08/29/2007 09:43 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

"Is This Political?" -- Michigan was Ready to Take 10,000 Evacuees and Only Received 500

On August 29, 2005, Governor Jennifer Granholm made clear to her staff that Michigan would do whatever it could to assist those of the affected Gulf Coast. She put Mary Zatina in charge of the effort. Meanwhile, Mary's husband, Kevin Prihod, packed his Saturn Vue and headed off to Louisiana ; he served as a Humane Society volunteer for three weeks in Plaquemines Parish. Kevin brought home a surrendered Pit Bull/Boxer mix he named Belle (after Belle Chaise), a decision that has lead to unforeseen difficulties. Before and after Katrina, Mary also served as the Chief of Staff in the Office of the First Gentleman. I interviewed Mary on January 16, 2007 , in Detroit, Michigan.

The full interview can be read at

* * *


On August 29th, the day the hurricane hit, we were at a couples' house for dinner. We were dining and I couldn't answer my cell phone. When I got in the car I saw the Governor had called. I was like: I missed a call from the Governor! What a knucklehead!

The Governor's call was: Mary you're so creative, we've got to do something for the people in New Orleans. Please start thinking. Start thinking of ideas. What can Michigan do? How can we help? I sent her an email with some thoughts. She replied and said: next morning at Senior Staff, I want you to lead a discussion where we'll brainstorm and vet these ideas and see what we can do .

Some ideas were taken off the table. We grappled with balancing doing things for other people in other states when people in Michigan have so many needs. There was the whole debate about that. But the discussion pulled forth more ideas. Because I had been the one standing in front of the room, facilitating, I became the one who took those brainstorm ideas to the next level. And the next level. And the next level. It just snowballed. I became the point-person on Michigan's response to Hurricane Katrina.

Little pockets of activity within state government were happening all over the place. Calls were coming in to our National Guard; our State Police sent people down, etc.

We made a recommendation that the Governor accepted. We opened up the State Emergency Management Center .

The State Emergency Management Center is a huge space in a secure location. Once you declare an emergency, all the department heads and all the emergency management personnel come together. The Governor, the Attorney General, and all of the department heads and the key personnel sit in concentric half-circles, emanating from the Governor's post.

In this meeting the Governor said: We've got to coordinate our efforts...whose doing what, now...we're going forward...and Mary's in charge.

I am? [Laughter]

Governor Granholm talked with other Governors. She said: We would be happy to take evacuees in Michigan. We really are. And they were talking about, OK, how many thousands can you take tonight?

We pulled together our cabinet members to talk about what's the best way to do this. How can we do this? How can we do this? Major General Thomas Cutler (Head of the Department of Military and Veterans' Affairs for the State of Michigan) recommended that the best place to do this was at two training facilities: Fort Custer, the military base, and Camp Grayling, a military base up north. Now that's way up north. Hard to get to. We should fill up Fort Custer first, and then go to Camp Grayling.

Gen. Cutler said that he we can take 10,000 people and house them well. But it would be great if they didn't all come at once. If we got 1000 a day, we could make sure all their medical needs were effectively treated, and move people into the proper housing--whether they were a family or an individual, whether they had pets or not. That was our plan. We proceeded to say: we are ready. The Governor wanted us to be ready by Friday night to take evacuees. We were.

The Governor went out to Fort Custer. She inspected the place. The media was dying to get footage of anything at all. What are you doing? Show us anything. We decided early on that this needed to be private and respectful for the evacueees. It's not a movie or show. It's not about the Governor. But they were dying for something. What are you doing? You're using Fort Custer. They were trying to sneak into the space. So the Governor gave a media tour to show off the readiness of our strategy and how we were moving.

Fort Custer has a program for kids who had a light run-in with the law. It's kind of like a little boot-camp program. These kids had sorted all the towels, folded all the clothes, plus, we got backpacks for kids at school. [The boot-camp kids were there for the Governor's inspection.] They were just so humble and glad to be helping in this way.

Ready and Waiting

I put a big emphasis on communications. We had so many people who wanted to know what's happening. Early on, I did updates two or three times a day. I sent them to all of the Governor's executive staff, and then the cabinet members. I think this may be one of the first:

September 4th, Hurricane Update. Sunday, 5:30pm. This is an update. I hope to make them more frequent. For sanity's sake, please don't reply to all. I will issue corrections/additional information/clarifications early tomorrow. If you have any questions, please reply to me and I'll get the answer. Mary Z.

