Kaine Email Project @LVA: 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina

This is the tenth in a series of posts spotlighting recently released email from Governor Tim Kaine’s administration.  These posts are not meant to be comprehensive but to encourage further exploration in the Kaine administration records (electronic and paper).

William H. Leighty, Chief of Staff to Governor Mark Warner (2002-2006) and Governor Tim Kaine (2006-2007) This week marks the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina making landfall in Louisiana. The costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States, Katrina caused widespread damage from Texas to Florida. The storm surge breached the levee system surrounding New Orleans, flooding most of the city and the surrounding parishes.  The Kaine email collection would be the last place one would expect to find records related to the aftermath of the destruction in Louisiana, given that Tim Kaine was not governor in 2005.  However, the Kaine email collection includes the email of William H. Leighty,  who served as chief of staff to Governor Mark Warner (2002-2006) and held the same position under Governor Kaine (2006-2007). On 1 September 2005, Governor Warner dispatched Leighty and Policy Aide Ryan Childress to Louisiana for two weeks to coordinate state-to-state assistance and supplementing the relief operations of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Leighty’s email dispatches document their travel to Louisiana, Leighty’s responsibilities, clashes with the federal government, and their work assisting fire fighters.

Leighty traveled to Baton Rouge at the suggestion of Governor Warner and at the request of Louisiana Governor Katherine B. Blanco. Leighty’s experiences in responding to disasters, including the 2002 drought, 2002 Beltway sniper attacks, and 2003’s Hurricane Isabel, prepared him for the job. In a 31 August 2005 email to Andy Kopplin, Governor Blanco’s chief of staff, Leighty cited these events and offered to do whatever was needed of him.

“Since I have gone through a number of disasters that all combined do not equal what you are experiencing, my thoughts and prayers and with you and the Governor.  But I have been through enough to know what needs to be done.  I also know that saying let us know if we can help, just doesn’t cut it.  You are busy with responding and can’t think about next week….if you need someone there to think about the next week while you think about today, I can be there.”

Kopplin replied an hour later: “One of the best messages I have gotten all day.” Leighty and Childress left for Baton Rouge the next day.

During the 17 hour drive, Leighty emailed travel updates from his Blackberry to several members of the administration.  Gas lines were plentiful as they drove through Mississippi. “Looking for gas,” Leighty reported, “Lines a half to a mile long. Running out before lines finish. National Guard taking over stations for law enforcement us[e] only. My smooth talking hasn’t helped yet.” In Crystal City, National Guard troops were at “every station directing traffic. Every fourth or fifth station has been taken over by law enforcement for their vehicles. Ryan and I have been wonderi[ng] why we haven’t seen an enforcement presence.  They are all guarding the stations!” Getting low on fuel, Leighty and Childress contacted the Virginia Department of Transportation, who worked with their counterparts in Mississippi to arrange a quick gas stop at the McComb District Headquarters.  Time on task to fuel, water and a real pit stop would have put [NASCAR driver] Elliott Sadler to shame (especially this season). Ryan used his native Virginia accent to interpret.” Leighty’s final update came from Kentwood, Louisiana. “We are in Louisiana and passing through Brittney Spear’s hometown.  How do I know these things?”

Ryan Childress (center) speaks with New Orleans Deputy Fire Chief Brian Johnson in Louisiana's Emergency Operations Center in Baton Rouge, on Monday, Sept. 5, 2005. Leighty began work immediately upon his arrival in Baton Rouge, pulling an all-nighter in the Louisiana Emergency Operations Center (EOC). FEMA and the administration of President George W. Bush were pressuring Governor Blanco to federalize the evacuation of New Orleans by placing the National Guard under federal control. Governor Blanco resisted; under the Posse Comitatus Act, federalizing the National Guard would restrict their use as domestic law enforcement personnel. Leighty listened to several phone calls Kopplin had about this with White House Chief of Staff Andy Card and the Chief of the National Guard Bureau, LTG H. Steven Blum. Leighty described the situation. “This is surreal,” he wrote to Governor Warner’s Communications Director Ellen Qualls in the early hours of 3 September. “Andy Card and General Blum on the phone arguing to federalize this. They can not [sic] articulate why it needs to be done or what it adds by doing it. Andy Kopplin is arguing with Andy Card. It is clear they [White House] only want to do this to wipe the slate clean and start getting credit for improvement.” Blanco’s aides agreed. “After long discussions,” Leighty wrote a few hours later, “we determined the real reason for the request for a change in leadership is now that things are turning around Bush needs the credit.” Blanco refused to federalize the guard.

