getting laundry facilities, temporary field kitchen type things set up. We don’t have that in the Coast Guard inventory so basically we’re renting or buying all of those things.
Q: Sir, can you just walk me through, let’s say Sector New Orleans gets waxed and you guys have to stand up a new one - in Alexandria in this case – or a new District office. You need to bring in communications. They need the floor space. They need desks, all of that. How much of that is tasked to you guys to do the buying, leasing?
CDR LaChance: Essentially all of it.
LCDR Whitehead: Yes.
CDR LaChance: See, when you say to us you’ve got the MLC unit here you have a family of field units if you will; our specialized field units. You have your Integrated Support Commands. Again, we call them mini-MLCs. They have the same type thing; Personnel Division, Comptroller Division and so forth serving that District, and now Sectors, and then we have specialized field units; Civil Engineering units that do civil engineering work. We have Electronic Support Units; ESUs that focus on that Comm question you’re talking about. Or if it’s a Naval Engineering kind of thing we have Naval Engineering Support Units; NESUs. So depending on what that need is we’ll either, directly here at MLC, take something for action or maybe bump it down to one of these field units. Your example; when D-8 had to leave the Federal Building in downtown New Orleans and per their Continuity of Operations Plan, they reconstituted at our field unit; Integrated Support Command in Saint Louis. So they took over office and desk space side by side with ISC Saint Louis people.
Q: Is that desk space surge space or are they just going to move in and say, “Look, we’re going to take over your space”?
CDR LaChance: No, we don’t really have surge space so we’re sharing space giving up somebody’s desk or whatever. Now when it became known that D-8 was going to be there for quite some time hot-racking the desk space for example, in other words is not the way to go. What they ended up doing in this case was there was an available floor space on I think it was the 7th floor of the Federal Building there in Saint Louis.
Q: In that same building.
CDR LaChance: Right, it was going to get built out to become the new Sector Facility up there so the Coast Guard had access to that floor space anyway so we just . . .
Q: So it’s going to be that Sector Saint Louis or . . . ?
CDR LaChance: Right.
LCDR Whitehead: Upper Mississippi.
CDR LaChance: Upper Mississippi River or something.
CDR LaChance: So we just accelerated the build out if you will, getting the Comms going on, our ESU and their detachments up there in Saint Louis. Then they have the actual Comms IT type people that went in and started pulling cables, hooking up phones, getting computers hooked up and getting those office spaces at least workable for this District that’s been relocated out of New Orleans.
Q: And from the time that they make that move and they decide that they’re going to be there for a while until the time they essentially opened the front door as the new District 8 office, what kind of elapsed time was there?
LCDR Whitehead: From when they opened the door.
CDR LaChance: From the time that the District said, “Hey, I’m going to have to stay here for a while. I’m now going to be transient. I’ll only be here a few days”, if you will. When they basically said, “I need some more permanency here”, I would say that the ESU up there instantly starting working, I mean literally instantly starting working on those spaces and I don’t know, it probably took them a couple days; two/three days, to pull all the cable and get the computers set up and that sort of thing. So its relatively, you know as soon as we know the need we’re working the issue and depending on what the issue is it may take some time. As soon as somebody says to me, “Find me ten more people to help stand watch”, or something, our Personnel Division or the Personnel Division at the ISC will take that for action relatively quickly putting that in play. By the time you identify the person though, particularly if it’s a Reservist that maybe we’re calling in on Title 14, I mean there’s a lead time there; two/three days maybe, whenever, it just depends on where you’re getting the person, and maybe it’s active duty folks getting called in on a TAD basis versus a recall of Reserves, so you’re talking two to three days sometimes. But on the other hand if there’s an urgent need and somebody already pre-identified that, “I know this is the guy with the skill set, rank structure”, whatever they need, I mean we can almost get somebody overnight, it’s just a matter of finding the next available plane ticket from wherever the guy is coming from and flying him out there, whether it be to Saint Louis, Alexandria or wherever it may be.
Q: And in this situation you not only had to stand up a new District office but presumably find accommodations for all the people that work there, families that have been blown out of their homes and all the rest of it.
CDR LaChance: Sure, that was probably our biggest challenge in that whole Louisiana, Mississippi and then eventually the Rita storm, you know in the northeast part of Texas, in that area, was literally finding homes for people because the problem we had is it was not just Coast Guard support, it was the whole community and infrastructure. So everybody was competing for available spaces whether it be obviously hotel rooms, apartments to rent, you name it, and that’s why a lot of cases, at least for the immediate fix, we brought in . . . we rented literally hundreds of RVs; berthing type trailers, that we could set up. We rented hotel rooms where they were available, you know, really any option we could think of.
