Tugboats and Katrina

Harlingen, Texas, September 10, 2005: You need to look long and hard if you are attempting to find any information about the use of tugboats, towboats or barges in the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. In fact, the only reference to these watercraft noted was in a September 1, 2005 Reuters pool release. It stated “A tugboat pushes barges past an oil refinery in southern Louisiana. Rotting bodies littered New Orleans’ streets on Thursday and troops headed in to control looting and violence, as thousands of desperate survivors of Hurricane Katrina pleaded to be evacuated from the flooded city, or even just fed.”

All too often the media is charged with slanting its coverage or placing emphasis on the wrong elements of a story. The media is even guiltier of failing to follow up on news elements, or examining them in any depth. One could say those who report for both the print and electronic media are often guilty of the sin of omission.

Reuters was at the very edge of a significant story when it noted a tugboat working its way down the Mississippi River. In the same paragraph it wrote about survivors pleading for evacuation. What it did not do was examine what was happening with all those towboats and tugboats moving past the hurricane damage.

“Like most of the world I watched the unfolding of the hurricane tragedy”, says Terry T. Brady of Alaska. He continues, saying “As a former licensed tugboat captain on the Yukon River, I kept watching for the arrival from upriver, of a fleet of towboats and barges bringing supplies into New Orleans and taking people out. I never saw anything moving on the water.”

This so concerned Brady that he contacted Michael Titone, President of the Mississippi River Maritime Association who was on the scene in the disaster area. What he learned was neither FEMA nor Homeland Security had ever included in their contingency plans any national emergency provision to utilize the huge tugboat, towboat and barge fleet that operates on our inland waterways.

Those waterways contain a fleet of more than 4,000 tugboats and towboats. In addition, there are more than 27,000 barges and combine they move nearly 800 million tons of raw materials and finished goods each year.

Our largest waterway system and the one with the most boats is the Mighty Mississippi. The barges, which are either towed or pushed, each have a capacity 15 times greater than one railroad car and 60 times greater than one semi truck trailer. That huge capacity could have been utilized to move everyone in New Orleans out of harms way. This is an important story the media missed.

Says Mr. Titone, “Contingency planning was deficient in my opinion, then the massive loss of power, and almost all phone contact within the 504 and 985 area codes made after the fact coordination with private entities almost impossible.”

He further adds, “If a good table top exercise would have been conducted that took this possibility seriously, private companies upriver could have had standing orders to start provisioning and moving south when weather permitted.”

Hearing this, Brady sought the assistance of Dan Hubbell, who edits an electronic newsletter for the towboat industry. Hubbell attempted to explain how the relif operation could use the assistance of industry watercraft. He talked to two Coast Guard officials, two New Orleans city council members a woman on the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus and even a reporter. He also posted the information on his Wheelhouse Report site. Every word fell on deaf ears.

Brady also sent messages to Alaska’s lone congressman Donald E. Young. Young is currently Chairman of the House Transportation committee and soon to be Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. “Young and I go way back, as young bucks we both worked freight and passenger vessels on the Yukon River and he held the same license as I. He has not responded as of yet, but that is understandable.”

Not all tugboats were idle. American Electric Power did use its boats in an effort to help evacuate New Orleans. Tugboats from its river operations unit ferried evacuees from the flooded city to dry locations on the opposite side of the Mississippi River. They even put out a press release on their efforts, which has received very little attention.

So there is the sin of omission. Granted it was not only the failure of the media to follow up on a significant story, but also the failure of everyone to act upon the offer for assistance or to utilize the hundreds of boats only a cry for help away.

One final note to this story, almost after the fact…. On September 10, as I put the finishing touches to my copy, Fox News Channel carried an Alert that FEMA leadership was planning to utilize the resources on the Mississippi River.