FBI Director James B. Comey offered high praise Friday to the federal agents who responded to Hurricane Katrina, likening their resolve to those who “ran toward danger and destruction” in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing.
Comey, addressing the FBI’s New Orleans Field Office and several dozen Louisiana law enforcement officials, said the bureau “made its true colors clear on that day 10 years ago and the days following it.”
“In the course of confronting your own losses and your own trauma, you represented what this organization stands for,” Comey said. “Everybody suffered some level of loss, some level of damage. But some of you lost nearly everything.”
Michael Anderson, the FBI’s local special agent in charge, said Katrina marked “the most catastrophic event for one division” in the bureau’s history, noting that 210 employees had been “significantly impacted, many losing their homes, some losing loved ones and many permanently evacuating a city in which they had lived all their lives.”
Among others, Comey recognized the efforts of Jim Bernazzani, the former special agent in charge of the New Orleans office.
Bernazzani recalled a harrowing few days he spent hunkered down in the bureau’s lakefront office, which did not flood in Katrina but lost two-thirds of its roof. In an interview, he said he and a handful of agents were without power and incommunicado except for one satellite phone.
“The criteria for the agent personnel to be in this building was (that they be) single with no kids, all volunteers,” Bernazzani said, “in case you got killed.”
Eventually, several hundred FBI agents from around the country came to New Orleans, seeking to restore some semblance of order. They helped establish a multiple-agency law enforcement coordination center, searched local homes and also set up a system of looking for folks who had tried to call 911 during the storm, said Ronald Hosko, a retired assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.
With its lakefront office shuttered for eight months, the FBI established makeshift headquarters in Baton Rouge and a Bourbon Street hotel before relocating temporarily to a vacant golf club in Covington.
The agency also investigated hurricane-related fraud.
“I had never ever seen a group of people, a community digress so close to anarchy here in the United States,” Bernazzani said of Katrina’s aftermath. “It was a complete collapse of the infrastructure.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.