Q: Was this RV solution because . . . I mean you go to this place and that place has been rented and this has been rented, and so you go to the . . . say, “Well what do we do next?”
CDR LaChance: We were looking for any option we could find and a lot of it was just because, as you said, ideally we would just rent hotel rooms but they’re just not available within any local commuting distance because, A: people that did evacuate before the storm, a lot of them took all the available hotels already within an hour or hundred miles driving distance or whatever. But obviously up in Saint Louis a little different story, there really wasn’t that much of a challenge there. I mean we could get hotel rooms for everybody that went up that way. But like the Alexandria area where the Sector set up an IMT, that was already taken up because all kinds of people had evacuated that way anyway; the whole Baton Rouge area of Louisiana, where all kinds of people; evacuees, went up there prior to us. So that was a huge challenge. You know the whole Gulfport, Mississippi area that got devastated, where there were available functioning hotels we were already beaten to the punch in getting those rooms.
Q: How much did you have to do with routine or emergency maintenance in the operational platforms; keeping these things onsite, you know continuously operating?
CDR LaChance: Well I mean for example our Naval Engineering Unit, that’s their normal business. So whether it be essentially responding to a CASREP if you will on any of the platforms . . . now the MLC doesn’t get involved in the aviation assets. I mean that’s done with a whole other community down at the Aircraft Repair and Supply Center in Elizabeth City and that, so the MLC and its family units don’t get involved directly in the aviation assets. But certainly all the afloat assets, that’s the bread and butter of our Naval Engineering Division so really we’re just standing by recognizing that a CASREP on a boat in play in the op is probably going to be a high priority. We’ve got to get right on that. So our goal is to have visibility of those assets in play whether it be a high endurance cutter, medium endurance cutter or something smaller than those, know it’s in play and be ready. If you see a CASREP or know something on that vessel then obviously that’s going to be one that we want to jump right on.
LCDR Whitehead: They began flowing parts and the trailers too because they started setting up the boat maintenance thing. The Punt boats were . . . they went out, Naval Engineering went out and got all the small boat engines that they could muster up to make sure they had them because that was basically . . . if you kill one of those you basically just pick another one up and start using it.
Q: And those come out of the 9th District, is that right?
LCDR Whitehead: Those are 8th District assets primarily; the DART Teams.
Q: Where are they usually?
LCDR Whitehead: Those are on the Mississippi and Ohio River.
Q: To do western flood respond type things.
LCDR Whitehead: Right.
CDR LaChance: So as Steve’s alluding too, I mean really the bigger challenge to Naval Engineering was the small boat community; recognizing that those boats are probably going to have a lot more problems than the major cutter fleet. As Steve alluded too, our job was to, “Okay, think in advance. What’s going to happen? What’s going to break? Pre-stage some parts. Get some people that are ready to go, whether it be new outboard engines, whether it be parts in general . . . .
Q: And were they burning out quickly?
LCDR Whitehead: For that one you’ll have to go to the engineers because that’s really their . . .
CDR LaChance: Yes.
LCDR Whitehead: I don’t know. I can’t give you an answer.
CDR LaChance: I have not heard that we had a tremendous amount of problems with those. I’m sure we had some. Again, I think not hearing about them means that we were either ahead of the power curve or we didn’t have that much of a problem, but as Steve kind of alluded too, I mean our Naval Engineering guys, again, through their field units; their Naval Engineering Support Unit that are already down in New Orleans, set up a small boat maintenance kind of camp originally at Station NOLA and they actually set up a new site right there at Algiers’s Point on the river and basically were standing by for these punt boats or whatever it may be.
LCDR Whiteheads: 41s or whatever.
CDR LaChance: Now you say, “Where did they come from?” I think we got any asset we could get from anywhere. We had the DART boats. We had a SAR det kind of team come out of District 9 that came down with some equipment. I mean really we were getting . . . again, we can’t really speak that much operation because we don’t drive directing the operations and what assets they’re going to use but I think they were at the point where they were getting anything they could from almost anywhere.
Q: Was there anything that you needed to get your hands on that you either couldn’t or had difficulty getting?
