THE MAGAZINE

Urban Area Perspective - New Orleans

By Joseph Straw

Lt. Col. Jerry Sneed, USMC (Ret.), is director of the City of New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. A 32-year Marine Corps veteran, Sneed’s last major active duty assignment was a 2004 deployment with the 3rd Civil Affairs Group in Al Anbar Province, Iraq, where the unit participated in the First Battle of Fallujah and worked to rebuild the region’s devastated infrastructure. Sneed retired on September 1, 2005, only a few days after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast region, and immediately volunteered his services to the city. He was charged developing and managing the city’s “look and leave” program in Lower Ninth Ward, the most devastated portion of the city. Through the program residents were escorted briefly back to their homes to examine damage. After two months of volunteer work, the city hired Sneed as a as a planner in its Office of Homeland Security. There, he helped develop the City Assisted Evacuation Plan which would guide evacuation of roughly 30,000 residents who required assistance in advance of Hurricane Gustav in 2008. In October 2006, Sneed was named director of the city’s Office of Emergency Preparedness. Two years later, Mayor Ray Nagin consolidated the two offices and named Sneed director.

 

What are the responsibilities of your office?

 

The Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparendess includes the emergency preparedness branch, mitigation branch, and criminal justice coordination branch, and the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) branch, which coordinates federal UASI grant administration. That’s about 35 individuals I manage to prevent, protect, respond to, and recover from any natural or manmade disasters. I also have law enforcement, fire, and EMS (emergency medical services) representatives in my office daily. Day-to-day they’re a liaison section but during a big response they would fall under my supervision per the unified command approach.

 

In addition to well-known natural hazards, what assets and threats make your region unique?

 

One of the biggest infrastructures that we have is the Mississippi River, so that’s a major concern. We have a belt railroad that circles the city, regularly carrying hazardous materials. We have a large petrochemical industry in the region, we have NASA facilities in our area, and of course the large sporting events and various celebrations in this area all concern us as potential targets.

 

How has your background influenced your approach to the job?

 

I’m a retired Marine Corps officer, and I’m not a native New Orleanean. I retired from the Marine Corps 1 September 2005, just a few days after Hurricane Katrina went through. Prior to that my last major assignment with the Marine Corps was with our 3rd Civil Affairs Group. In Marine Corps civil affairs we rebuild the country we just destroyed. And I was at the First Battle of Fallujah with my unit. One of our plans that we had to come up with is how to evacuate and how to take care of and shelter the civilians who were trying to get out prior to the battle. Little did I know that much of my experience in Iraq was going to prepare me for what I do in the City of New Orleans. When I came on as a volunteer after Hurricane Katrina, my boss then gave me the lower Ninth Ward as my first project, and helped do the look-and-leave program, and in many of our discussions after Katrina, I pulled out some of the forms I used in Iraq as to how we could determine where we stood, are facilities up and running, and so forth. So it really kind of transitioned me to what we were doing here. And again I started off as a volunteer, then became a planner, then I was made the Office of Emergency Preparendess director, and then director again when we consolidated Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness together. That’s how I came here and fell in love with the city after Hurricane Katrina, because I saw so much need and I saw the resilience of these people and how they were coming back and I just wanted to be a part of it.
 

Have the city’s post-Hurricane Katrina evacuation plans evolved since they were tested during Hurricane Gustav in 2008? If so, how?

 
I came on board right after Hurricane Katrina, and what was most glaringly obvious  to us was that we did not adequately take care of those individuals that could not get out of the city for some reason. And we’re no different than any of the major metropolitan cities throughout the United States. There are a lot of people in this city, as in other larger cities, who don’t have a means of transportation. They rely on public transportation, they may have a car that will get them around a city, but it’s not going to get them long distances. Maybe the car’s too small for them, maybe they don’t have the funds to go long distances and evacuate. So we realized that was our biggest challenge: to come up with an adequate plan using trains, buses, and planes, what we call our City Assisted Evacuation Plan (CEAP).
 
The more we got into it, the more difficulty there was. There are just so many aspects of an evacuation and everybody thinks that a certain group is the most important. We quickly realized that everybody is important. So we had to come up with a plan that took care of every individual. Not one more than the other. And our desire was to successfully be able to evacuate the city of New Orleans and the region—it’s a regional plan too—but my emphasis of course is on the city of New Orleans itself. Regionally we wanted to evacuate the people who needed to get out. In the City of New Orleans we estimated those numbers to be anywhere from 25,000-30,000 individuals, and we had to come up with a plan to do that.
 
Now again, all disasters are local, but you can understand, I don’t have the assets for 25,000-30,000 individuals. Therefore I had to add capability, in terms of what my gaps were, and get other assets to the region. Our partners determined what they could handle, and then got the rest from the federal government to provide the necessary resources we need to adequately transport those people out. We determined that we would evacuate the city for a Category 3 or higher storm, and whose who cannot evacuate on their own would fall under CEAP.
 
We planned, we worked on it, we dealt with it, we tweaked it for several years, and I was personally hoping that we’d never have to use it. But of course Gustav came, we instituted our plan, and it was successful. We estimated that we effectively got 98 percent of our citizens out of the City of New Orleans. And the key to that was that our citizens believed us. Katrina was still fresh in their memory. Fortunately—or unfortunately—it reduced its strength and it didn’t come in as a Category 3. I say unfortunately because immediately people said, “Well why did I evacuate if it wasn’t a Category 3?” What we tell people is that we gave our senior city and regional officials the information they needed to make an intelligent decision, and when we decided to evacuate it was the right thing to do, we just got lucky on that one and it didn’t hit us as badly as we thought was going to.
 
But the plan was very successful. It was literally a ghost town here by the time the storm came, and shortly thereafter. And then, another lesson learned from Katrina was that we had to get people back in a reasonable amount of time. We realized that the longer citizens are away from their home and their businesses, the worse the damage becomes. We did another lessons-learned after Gustav, we tweaked our plan only slightly because while it was successful, we realized one of our harder things was the re-entry, so we focused even more attention on the reentry plan so we don’t have problems should we have to do it again.

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