Thomas Casadevall and the USGS Hurricane Response Team

Used technology to help locate and rescue thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims and personally conducted rescue missions that saved 600 people.

There’s an old cliché that in the most trying times, you should follow your heart, not your head. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) team that responded to Hurricane Katrina followed both. As a result, they played an indispensable part in the rescue of thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivors.

Soon after it became apparent that the levees had broken and the flooding was severe, the Louisiana government put a call out to all government agencies to assist with the rescue of people stranded on rooftops. The employees at two USGS science centers in Louisiana, the National Wetlands Research Center (NWRC) and Louisiana Water Science Center (LWSC), who received this call may not have had any formal training with Search and Rescue work, but they had a lot of heart, as well as boats, and they put in a request to their Regional Director, Dr. Thomas Casadevall, to go out into the field and do what they could to help.   This was not typical work for USGS scientists, but Dr. Casadevall also realized that this was no typical disaster, and he authorized the use of USGS equipment and personnel for this effort.

Boat rescues took place from August 31st to September 5th. Twenty-five USGS scientists left each morning before dawn to navigate the murky waters of New Orleans. They worked with a multi-agency group of state and federal volunteers, rescuing a total of 600 people directly from rooftops and porches, in addition to providing food, water and other assistance to 2,000 others.

Having done their part to address the immediate humanitarian needs, the USGS team began placing more emphasis on putting its technical expertise to use.

One of the biggest problems with the recovery efforts was that stranded individuals making “911” calls were providing authorities with street addresses for their location, but flooded street signs and responders unfamiliar with New Orleans made locating victims virtually impossible. The USGS team was able to re-map the area, converting street maps to latitude and longitude reference points. These mapping techniques allowed them to provide “geo-addresses” for the origination point of 8,000 emergency calls. USGS gave coordinates to boat and helicopter rescuers with GPS equipment which made it simple to locate distressed callers. For responders without GPS, the scientists provided the maps with geographic coordinates overlaid upon the street grids.

The USGS worked with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Preparedness and the Federal Emergency Management Agency literally around the clock, producing hundreds of maps and bits of digital data every day. The team supplied the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with maps of the city’s levee system and pumping stations. At the Army Corps’ request, they installed temporary real-time gauges in Orleans, Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parish, in addition to Lake Pontchatrain, to learn how quickly the area was dewatering.

Every single member of the USGS team was a hero in his or her own right, and the two directors of the USGS centers, Charles Demas, LWSC, and Gregory Smith, NWRC, certainly deserve special recognition. But everyone credits the “can do” attitude of the unit to their regional supervisor, Tom Casadevall. He was the first Interior Department senior executive to travel to Louisiana after the storm, and his colleagues universally praise him for empowering his employees. In many ways, Katrina marked the closing of a circle in Casadevall’s career. He had just begun his career with the USGS when Mount St. Helen’s erupted in 1980. He still recalls how important it was to have the support of senior leadership in this earlier crisis. There is no question that Casadevall provided the necessary support for his staff during this historic disaster.

Much has been made about what went wrong with Hurricane Katrina. This is one story about intelligent, courageous government workers who deftly used all the resources available to them, and got it right.