LCDR Whitehead: RVs were the biggest challenge initially. It took them several days. Area came up with the RV plan as far as they wanted to get, they wanted drivable RVs for their boat crews they were sending in for release, and so they said, “Look we want to . . .”
Q: Was that both to move them where they were needed as well as berthing?
LCDR Whitehead: To get the RVs to berth them and move them into a position. And the problem with that was it was a good plan on their part but you had Labor Day weekend; the last camping weekend of the year and you had a major race in California and they wanted 20 RVs, or they wanted a bunch of RVs, and then they realized they were trying to make this happen. They gave it to us. We started running it and trying to make it happen. They finally said, “Screw it. We’ve got to get the teams there so we’re not going to worry about the RVs anymore.” So we basically said, “Look, go ahead and continue down the route.” Finally when the procurement folks . . . and I mean this is like you’re talking a period of two or three days, one of the procurement folks came back and said, “Hey, I’ve got a line on some RVs. We can have so many on Sunday and we can get the rest on . . . there are more on Wednesday, more on Friday.” We went back to the Area and said, “Hey, do you want these”, and they said, “Now we don’t have necessarily someone to assign them too”, and they’re like, “Yes, go ahead and get them.” So we got them and then of course we knew they were going to need them and then that same company is what we’re using now to get more because it just became an issue of locating them because we’re in multiple competition for the same assets out there. I mean literally the guy in CEU Miami is saying, “Look, I’ve got a guy on the phone. Do we need these trailers because as soon as I hang up the phone with the guy there’s another call on hold asking for those same trailers and it’s from FEMA”, or it’s from somebody else.
LCDR Whitehead: So unfortunately there’s that multiple competition for the same asset available obviously.
Q: But did you generally find that you were able to get there first with the most?
LCDR Whitehead: Not always.
CDR LaChance: And I wouldn’t say it’s a case of getting there first. First of all to answer your question, I think we got everything we needed to get. Sometimes it may have taken a couple of days or whatever and it may have taken some research in different areas or different channels then normally. RVs, again an example; we got them from all around the country literally. But really the issue and really one of the big ticket support lessons learned from an operation of this magnitude is that you have multiple agencies and multiple players in play, whether it’s Coast Guard in this case, FEMA, DoD coming in big time, so you have all of these agencies really with very similar needs. You asked questions about berthing. Well FEMA is flowing in hundreds of people. DoD’s bringing people in, Coast Guard. Now granted, DoD may have different capabilities and assets as far as places to live or berth people, but particularly FEMA; when they’re flowing hundreds and hundreds or people into an area like this they’re competing for those same hotels that the Coast Guard is, that evacuees have also tried to compete in getting even before we came on-scene, so literally I don’t want to call it a race but it literally is a competition for resources depending on what you’re asking for. MREs for example, at some point we got where we were struggling to buy MREs. There was a quote, unquote, a nationwide shortage of MREs the demand was so high. So you have all of those kinds of challenges out there. Being in the support side of the op we basically have a pretty good idea of the kinds of stuff we need. We already have known sources based on prior experience where I can rent an RV or buy bottled water or MREs, rent office trailers, etc., but we really can’t go out in advance. First of all the Coast Guard doesn’t have any stockpiles or places that pre-stage RVs, trailers, bottled water, MREs. I don’t have warehouses of contingency food or supplies anywhere. You know we have some limited quantities for various things but not anything of this magnitude. I don’t have a warehouse were we have our own pallet after pallet of gear and stuff to just go get so we do have to rent and rely on commercial industry a lot.
Q: Is that something that would be good to have?
CDR LaChance: Well you know that’s the old invest the money up front; “Do I have the money to invest? Do I have the infrastructure?” The Coast Guard doesn’t have extra warehouses anywhere to store stuff like that. You know you hear FEMA talking about, particularly preparing for Rita, about “We have these warehouses of water and food ready to go and pre-staged”, and whatever. Well the Coast Guard doesn’t do business that way.
Q: Because of that did you run into any bottlenecks flowing fuel, water, whatever you needed to get into support the operations?
LCDR Whitehead: I wouldn’t say bottlenecks, I’d say bump in the road here and there. You know we try to move something; we’ve got to get a trailer, and we run into trucking problems where it’s just a matter of you’ve just got to work to overcome it and it gets overcome, it’s not just necessarily the easiest way of just picking up the first phone or the first conversation.