Michigan is ready with open arms and well-equipped facilities to support the people of the Gulf States displaced by Hurricane Katrina. We are very ready. Yet we wait for official word that evacuees are coming. We may be asked to house evacuees today, tomorrow, or never, but we are ready. Many teams are in place in the Gulf already, from the [Michigan] State Police to the DNR and now there is a call for public information officers to send our people down there.

Our plan for the evacuees has three stages. The first can be thought of as "Assessment and Stabilization." This will take place at Fort Custer training center near Battle Creek, and Camp Grayling . We hope there will be a very short 3-7 day stay in this Stage One. Governor Granholm inspected the readiness of Fort Custer today and was impressed with the process, people, and supplies in place. We received many donations from businesses. She also did a press avail there. The press release is attached.

Stage Two is the "Transfer to Transitional Living." With strong guidance from the Michigan Joint Housing Authority, and the Department of Human Services, cities will house evacuees in private, independent housing. Could be government-subsidized housing, could be surplus hotel rooms. We want the evacuees to have housing that is private and affords them independence. A conference call with thirty mayors, a few county execs, and the Governor was held today at 4:00pm to brief them on our preparedness, and our standing with FEMA. There was a spirit of cooperation, and support of our plan. Governor Granholm asked the cities to send plans, and housing availability by COB on Wednesday. JoAnne Huls will coordinate this.

Stage Three is "Transfer to Permanent Living," which we assume will mean a trip back to Louisiana in six to nine months. (Ha! Yeah, wishful thinking) If some choose to stay in Michigan, we will welcome them.

We've offered to send planes to pick-up evacuees. Three of our four C-130s are in the Gulf region now and can easily be pressed into service to bring evacuees to Michigan or to any other state that is prepared and willing to take evacuees. Governor Granholm has been in frequent contact with Governor Perry, and with FEMA, to stress that if needed, our facilities, and our written plans, are in place.

We will certainly keep media apprised of our activities, but we do not plan to make a public event of any arrivals or check-ins. We tend towards not allowing cameras or photographers into the living facilities. Even though we will facilitate interviews if we find that visitors would like to speak to the press and tell their story, our first priority is these peoples' privacy, comfort, and dignity. Just want to remind folks as we know that senior staff tends to get inquiries from all sorts of folks about our plans. Enquiries and offers of help from citizens should all be funneled through Michigan's Hurricane Help Line. That's the hotline we've assembled, it's a 1-800 number.

FEMA has asked that states who receive evacuees declare states of emergency in order to access FEMA funds for reimbursement. In response, Governor Granholm has issued Executive Order #2521. Governor Granholm also sent a letter to President Bush asking that he declare Michigan a Federal Disaster Area. Again, another step to get FEMA support back under Federal laws.

The Governor also issued Executive Directive 2005-7 that waived the weight and size restriction on transporting manufactured housing so housing manufactured in Michigan can be sent south. This is a reminder to the team that we need to get more Michigan manufacturers involved and folks should start to think about that. Though I know it's crass to think about economic advantage while people are suffering, but we have skills and talents in this state that should be put to work for the good of the Gulf states, for the good of the country, and the good of Michigan."

Then we waited. We were literally sitting in this Emergency Management site and we kept hearing , OK, there's a plane in the air! We think it's coming to Michigan . And we'd wait. There's a plane in the air, and it could be here in as little as two hours. Get ready. Then the plane went somewhere else! And it went somewhere else! And it went somewhere else!

The Emergency Management Center has televisions all around the perimeter of the room. We're seeing people in the stadium in Texas in these horrible conditions. It was getting pretty bad by Friday and Saturday. We're ready! We have all this stuff. OK, it's cold here. But it's not that cold in August, you know? And they never came.

Governor Granholm got on the phone with Governor Perry of Texas: Rick! We've got ten thousand beds ready here. We're ready! You know? Governor Perry was in a world of hurt. He told Governor Granholm, I can't handle everyone coming to Texas. I'm going to make sure some of these people come to Michigan. So that gave us new hope that our state of readiness would be utilized.

There is a national emergency system. A communications network. Let's say, [a state] were to put out that they need five flat-bottomed boats. Whose got a flat-bottom boat? If you had a flat-bottom boat, you then go through the system, and you say, we have three in Michigan , we're willing to send. Then they say, OK, Michigan , we'll take two of your three. This is the system that we used because the Emergency Management people who had been through drill after drill after drill said this is how it's done.

