Security Management interviews Lt. Col. Jerry Sneed, USMC (Ret.).
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.
What are the critical elements and challenges of notification for reentry, and reentry itself?
The thing is that you have to make a determination: what are your criteria to let people return? Number one has to be safety. We’ve got to see that the area is safe for their return, and then make the decision: Is lack of electricity a reason to keep them out, or do we just have to let them know that they’re coming back to a place where there’s no electricity and they need to come back self-contained and self-sufficient to be able to handle things for a while? And that’s what we came up with—just because electricity is out would not hold up reentry. But if our water source is out, that’s clearly a reason that we would not let people back in, because now we have a sanitation problem. And the key to coming back in, also, is close coordination with the other parishes. If we’ve all agreed not to let people back in and then all of a sudden a parish decided to reneg on that agreement, then it makes it much more difficult for all of us to handle things and, possibly, well, it infuriates the citizens for one thing, and also it bottlenecks the area. If If they’ve got to go through a closed parish to get to an open one, there are going to be some problems. So it requires close coordination with everybody, making sure we understand the rules, and then follow those rules.
What other elements of the region’s approach to emergency management have changed the most since Katrina?
I think the evacuation plan is foremost, but our communication infrastructure is also significant. We have a robust, Project 25-compliant (P25) radio system that allows all of this region to be able to talk easily and effectively with each other. I think that’s one of the keys. We learned from Katrina that if you don’t have an adequate radio system it’s very difficult to understand what’s going on out there and have a good common operational picture. So one of the things we’re most proud of is the P25 radio system. It’s not perfect but it’s been used successfully. In Gustav there were no problems, we used it successfully during major events such as Mardi Gras, where millions of people were here and every police officer in the area is trying to use that radio at the same time, and we’ve had no failures.
Another success we’ve had is that we’ve initiated what we call our evacuteer.org. In order to pull off a successful evacuation, we need probably 400 volunteers to assist us in doing so. So one of the young people in City Hall came up with evacuteer.org, where agencies or individuals can actually sign up to say, “I want to help, I want to assist.” And when we get their names and identify who they are we bring them in for classes prior to the hurricane season, assign them responsibilities and shifts and so forth so we know who’s going to come in, when they’re going to come in, and they can assist us in evacuation. Then we can also get them out prior to the hurricane’s arrival.
What are the biggest persistent challenges in your mission?
Public education and fighting complacency. I think that’s the biggest challenge we have, at least for a hurricane where we haven’t had one in a few years. Gustav didn’t pan out to be as bad as we thought it was going to be, so complacency is going to set in and people may not listen to us the next time. I think that’s one of the key things we worry about.
Also the critical infrastructure and protection in this area. Ensuring that we identify and tie in all those areas so that we can be ready and do the necessary steps to protect against possible terrorist threats, tying everybody in properly so that when we plan for things we plan them as a cohesive police, fire, EMS all together along with the region. I think those are some of our critical things we worry about.
How would you characterize your office’s relationship with your federal partners? Would you change anything? If so, what?
Our relationship is really, really good. We have a great team down here. If I need help I know I can ask them and we’re going to get it. Among the federal agencies, the Coast Guard is key to what we do down here. We work with them very closely. The Army Corps of Engineers, they’re another tremendous asset, the Federal Emergency Management Agency ties in closely with us. So we have a very very strong working relationship as far as an evacuation. We can’t evacuate without them because again, once I get residents out of the region, where am I going to put them? The state has to take care of the sheltering plan, and the state and federal governments have to give me assets.
If I could say that we need something else, I have my evacuation plan, but I wonder where the federal evacuation and sheltering plan is? They help us out. I know I’ve got Amtrak sitting waiting for me and the city’s residents in the event of a major disaster. But where is the federal transportation plan throughout the nation? Not just for the city of New Orleans or the Southeast Louisiana Region, but where is the plan when San Francisco has that major earthquake and we need a transportation plan in order to get in there and help those people out. We need, I think with the federal government, a federal transportation plan, coupled with a federal sheltering plan. I think most areas the sheltering plan exists if you move them to another portion of the region, or another portion of the state. In the state of Louisiana we move the most populated area—Southeast Louisiana—to the least populated area, up in north Louisiana. I think it works, kind of, but we learned from Katrina that it doesn’t work for long periods. Because what are we using? We’re using churches, we’re using gymnasiums, were using schools, we’re using civic centers. And if you have a long-term issue where you can’t get the citizens back, you’re crippling those cities or states that took you in, because now they can’t get their schools up and running or their civic centers or whatever. So you’re crippling them at the same time hurting our citizens that evacuated because there’s no doubt they want you out of there. So if we had a federal sheltering plan, and I would think maybe along the FEMA-region lines, using the old military bases closed in the federal Base Realignment and Closure program. I think that would work tremendously.
I think we could use some help in communications from the federal government—a good flow from the federal government down to the local agencies so we understand how that is, and a good alerting system that the federal government can help us with say, a good alerting system for people with disabilities. I know that’s a small group, but probably the most critical group, assuring that they are notified, that they know when a disaster has occurred and so forth, and I could use the federal government to dictate the way everybody needs to get in touch with those people.
Does your office engage the private sector in its mission? If so, how?
Without a doubt, we have to. Our plans have to tie in with the local area businesses. We have a very close working relationship with the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau and the hotels. We use the FBI’s InfraGard public-private partnership to help us in contacting our businesses and so forth, and we use our civic groups, to help adopt their community their area so that they can take part in the emergency management of that area. We try to tie them all in, and it’s a process that we need to continue. The state is actually started a business emergency operations center initiative so business can provide resources in disasters.
I’m not saying we’re there, I’m not saying we’re perfect, but we have to get better at engaging the private sector because they’ve got such critical assets during an emergency.
What are your agency’s major goals looking forward?
I think we really have to push that more than we do toward an all-hazards approch. Again we have to work on complacency, at keeping our people informed that they have to be ready at all times, not just for the hurricane but for everything, and a unified planning approach. We’re working hard at it, we’re getting good at it, police fire, EMS, and my office work well together, but we can always improve on that with better coordination during and before the event and plan as a team, a unified planning approach, which is probably one of the biggest goals that we’re going to try to push in this next coming year and continuing on forward.