CDR LaChance: And we don’t really turn on the effort. We don’t do it in advance if you will as we’re alluding too. We’re not pre-staging stuff and we don’t go out and buy the food, water and trailers just because we think we’re going to need it. We really wait for the operational folks to say, “Here’s my need, now go out and fill it.” A good example is Station Gulfport. You know a station like that gets hit hard and that obviously was, we have to wait for the Operational Commander to dictate, “What do I want to do with that facility”, and it may range from, "Nothing, we’ll get back to it later. I don’t need to use the location now”, to “That’s a hot spot. I’ve got to get it up and running.” In the case of Station Gulfport we even built it out bigger if you will then it being just a Station. They actually gave it a new name. It’s the Mississippi Coastal Recovery Base; MCRB, and I’m leaving out one word in there or something. So it was really built up to serve the Coast Guard need, potentially FEMA or state needs or any of those partner agencies now at a DHS level.
Q: And that had to be done right overnight.
CDR LaChance: I wouldn’t say overnight but the point was the Operational Commander, through Coast Guard Headquarters, District, Sectors, basically said, “Hey, I want this capability here at Gulfport . . . ”
CDR LaChance: “. . . it’s a good hub, it’s a good focal point to support this whole hurricane disaster response thing.” So we were tasked with building that out with greater capacity if you will then in just to operate a small boat station. So we brought in more trailers then maybe we would have otherwise, a field kitchen setup, more communication capability, that kind of thing. But again, we didn’t do that in advance because we didn’t really know that need. Through our damage assessments we knew that station was down hard and we would have to do something but the magnitude of the breadth of that response was driven really by the Operational Commander saying, “Here’s what I want to be able to do here, now you go and support me. I’m going to bring this many people here”, whether it’s a hundred or two hundred or three hundred, “Now you’ve got to find a place for these three hundred to eat, sleep and someplace to work out of.” Once we know that now I can rent hotel rooms, bring in those trailers or maybe go get RVs, whatever that option. What are my options? It’s tough for us sometimes to pin down all the options until I know what the need is.
Q: Once you know that need, let’s say you need a boat crew but you can’t find RVs, trailers; whatever, would that change say the decision to bring in say an MSST versus a PSU? The guys might be more self-sufficient; bring their own tents and all the rest of the stuff?
LCDR Whitehead: That would be an operator question because that’s who . . . I mean the reality is they sent guys there, the operational side basically sent folks in without berthing, you know that we had people working and sleeping wherever they could at Station New Orleans because, like I said, we were trying to get RVs set up for these folks going in, and it was after the scene that our goal was then 100 percent focused on getting berthing of some sort set up there. I mean we had air crews flying sorties out of the air station and it was in no condition for any kind of . . . I mean we had guys sleeping in tents. They were just lucky to have a tent let alone . . . I mean they were getting crew rest. That was a big concern that came out of it. So initially, yes, there was a . . . and then also you had the other issues that we faced in New Orleans like it was just getting stuff safely there, that was an issue. We had truck drivers that didn’t want to deliver or wouldn’t deliver unless they could get escorts I should say is a better way to put that. So we had to set up a system of being able to bring that in. And the initial housing problem was the PSU. The PSU brought in an operational asset that brought its own housing and some messing capability but it didn’t bring in additional housing.
LCDR Whitehead: So then our goal was to get these trailers in and like I said it became a challenge of . . . we had the trailers lined up pretty early. The problem was the delay from delivery of the trailers and it just becomes an issue of what road is passable, what road is not passable, what other requirements come along the way? Do you have to set up a security outpost for people to check in at so that they can get an escort to go in to where you need to get them into, which we faced for about the first week getting them in there?
Q: I just want to give you a chance Sir to add anything that you want; any observations from where you are sitting?
CDR LaChance: Well again, we basically respond to the Operational Commander, the operational unit, what the operator is doing and try to support them with their needs. A lot of it we can think in advance and assume and make some projections, but again, a lot of it we have to wait until somebody says, “Here’s what I want to do. Here’s where I’m going to work out of”, as Steve alluded too. If we’re going to work out of Air Station NOLA as a heavy SAR kind of base; if that’s going to become a hub in the Area, in this case the District brought in all kinds of additional air assets. Then once we know that then we know that we’ve got to support that area; the Station Gulfport I mentioned as an example. So really a lot of it comes down that we’ve got to know what the Operational Commander wants to do and where he wants to do it, and then as you were talking about, how many people are you going to bring, “How many people do I need to support in terms of berthing, food”, that kind of stuff.
