I write this the day after Hurricane Gustav came ashore along the Gulf Coast. By now, it appears as if there will be a fair amount of wind and water damage, but nothing like what we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina three years ago, and nothing like what we all feared might happen this time. Of course, there is no rest for the weary as Hurricane Hanna bears down on the southeast and other tropical storms are forming in the Atlantic.
Much has been made of the fact that federal, state and local authorities were much better organized this time around. Indeed, they were, and this had much to do with the way things seem to have turned out.
The impression that is left, though, is that in 2005 no one really had their act together. That is not exactly correct. For the airport community was not only mobilized to respond to Katrina and to Gustav, but in each case put action and assistance plans into effect before the storms hit.
A few years ago, Patrick Graham of Savannah, Frank Miller of Pensacola and others formed the Southeast Airports Disaster Operations Group (SEADOG). SEADOG was ready with personnel and equipment; both of which were being deployed to airports in the path of Katrina even before that storm came ashore. In addition, my organization, ACI-North America, acted to facilitate assistance from airports around the U.S. and throughout Canada to the airports in New Orleans, Gulfport, Mobile and other Gulf Coast airports. Rick Vacar and the people at Houston’s airports went above and beyond the call of duty. ACI-NA got together with the American Association of Airport Executives (which also helped facilitate direct assistance) to form an employee assistance fund to help airport employees in the Gulf region, many of whom lost everything even as they worked tirelessly to keep their airports running. That fund raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to aid those families. It must also be said that the airline industry performed admirably as well.
In the end, the airport in New Orleans acted as a staging area, a military base, a hospital, a shelter and a morgue; performing needed services for its community. All of that was made possible by the leadership and staff down there, as well as by the fact that the entire airport community in the United States and Canada came together to help. TSA and other federal agencies worked closely with the airport to keep things running.
There were not many success stories out of Katrina, but this was one. Our then-vice chairman Steve Grossman, airport director in Oakland, said at the time that he had never been prouder to be a part of the airport community. I still recall introducing the New Orleans airport director, Roy Williams, to 1,300 attendees at our annual conference which took place three weeks after Katrina. It was the first time he’d been away from the airport. The response was emotional.
Everyone in the airport community is happy that no such efforts were required this time. But it is important for the public to know that airports were and are ready to meet the challenge, and that airports have proven this in the past. I often say that airports are the public face of aviation in their communities. During Katrina, they were so much more.