On that one time when the job mattered…

There aren’t many days from my distant past I can point to and tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing. August 29th is one of the rarities. 

Right around this time 16 years ago, I was sitting in a back room on the mezzanine level of FEMA headquarters. I was on loan from Uncle’s big green machine and there wasn’t space in the old National Response Coordination Center for all of us, so the logistics cell had been shuffled over to adjacent office space. I didn’t realize then that I’d spend most of my waking hours for the next 75 days huddled up in those offices. 

It was mid-morning, August 29, 2005. Katrina had made landfall earlier and the initial reports, what we were seeing on television, looked like we’d dodged a proverbial bullet. Back there and back then, a direct hit on New Orleans was always one of the nightmare scenarios emergency managers talked about in hushed tones. We let out a sigh of relief and talked about where to get lunch. 

Then the levees broke – or “overtopped” – depending on how technically correct you want to be. There’s an image of a huge barge slammed hard against a widening breach as canal water pours through that’s going to stick with me forever.

I’ve got definite opinions about the now infamous failures in the initial response to Katrina. The federal government – and FEMA in particular – makes a big juicy target for news organizations. We weren’t guiltless, but there’s a shit ton of blame to also spread around on New Orleans’ mayor and Louisiana’s governor. Under our federal system, at least back then and maybe still for all I know, it’s important to remember that states have to ask for federal assistance before the resources flow. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. That’s all I’ll say on that particular sore topic.

Watching the news this morning has brought back swarms of memories from sixteen years ago. Mostly it’s memories of the people I was working with at the time – some of the best I’ve ever known. More than a few of those thoughts, though, are of being young and just a little bit arrogant, of too much coffee and not nearly enough sleep, and of one of the handful of times in my entire career that doing the job meant making a tangible difference rather than just making the PowerPoint slides a bit more spiffy.

Lots of people are keeping a good though for those in harm’s way today. Me? I’ll keep mine for those sitting in the mezzanine trying their hardest to do the right things. I’m proud of the work I did 16 years ago, but sweet little baby Jesus am I glad someone else is sitting in that seat this morning.

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