The declaration of an entire American city as uninhabitable followed by a mandatory evacuation was unprecedented. So was the job of bringing order out of chaos, which fell to the Crescent City's police department. Eighty per cent of the officers lost their own homes; nearly a third is still missing. It's thought most of those walked away from the job. Some may have died in the storm and its aftermath.
While the overall relief operation has been called another disaster, for the 1,200 cops who stayed on the job, the last two weeks may have been their finest hour. Ed Bradley and 60 Minutes spent this week in New Orleans with the man in charge of the department and got a firsthand look at the challenges he and his officers faced when Hurricane Katrina hit town.
Eddie Compass, the superintendent of police in the Big Easy, has a reputation as a colorful plain-talking cop who's at home on the streets, swapping greetings and answering questions like: "Y'all still standing?"
Chief Compass says he and his men and women are still standing after, with the exception of 9/11, the most dramatic two weeks any American police department has ever faced. 60 Minutes rode with the chief in the back of a truck from the Texas National Guard as he patrolled streets that are still flooded. Later, he tried to describe what the last two weeks have been like.
Says Compass, "Imagine holdin' a city together with no communications, no resources, no ammunition. Doing search and rescue. Then switching from search and rescue to tactical because individuals starting at the fire trucks and search and rescue teams."
Compass says that as devastating as the hurricane was, the following morning, he thought the worst was over.
"At 6:00 in the morning," he recalls, "I was loading up my truck to bring my son to Texas A&M. I had no idea what was about to take place. You know, everybody thought it had -- we had dodged a bullet. Nobody knew."
The problems began, says the chief, when the levee broke.
Over the next four days, law and order disintegrated, and parts of New Orleans descended into chaos. New Orleans cops were left to rescue thousands of people trapped by the rising waters, while small groups of armed thugs roamed the flooded streets, robbing homes and shooting at police, fire trucks and rescue helicopters. Fires burned throughout the city for days, while bodies floated in the water.
At one point during the chaos, someone even tried to kidnap Compass. Someone in the crowd recognized him and told the others that if they could hold Compass hostage, they might be able to get a bus to come over and pick them up.
"And some other individuals joined in. And they tried to grab me," Compass recalls. "But my guys pushed them back. And he got me into a vehicle and got me out of there. Yeah."
Did Compass ever imagine the situation could have come to that point?
"No one in the world could have imagined it could get to that," the chief replies.
Did he, for a period, feel that he lost control of the city?
"I don't think we ever lost control of the city to the point where…the criminal element was gonna take it over," he says. "You know, parts of the city, where we overwhelmed by the masses. But this police department stood strong."
If the New Orleans Police Department stood strong, no one stood stronger than Capt. Jeff Wynn, who commands the New Orleans police department's special operations unit.
Says Wynn, "When we first started, we were deep into the rescue mode. And we would have to pull off a rescue mode to go and handle SWAT situation and immediately go back to rescue mode.
"And when I say 'rescue mode,' I'm not talking about driving from point A to point B. I'm talking about getting a bunch of tag guys out of a boat. Going over and looking at a target. Taking down that target. Getting back in that boat. And going another two blocks over. Cutting a rooftop open and getting the family out.
"It just never stopped," concludes Wynn. "I mean… I'll tell you right now, today is a better day than yesterday."
Before, in the beginning, they were on their own?
"We were -- we were stuck like Chuck," Wynn replies.