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Interview: Response to Katrina

Hurricane Katrina
Our Wide-Ranging Response


The New Orleans skyline as it appeared on Aug. 30, 2005. Photo courtesy of FEMA.
The New Orleans skyline as it appeared on Aug. 30, 2005. Photo courtesy of FEMA.

From the first moments after Hurricane Katrina made landfall a year ago, we’ve been working to help with the recovery and deal with the aftermath of crime and corruption—not just in New Orleans but around the nation. We asked our top Criminal Investigative exec James “Chip” Burrus to talk about the many aspects of our response.

Q: Let’s start at the beginning. What did the FBI do when Katrina struck?
Mr. Burrus: Well, our special agent in charge in New Orleans—Jim Bernazzani—felt he just couldn’t abandon ship, especially with all the case files and classified documents in our downtown office. So he and a couple of his employees stood their ground as the storm hit. It was pretty harrowing, I’m told. The storm ripped the roof off the building and pretty much destroyed it. A lot of our files got wet, but we moved heaven and earth to get those documents dried out before they mildewed and were completely lost. Our offices in Mobile, Alabama, and Gulfport and Pascagoula, Mississippi, were also hit hard. Thankfully, none of our employees were hurt, but many of them did lose their homes. Still, quite a few came to work the next day. I was really proud of them all.

Q: How did we help state and local law enforcement in the beginning?
Mr. Burrus: One beauty of the FBI is that we have what we call a “surge capacity”—resources and capabilities far and wide that we can draw on in times of crisis. Within a few days, we had 500 of our agents and other personnel from around the nation on the ground to help secure the city, answer emergency calls, patrol the streets, stop looting, and conduct search and rescue operations. We also offered assistance to law enforcement in Mississippi and Alabama. We had people sleeping in tents, working in makeshift offices—whatever it took to get the job done. Of course, we made sure not to shift any resources from our counterterrorism operations or other top priorities.

Q: How soon did Katrina-related crime start after the storm hit?
Mr. Burrus: Almost immediately—especially when it came to fraud. Criminals around the country quickly set up fake charity websites and even went door-to-door, preying on people who wanted to donate money or supplies. Our cyber experts ended up taking down more than 100 bogus websites. Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher also brought the FBI and other Department of Justice components together on a new Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force. As part of that task force, we helped create an information-sharing center in Baton Rouge that enables everyone to pass on intelligence and to work more easily as a united team. And by the way, we decided early on that no Katrina fraud was too small to investigate—we wanted to send a message that we had zero tolerance for scams during a catastrophe of this magnitude. Talk about adding insult to injury.

Q: What about government fraud and corruption?
Mr. Burrus: That’s been our biggest focus of all—there’s so much money at stake and it’s so important for people to have faith in their government there. We’ve opened 300 cases involving fraud against the government and two dozen public corruption investigations directly linked to Katrina. These cases
have literally been all over the map, although recent ones have been concentrated in New Orleans and Jackson, Mississippi, because that’s where the bulk of government funds are going. Just last week, four people who ran a debris removal business were indicted  for submitting fraudulent invoices totaling over $700,000.

James “Chip” Burrus, Head of the Criminal Investigative Division (2006)

FBI Criminal Investigative Division chief James “Chip” Burrus.

Q: Talk about crime migrating to other cities in the wake of Katrina.
Mr. Burrus: It’s something we’ve addressed as it’s happened. For example, we saw a significant spike in gang activity in Houston after Katrina, so we teamed up with the Houston Police Department and went after those gangs.

Q: Are those gangs starting to return to New Orleans?
Mr. Burrus: Yes, a lot of them have moved back to New Orleans in the past six months—mostly loose-knit groups rather than the more organized ones like the Crips or Bloods. We’re tackling the problem with a new initiative in our multi-agency Violent Gang Safe Streets Task Force. We’ve also created the Metropolitan Violent Crime Center that allows us to share intelligence about these crime groups with our partners. Our collective feeling is, we can’t afford to let up. The rebuilding won’t be fully successful if people don’t feel safe—whether at home, in the office, or at school.

Q: What problems do you foresee down the road?
Mr. Burrus: We’ll continue to focus on corruption, but we know government fraud is going to be a significant problem for a long time to come. Government money is going to be flowing down to the Gulf Region for at least the next eight years. We expect to see cases of government procurement fraud, loan fraud, Small Business Administration fraud, education fraud, and Housing and Urban Development fraud as the city continues to rebuild. We’re working with our partners to pluck those weeds out one at a time. In the long term, we want to set up trip wires that will help pinpoint where fraud and corruption exist and enable us to address problems with proactive investigations.

Q: Finally, what should people do if they have information about Katrina-related public corruption, government fraud, gangs, or other crimes?
Mr. Burrus: Please call us. You can reach our local FBI offices 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also submit a tip via the Internet.

- More on Hurricane Katrina
- FBI Response to the Disaster
- FBI Disaster Squad’s role in identifying victims