Hurricane Katrina and the Louisiana Family Assistance Center (LFAC)

Hurricane Katrina and the Louisiana Family Assistance Center (LFAC)

Client: Health and Human Services

The morning of August 29, 2005 revealed a steadily unfolding disaster on the Gulf Coast. Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5 storm was bearing down on Louisiana and Mississippi, making landfall as a Category 3 storm at 6:10 AM, and approximately 50mi Southeast of New Orleans. The massive storm moved across the Breton Sound and proceeded north along the Louisiana-Mississippi border, before passing through the heart of Mississippi over the next several hours.

When the eye of the storm marched northward just to the east of New Orleans, the most powerful storm winds and rain concentrations pushed a wall of water westward into Lake Pontchartrain and the bayous and waterways surrounding New Orleans.  This storm surge of `12 feet overtopped levees along multiple locations and rapidly eroded their foundations – the first levee breach occurred in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward at 9:00 A.M., quickly followed by breaches along the 17th Street and Industrial canals. Hundreds were killed and thousands were stranded within minutes as millions of gallons of water crashed across the city. Eventually, 53 breaches were documented along nearly every levee in metropolitan New Orleans, in addition to many others in the surrounding area.

The aftermath of Katrina’s landfall is well documented and well known, including the mass evacuation and dispersal of more than 1.3 million from metro New Orleans before and after landfall, and the ~1400 who perished as a direct result of the storm. The situation was further exacerbated by the landfall of Hurricane Rita only 6 weeks later. Stories and media describing the separation of loved ones during the storms and their eventual reunification have also been widely circulated, but the role of a small, dedicated group of people in enabling thousands of those reunions has been largely lost from the public eye. More than 13,000 family, friends and loved ones were reported missing after Katrina, but because of the work performed by the Louisiana Family Assistance Center (LFAC) staff, less than 1% of the cases were left unresolved.

Initially named the Find Family National Call Center, a group of 150 volunteers gathered in a Baton Rouge hotel conference room on September 7, 2005. With little more than phones, pads of legal paper and pencils, they began a mission that would result in arguably the greatest achievements in tracking missing persons and identifying the victims of a natural disaster. Over the next 11 months, this original contingent would be joined by hundreds of staff and volunteers dedicated to reuniting the families of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. However, within weeks the of the Center’s founding, it became apparent that greater information resources, organizational structure and additional processes and procedures were required to meet the needs of the vast number of people seeking assistance. This is where ANSER was able to help.

A group of select ANSER staff deployed to the newly named Louisiana Family Assistance Center to establish a more efficient organizational structure based on Incident Command System principles; develop better processes and systems for documenting reports and cross-referencing and eliminating duplicate and repeated reports; and acquire additional resources and research tools for locating the missing. ANSER transitioned volunteers, often displaced storm victims themselves, into paid staff positions, and brought on additional specialists to augment the pathologists and forensics experts already operating at the LFAC as part of the assigned Department of Health and Human Services’ Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team.

The Center became more than a collection place of names and vital statistics … it also became a collection place of the most intimate stories of a region torn apart by crisis. Those who took reports and mounted searches for the missing were a lifeline and a resource for people facing the rebuilding of their lives and unable to focus beyond the most immediate needs of survival for months. When they turned to the LFAC for help, along with the vital statistics needed to search for the missing person, callers found a sympathetic person who listened to tales of personal relationships, anger, grief, helplessness, hope and familial estrangements. LFAC investigators faced the difficulty of tracking down evacuees who moved several times, often getting “lost” along the way when their telephone numbers were changed or disconnected. Evacuees also lost phone numbers of loved ones, washed away in Katrina and Rita’s waters.

Yet, the LFAC staff of professionals, scientists, counselors and a core group of dedicated researchers who simply wanted to help those in need, methodically and tirelessly searched for, supported and connected family, friends and loved ones 6 days a week for 11 months. Whenever a missing person was located, a bell was rung – that bell was rung more than thirteen thousand times, and it always produced a cheer. Each ring represented a question answered: Where is my mother, my brother, my daughter, my son? Most of the answers were joyous; some were the last thing a loved one wanted to hear. The only thing worse was not knowing.

When ANSER leadership agreed to support the LFAC, despite the highly charged environment and high risks associated, they concluded that, “This is the kind of work that we should be doing.” What we didn’t know at the time is that it would be so great an honor to have done it.

“At the LFAC, every ring of the bell signaled a life changed; either through a family member reunited in joy, or in the tragedy of a loved one identified among the victims. Every ring of that bell changed our lives as well.” –Chris Carpenter, ANSER Louisiana Family Assistance Center Staff

ANSER Projects, Health and Human Services