Again, what made this one so difficult and to me was what is not a smooth process is, is there are so many multiple agencies involved, again, from the Coast Guard first on the spot, you know, emergency rescue; they’re immediately there and we’re doing our thing. But then you have your state agencies, your local agencies, sheriff’s offices, police departments, of course the national level with FEMA and then of course DoD support through a joint task force, etc. You have all these competing agencies coming in and a lot of times there is some duplication of efforts in Command and Control, then actually knowing who is in control; who’s the senior guy who’s kind of doing the big picture, and I don’t know if that’s really very clear yet even in the Coast Guard world. Now I think you mentioned early on with the standing up of Sectors, really Sectors create another operational level for us to kind of support. When you just had a Group set up or an MSO set up they pretty much worked under the direction of the District. Now I see them, in this one particularly; Sector NOLA, really functioning as a kind of an independent kind of operational unit, and as I said, a great example is they stood up their own Incident Management Team in Alexandria. You had the District itself with an Incident Management Team in Saint Louis and of course we have the Area Incident Management Team here in Portsmouth. So really we’re sitting here; us and our field units, serving really three, I don’t want to say three Operational Commanders but three Incident Management Teams and it was not a clean process every time of following that request. The dream world for us would be we, at the MLC level, get all the requests vetted through the Area IMT. So they validate the need, you know it makes sense; make sure that it makes sense.
You know if somebody asks for 200 people do you really need 200? Maybe 50 is enough. If you come in and ask for a hundred RVs, what is that number based on, is it just an assumption or what? And particularly personnel requests: that was the biggest challenge up front was when the scope and breadth of this mission became known everybody needed more people whether it was a support guy or more guys to staff an IMT. You know when they first stand up an IMT there’s a minimum staffing whether its Sectors or Districts and typically if you’re only going to run the IMT for a week or whatever you can rotate with one set of people and you’ve got long days but you’re okay. You start getting into two weeks, three weeks, going into a month, now you’ve got to have some downtime for people, you’ve got to have backfills, rotations and that kind of stuff. So all of a sudden people start coming in and saying, “Give me 50 guys here and 60 guys here. Here’s the ranks, here’s the rates”, whatever. Well pretty soon Coast Guard wide, even with the ability to recall Reserves, I mean these limited pools of limited assets say with certain skill sets, experiences and training, a lot of jobs require a certain rank, rate, skill set, training, quals, etc., and once that pool of people dries up it becomes really difficult to fill those needs. So it was a challenge for us from Day One finding all these people and getting them there quickly. Well you can imagine if I’m hearing something from Sector Nola that says, “I need 20 guys to do this”, and then you get another message from the District up in Saint Louis saying something and to us the messages kind of look similar. “Are they asking you for the same thing? Is this the same 20 people? Is there an overlap there or not?” It would be much smoother for us if that all goes up to the Area level, let them validate everything and then go, “Okay, they asked for 20, these guys asked for 30. The real need is 15 and here’s where we need them and when.” So really it was kind of a juggling act for us a lot with those three kinds of entities kind of hitting us, particularly in the initial stages. After a while the process got a lot smoother and cleaner and we’re pretty good now. But those first three/four days, whatever, I don’t want to say it’s every Mayor for himself but I mean it was a disaster area down there and people are reacting and it was an emergency reactionary kind of thing.
LCDR Whitehead: And you had a unique thing too. You basically had the development of more than one IMT because you’re involved in District and a Sector whereas if you take Katrina out of this picture and you put just Rita in there you have Rita coming in through basically Sector Galveston. All you would do is move Galveston into an IMT or move them out of the Area and you have a District that would have remained in place in it’s building where it’s comfortable, with the right people that are not displaced working out of Saint Louis or in a reduced staffing. But in this case, in the very initial part of Katrina you had a staff that’s basically displaced going up there and then you have the New Orleans folks going up to Alexandria, so you have some . . . you know where they would have had simple lines maybe to the District before because they knew . . . it’s like you know the District phone number, this is the guy you talk too a lot all the time, but that might not be the same guy now and he’s, by the way, at a new place in Saint Louis, and so everybody’s kind of disheveled and has to figure out where they’re going. So that adds to some of the challenges of making sure you pass it through the right chain and vet it through, and that’s why you have . . . we’re processing looking at what D-8 IMT is asking for, what Sector Nola IMT is, and that’s one of the unique parts of this storm as well.
Q: Commanders, thank you.
CDR LaChance: Thank you.
Q: I very much appreciate it.
END OF INTERVIEW