Bill Leighty with Captain Tom Coleman. Governor Blanco designated Leighty and Childress (“Team Leighty”) to be the “go to” guys for firefighter support. One of their main tasks was “working our butts off fighting FEMA paperwork to create a compound” in Algiers for about 1,100 firefighters. The next battle with FEMA:  getting toilets for the firemen. Leighty gave a “toilet update” on 8 September that epitomized the dysfunction of the federal response.

“The toilets and showers are here in New Orleans. Apparently they have been for several days. The hang up was that FEMA sent the wrong kind of trucks. But when the contractor with the trucks reported his arrival at the airport the task was closed out. The trucks left and the toilet task was reported as complete, so when the firefighters asked for follow up FEMA thought it was an additional order and cancelled the delivery. So we went to that miracle man Lieutenant Fudge for help. Fudge said the hell with FEMA, and he has his guard trucks going to pick up and deliver the toilets and showers. This is the closest that Ryan and I have gotten to swinging at someone. When Ryan went down to the site the other day, he saw the complex and knew that at least 400 firefighters were sharing just 2 showers, and was upset with the FEMA rep who broke the news to us. Ryan got his game face on and I had to take him outside for a break. People in the EOC were putting money on the confrontation…and it was all on Ryan. He could have taken him, and, as they say down here, I gar-on-tee it.”

Leighty also clashed directly with FEMA. FEMA agreed to transport 320 New York fire fighters to Louisiana then broke their promise. Upon learning this at 1:30 am on 5 September, Leighty stormed into FEMA operations demanding an explanation. They didn’t have one, just saying that there weren’t any planes. Leighty called the Department of Homeland Security’s Operations center and demanded to speak to Secretary Michael Chertoff. Josh Fuller, Chertoff’s chief of staff, returned the call and promised to see what he could do. FEMA chartered two planes to transport the New York firefighters that morning.

Bill Leighty outside the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana, on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2005. Leighty and Childress left Louisiana on 14 September with mixed emotions. In a lengthy email to colleagues in Virginia that evening, Leighty tried to summarize their experience.

“It is difficult to explain how two weeks of our lives have passed so quickly. Nor is it possible to explain the utter devastation we have seen here seen here. Devastation to lives, property and security. There are many who have lost so much. Generations of family heirlooms. Generations of cherished history. Generations of established social connections.

It is day 15 of the event. There are still bodies in the streets. Water in the homes. Fires burning in the neighborhoods. Hospitals flying patients out of state for lack of staff. No way to turn the water and sewer back on because the[y] can not [sic] locate the worke[r]s or the plans to turn the valves on. No way to turn the gas off because the valves are under water.

In the wee hours that we worked, we had many strange conversations. The young guardsman just back from overseas deployments would ask questions. Sir, do you think I still have to make my car payment if I no longer know where my car is? Sir, do you think I have to still pay my car insurance? Do I have to make a mortgage payment if the house will never be lived in again? Keep in mind these young men and women were the ones helping us, as their own needs were held in abeyance.”

In a separate email, Leighty praised Childress.  I am awfully proud of Ryan,” he wrote. “At 24 he is making a contribution that may very well make anything else he does in his life pale in comparison.” Childress made critical decisions while under tremendous pressure while multi-tasking various key tasks. “As a Marine,” Leighty concluded, I reserve this compliment to a very few:  I would trust this man to serve next to me in combat – because I have…”

The Library of Virginia’s Kaine Email Project makes the email records from the administration of Governor Timothy M. Kaine, Virginia’s 70th governor (2006–2010), accessible online. Users can search and view email records from the Governor’s Office and his cabinet secretaries; learn about other public records from the Kaine Administration; go behind the scenes to see how the Library of Virginia made the email records available; and read what others are saying about the collectionPrevious posts spotlighted personal stories, transportation, the state budget and the Kaine records officers. This project would not have been possible without funding provided by Congress for the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA).

-Roger Christman, Senior State Records Archivists

2 Comments

  1. Jon Kukla said:
    28 August 2015 at 6:25 pm

    Fascinating – in effect an intelligent outsider/insider’s perspective on the response to Katrina. I’ve forwarded the link to friends in New Orleans and Louisiana. Thank you for bringing this unusual documentary record to public attention.

    • Roger said:
      31 August 2015 at 7:32 am

      Mr. Kukla,

      Thank you for sharing!

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