Now mind you, on August 14th, 2003, there was a huge blackout in Southeast Michigan. The power was dead. The Governor jumps into action like you wouldn't believe; whenever there's a problem, she's there. She dove in and had opened up the Emergency Management Center. Got water to Detroit. Made sure gas stations weren't gauging gas. Brought food to people. Did things to make sure seniors weren't overheated. So we had had this great test with emergency management process. In August, two years before and it worked. We were relying on this system. But [the system] wasn't working

We started to think, is this political? Are they not coming to Michigan because this is a Democratic governor? Why send all these people to Haley Barbour in Mississippi and Arkansas and Texas. What's the common denominator? Well those are all Republican governors. So this started to creep into our thinking a bit--at least my thinking. I'll own my own suspicions.

We thought we'd thought of everything. Veterinarians. All kinds of medicine. Kotex. School buses to transport them from the tarmac where the plane landed to where they would come. How could we give them the privacy they deserved? The families... Then there was a little scare that people would be coming with weapons. How were we going to find out if somebody has a weapon? How are we going to make sure that our workers are safe? We'd thought through all this stuff. It was very disheartening to be able to think of our readiness, to be proud of what we had readied, then to wait and wait and wait. Not be able to make that available.

I witnessed some direct conversations between Governor Granholm and Governor Blanco. Also, First Gentleman Dan Mulhern called Coach, just to make a connection with him, so the First Gentleman could talk to the First Gentleman and say, I'm with you, how can we help. We're ready.

I think Governor Granholm sensed profound despair. A totally untenable situation. More so than we could ever imagine having to face ourselves in Michigan. I don't speak for the Governor, but I'm sure she felt tremendous heartache that we couldn't be more helpful. That Governor to Governor, she couldn't mobilize her resources to help her colleague. It's just so weird to be ready, to watch on TV all the problems escalating, the tension. People were getting sick. People weren't getting the proper health care. People were off their meds. We were so ready to help all those things, and it wasn't utilized.

At Fort Custer

When all was said and done, two or three planes did come to Michigan. They carried what we were told were the last folks out of New Orleans. In some cases those were people with serious mental health issues. In some cases they were people with serious physical issues who went straight to hospitals.

We had some college students from Tulane. I think medical students. They had stayed as long as they thought they could be helpful. They came because they were forced out, and promptly got on some other planes to fly to family they had. So we really only had about five hundred people officially come from FEMA planes to Michigan.

I was preaching to everybody, stay out of there. If you don't need to be at Fort Custer , get out of there. You can't gawk. No gawkers. So then when the evacuees came, I wasn't there. I stayed for the media tour, but I said, we gotta practice what we're preaching here, and not all like hang around what do the evacuees look like.

My colleague JoAnne Huls was the point person on-site. She was there, and she was radioing back on her cell phone, they're off the plane, you know, they look terrible, you see people and they're like ghosts, and they're silent, oh, somebody has a dog (she and I are dog people). So I can't imagine being in that situation.

More on What the State of Michigan Did to Prepare

JoAnne Huls mobilized all kinds of resources. She called our friends in the unions. She called our friends at Meijer's Supermarket. We need towels. We need ten thousand towels. We need toys. She called Toys R Us. We need toys for kids. We need veterinarians. We need crates for animals. And somehow all this stuff started coming in. We had such an outpouring of help.

We knew we wanted the people of Michigan to have an organized way that they could be helpful with money. People were calling, I have a house. I have a cottage up north that I won't be using. Someone can have it . All this stuff was coming in. We quickly needed to organize it. And communicate what we were doing and how we were going to do it.

We set up a hotline. We staffed it twenty-four hours a day. Anyone who wanted to donate anything could call. There was an incredible sifting process from people who were saying, I've got clothes, to, I'm the head of Pioneer Sugar . I can send as many tanker trucks of sugar as you need me to send. Tell me where to send it. I have a vehicle called a "water buffalo" which carries fresh water, should we send it down? So we had volunteers and state staff members sitting on these phone lines, figuring out all this stuff.

We made a database. What is it you have? Tell us more about that. How do we contact you? And so on. We learned that our strategy was not going to be to put people into individual houses, but to use these camps. People would say, thank you for your house, but we're not going to use individual homes like that, but we do need clothing, blah blah blah .

We quickly realized we didn't want to collect the clothing. We established partnerships with the Red Cross in Michigan, with the Salvation Army, with all of the non-profit organizations in each community that delivered social services. We said, take your things to them . They know how to intake that kind of stuff. Clean it, size it, all that kind of stuff. Take your stuff to them, and then we'll work through them in a wholesale fashion. So there was this incredible mobilization, proactively and also reactively on our part of services and things for the evacuees. We were so ready.

To read the full interview, please visit: