Disaster Management

Mike Byrd
Miami-Dade Police Department
Crime Scene Investigations


I have seen the many faces a disaster can leave. I have witnessed the anger and hate on the faces of those who threw rocks and bottles at the authorities and later burned downed businesses in their own communities during civil disturbances. I saw the despair and disbelief in the expressions of the police officers who were the main target of those rocks, bottles, and verbal abuses from the community, that they serve and live.

I have lived the aftermath of a major disaster, in Hurricane Andrew which came ashore on August 24, 1992, striking South Florida with powerful winds sustained at more than 145 mph. At times the wind gusts exceeded 175 mph. By the time the storm had moved out into the Gulf of Mexico, over a hundred thousand people were left homeless. Approximately 1000 square miles were effected. We were fortunate that the storm was a fast moving storm or else flooding waters and death toll would have surely risen.

The event was the highest financial disaster in our nations history. The eighteen months that followed created an enormous erray of emotions and challenges for the survivors. The different stages of the recovery efforts displayed fear, shock, displacement, hopelessness, and anger. An experience that will live with me forever and which I would not want to repeat. The children of Andrew grew up overnight. The innocence that they lost will never be returned.

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The unexpected crash of Valujet flight 592 in the Florida Everglades on May 11, 1996. The different emotions and expressions illustrated in this tragic event were just as powerful as what I had experienced Living in ground zero with Andrew. There was the shock of 110 passengers and crew dying on board the aircraft. The fear of the unknown as we entered the swamp for that first recovery mission out into unknown territory. The feelings of being closed in as we entered the tall sawgrass each time causing a loss of sense of direction to the workers. The feelings of grief as we saw what we hadn't expected and the sense of determination as we met each challenge which were presented to us during the entire 5 1/2 week operation. The emotions and feeling of isolation from being on a small levy inlet for the length of the operations.

This article is a tribute to the men and women whose tireless efforts moved them undaunted through the rescue and recovery operations of a major disaster. Considering the physical and emotional drain an event of this magnitude can create, their display of selfless determination is amazing. Indeed their uncommon valor was a common everyday occurrence.

Most of us cannot imagine the horror of a disaster striking in "our" backyard, (it's always somewhere else, right?). For that reason I am committed to writing this article to prepare and hopefully assist every municipality everywhere. (from the major city to the tiniest hamlet) in the development of a solid action plan for the handling of a major disaster. I will try to keep this article informative without the emotionalism generated by this tragic event.


Disaster is simply something that happens suddenly, usually without warning, causing much suffering and loss. Disaster comes from an old Italian word used in astrology. It was a term for a bad influence due to the position of the stars and planets. The word was made up of two parts. The first was a negative prefix. the second was a word that meant "star". Disasters can be categorized into three basic groups, natural, transportation, and man-made catastrophe.


  • hurricane
  • earthquake
  • tornado
  • flood


  • airline crash
  • bus/auto accident
  • shipwreck
  • train accident

Man-made catastrophe

  • explosion
  • mass suicide/murder
  • fire
  • civil disturbance
  • industrial accident

Disaster Response

Disasters always present many different and unique challenges which must be addressed right away. The one constant in disasters is change. Teamwork is one of the keys to success here, since there are usually many agencies involved in the operation, complete cooperation between these agencies is of paramount importance. Teamwork is a luxury that we will need to aggressively develop and encourage in the future. It will become a more valuable resource to law enforcement. With the ever increasing population, there will be more of the various type disasters and high profile type incidents requiring multiagency response.

Still the major responsibility in any event is carried out by the local authority in the community where the disaster or incident has occurred. Each disaster is unique and therefore must be evaluated on its own. Patience and common sense are the first tools needed to maintain focus on the job at hand.

In the beginning even the most efficient plans may appear disorganized, and it is at this point the initial difficulties will present themselves, necessitating the first of many revisions during the life of the operations. Flexibility and adaptability are the next tools needed by all of the agencies involved, as they attempt to manage in a solution to the newest challenges generated by the disaster.

After Andrew there was the shock of seeing neighborhoods that looked like they had been in a war zone. The first priority, as in any disaster was rescuing the survivors and aiding with medical attention where needed. The roadways were all cluttered with debris, fallen tress, electrical poles and lines making access to the area almost impossible. With all of the street signs and landmarks reduced to large piles of rubble finding your way around was also impossible. It was like waking up to start a new day and finding yourself in a totally unfamiliar place . The best description coming to mind was a third world country.

In 4 hours of rage Hurricane Andrew turned the homes and belongings of the community into 10 years worth of debris and rubble. There was limited communications and very little resources to work with. It was almost like the county had been split down the middle. The first major obstacle was to clear the roadways of all of the debris for access in and out of the area. In the beginning we were limited with equipment. Neighbors begin to clear the roadways with whatever equipment they could find. As roadways were cleared and access was made easier the traffic became another challenge.

There were people from all over the country that responded to south Florida to assist those in need. We were also exposed to those that were attempting to make a lot of money in times of need and desperation. Last but not least were the thrill seekers, who had to travel down to see others misery. there were no traffic signals left operating at major intersections. Looting and protection of what was left of ones property became another challenge. Fire, police, and other emergency support personnel were living a double edge sword. Most of these professionals not only worked in the communities that were reduced to rubble, but also lived in those same communities. With their homes and equipment damaged or destroyed they still left their families each morning and went out to do everything possible to assist the community. At night we sat in front of what remained of what used to be our homes with weapons to protect our families and what luxury items we had left.

It took 4 days for the local bureaucracy to determine a need for outside assistance and the inability to totally maintain control of the streets. A plea was made to the governor to call in the military.

The property at local public schools were made distribution points for food and other needs. The stores, banks, post offices, schools and other businesses were damaged and destroyed just like the homes in the community. You can imagine the frustration of standing in line for almost an entire day to receive your mail. By experiencing these challenges we learn to become survivors. It becomes a very humbling experience. People learn quickly the difference between want and need. Your entire life is put on hold for the period of time it takes to rebuild a community. Other than food and water, some of the items needed most in the areas hit by a major disaster are pampers and disposable diapers for infants, formulas for infants feeding, and of course sanitary napkins for the women. These are items most people take for granted.

The entire southern section of the county had to be re-grid for electricity. This meant that new poles had to be sunk and power cables had to be stretched and attached. This was an extremely tedious job that took months to complete. That meant in some areas the electricity was out for several months. This required alternative methods for cooking and preparing meals, as well as storing food since there would be no or limited refrigeration.

One of the most annoying and frustrating events after Hurricane Andrew were the constant flat tires from roofing nails and other debris. this was something that went on for close to a year. It created a lot of frustration not only for personal vehicles but also in the vehicles of all of the police, fire, and emergency responding personnel.

Another area of concern, which was brought to my attention by a close friend, were the displaced animals from a disaster. During times of crisis people are thinking and reacting in a survivor process. We tend to change our priority planning systems from what we usually see as normal. The unattended animals need care and assistance to. By not giving the animals the proper care this can ultimately become a health and safety hazard to the survivors.

People in a major disaster area are looking for the authorities in that community to take charge and assist in putting their normal community and lives back together. It is vital that the authorities take initiative and show response right away. There will be mistakes made during these type of situations. No community can be expected to have a plan of operation structured for every type of a disaster or incident. But having some type of critical incident plan in place can prepare a community to meet any challenge. The idea is to make decisions, you can always learn from any mistakes later. No decision is the wrong decision to make. As community leaders, bridges not fences need to be built between the authorities and the community as soon as possible.

One of the bright spots to come from Hurricane Andrew, were that all of the fences and barricades that we put up around our homes were brought down from the force of the storm. Neighbors actually got to know one another for the first time after years of living in the same neighborhoods. With no television, computers, or other devices that take up such a large portion of our time, people began to communicate.

On Thursday morning, 4 days after hurricane Andrew, the military set up portable field kitchens at local school grounds. This enabled the members of the community to walk to the school grounds and have the luxury of two hot meals a day. For most this was the first hot meal that they had enjoyed since before the storm. This lasted for months and created a tremendous bond between the community and the military.

Valujet — May 11, 1996

On Saturday, May, 11, 1996, Valujet flight 592 leaving Miami International Airport enroute for Atlanta, Georgia crashed into the Florida Everglades shortly after take off. All 110 passengers and crew aboard were killed, making this one of the worst air disasters in South Florida's history. Our citizens had already experienced the destruction and aftermath left by Hurricane Andrew on August 24, 1992, and our community had survived the rebuilding efforts after several civil disturbances; so disaster was not something new to Miami-Dade County. Never the less the process and the impact of Valujet flight 592 recovery operations shall long be remembered and forever acknowledged, as an extraordinary undertaking that brought out the very best in the men and women who took part in the operation.

Aircraft Information

The aircraft was a McDonald Douglas DC-9-32 powered by 2 Pratt and Whitney JT8D-9A engines, configured with 113 passenger seats. Wing span is 93 feet 5 inches. The length if the plane is 119 feet 3 1/2 inches. Estimated maximum cruising speed was 564 mph. The craft was built in 1969. The tail registration read N904VJ.

The Operation Begins

As you will recognize, the handling of a disaster is similar to handling a major crime scene. The first priority in handling a major disaster is to identify, isolate, and secure the site as quickly as possible. The location and terrain are important in formulating a plan of operation. The location of the Valujet site allowed us the ability to easily restrict the private sector from the site.

We were in a helicopter over the site shortly after the incident, while the fire department was initiating their search and rescue operations we were taking photographs to start developing a plan of action. Initially the first flights over the area were difficult for us in locating the actual site. During the entire efforts of an operations different agencies will have different responsibilities and duties during ever-changing stages in the operations.


The terrain is an area that is a dense marshland thick with razor-toothed sawgrass. The sawgrass grows nearly 12 feet tall, has serrated edges, and is rooted in a rich soil known as muck. The muck forms the bed of the everglades.

May is the height of the dry season for this area. The water table for most of its areas is 1 to 3 feet deep. During the summer rainy season starting in June the water can become as high as 5 feet in most of these areas.

The muck has been built from thousands of years by decaying vegetation. It lies over a porous lime rock known as Miami oolite. The muck is a sponge that makes the everglades possible. It keeps the roots and plants moist even in severe droughts, making it impossible to drain.

Evaluating the site

After establishing and securing the scene, evaluating the site is the next step in the process. The intensity of the scene will be dependent on the environment, location, known hazards, and conditions that might be present.

Flight 592 crashed at a site between 2-man made levees approximately 10 miles north of the Tamiami Trail (s.w. 8th street). The site was approximately 300 yards southeast of the L67 levee. The site was the size of approximately 2 football fields side by side. At the northwest edge of the site was a large black crater, which was the point of impact. The size of the crater was approximately 130 feet long by 40 wide. The crater was filled with jet fuel and hydraulic fluids used to power the plane and created zero visibility. It was do to the eerie feeling of the crater that the workers labeled this area, "the black hole".

Initial Start Up of Operations

The steps to the initial start up stage in a Disaster are to asses the scene/situation, identify the resources available to you, develop a command structure, and put your systems in place.

Some of the factors of selecting and establishing a command post site will be the distance to the scene, ease of access, the ability for security, and the availability for a press area.

What is being taught in critical incident management is a 3 tier perimeter. the outer perimeter is established as a larger border than the actual scene, to keep onlookers and nonessential personal from enhibiting the work area, an inner perimeter allowing for a command post and comfort area just outside the site, and the core or site itself.

Some of the leadership roles that were seen in place:

  • A personnel officer to track who is on the site and decide the manpower needed for the operation.
  • An equipment and supply officer to obtain and provide officers in the field with the equipment and supplies necessary to safely and expeditiously accomplish the operation.
  • A provision officer to insure food, water, and other consumables are obtained and delivered to the workers.
  • A facility officer to assign sites to responding units and agencies. Establish feeding and latrine areas. Coordinate and insure trash and waste pick ups.
  • A liaison officer to work with other units and agencies as needed.
  • An operations officer to coordinate and assign operations.
  • A media relations officer to work with the vast amounts of media a large event will bring.

Accessibility to the scene

The first of many decisions of our operation began with transportation to and from the site for the workers. We were presented with several options. We had the long, narrow, bumpy, single roadway which was the L67 levee. The roadway ran south to north from s.w. 8th street in Miami-Dade County to Holiday park located in Broward County. Due to the structure and condition of the roadway it had to be traveled at a snails pace and took approximately 1 hour to 55 minutes.

During the first day's encounter with the site we used the aviation's helicopters for transportation of approximately 35 people. By the 3rd day of operations it was not feasible to use aviation due to our manpower force growing to over 150 people at the site daily.

The logical choice became transporting the crew and equipment by boat to and from the site facility each day. The 25 minute boat ride allowed us to safely and efficiently transport the workers and equipment. All supplies were continued to be air lifted in to the site with a minimal number of trips daily.

Compartmental-vs-Departmental Mobilization

A decision has to be made regarding staffing. A department will still have the daily operations which have to be attended to. Now you are faced with a manpower and staffing delima. Since the site was isolated and did not interfere with daily operations we were able to take only the entities and bureaus that were effectively needed and mobilize those units. For example, in crime scene we have 18 people assigned to the duties of major case incidents, covering 3-8 hour shifts. Our unit went to 2-12 hour work shifts to handle our daily operations. The 3rd remaining shift was reassigned to work the crash site. The crash site hours were regulated from sun up to sun down.

Constructing a city in the swamp

We were fortunate that the man-made levee had 2 large land areas constructed to off load boats into the water. This area was approximately 300 yards northwest of the crash site. This gave us an area to establish and construct an on-site work facility, our city in the swamp. The forward base as it was commonly referred to. This forward base was constructed over a period of several days. We were able to obtain tents from the fire department, medical examiners office, and the school board. These large tents provided us with shelter from the sun, allowed us a work place, and gave us a storage area for our equipment. The temperatures during most of this period was in the 90's, making work conditions practically unbearable.

The second off load area which was approximately 100 yards to the south, was designated and prepared as a work facility for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and later used by a private salvaging company brought in to salvage the wreckage.

Our facility had a small elevated area in the northwest corner which we were able to designate as a landing pad for the helicopters routinely delivering supplies for our operations. The plan was to make our operations base as comfortable as possible. Some of the obstacles that we were routinely exposed to were the saw grass, the extreme heat, muck, mosquitoes, decaying flesh, the fumes from the hydraulic and jet fuels, and frequent thunder storms.

We set up 2 large main tents with walls and doors. A couple of generators and portable air conditioners were brought in to power and cool the large tents. One of the large tents became our command center and housed our communications network, several computers, and equipment needed for our work.

The second large tent served as our mess hall and one section of it was cordoned off with cots for anyone needing rest from the fatigue and heat exhaustion brought on by the efforts.

Revisions in plans are a constant. In the middle of the second full week of operations we had quite a few heavy rain showers. Our levee quickly turned into standing puddles of water and muck. The fire department swiftly brought in wood and constructed platforms inside the tents to give our supplies and equipment a dry clean surface to sit on.

Safe Solid Structure

The Everglades is notorious for severe thunder storms which can come without warning. These storms have strong winds, heavy showers, and lightning. We needed a safe solid structure to escape to during these fierce storms. Two (2) large transit buses were brought in to use as a safe retreat during these storms. The buses also provided a cool safe shelter for the workers after suiting up for a mission that became delayed for whatever reason.

Bathroom and Wash Facilities

These types of operations will usually last for a long period of time. Portable latrines, wash stations, and a portable shower (trailer) were brought in for personal hygiene. Make sure that the facilities are separated and designated by gender.

Waste, garbage, and trash

There is a tremendous amount of trash and rubble accumulated daily during an operation of this magnitude. Arrangements will need to be made to empty the waste from the latrines and pick up the trash almost daily. These task have to be arranged to where they do not interfere with the other daily operations.

Hierarchy of authority

During the entire operations there will be different phases or stages to be dealt with. In the initial stage of the operation the fire department will have control and authority with other agencies assisting in the rescue and medical attention of survivors phase. Once all efforts have been exhausted for locating and assisting survivors, the authority is relinquished to the medical examiners office for the next stage involving the recovery of human remains. This will be done by the assistance of local Law Enforcement. The medical examiners office has the ultimate responsibility for identification of the remains and cause of death.

The National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) respond to all accidental disaster category events. The NTSB are responsible for the craft, vessel, or vehicle parts. They have the responsibility of answering 2 major questions of the incident. How the incident occurred? What can be done to prevent similar incidents in the future? Surprising to most, is that the NTSB is not a large organization. They are limited in number of staff as well as area offices spread throughout the United States. What they do have is the authority to mobilize and rely on local agencies to be their resources.

Media Attention

There were scores of media on the site within a few hours of this tragic incident. The time consuming and tedious efforts in a recovery operations can be a slow moving and painstaking news event. Human interest events relating to the workers and operational conditions were outlined daily to assist in media relations.

Briefing and sharing information

Each and every morning after sunrise we had a briefing to start the new days work. A safety presentation was repeated everyday during the briefings to allow new arrivals to our teams to be aware of any and all risk that would be encountered. Discussions on our plan of operations and any updated information would be shared. We also were given information by a member of our physiological services team in coping with the feelings and emotions that would be experience from our various exposures during our field operations.

Hazards at a scene

There are generally three types of hazards or exposures that may be encountered at the average response.

  • Bio-hazards.
  • Chemical hazards.
  • Physical hazards.

During a major disaster or incident you can expect a combination of any of the three exposure conditions. There is the risk from the decaying flesh, the risk from the fluids and fuel used to control the craft, and the terrain, wildlife, and various other natural obstacles associated with the environment which we were dealing with.

Safety practices for chemical and bio-hazards are directed for exposure from inhalation, ingestion, and skin, eye, and mucous membrane contact. In hazard responses there are four threat levels of protective clothing.

The levels range from (level 4) the lowest level consisting of a coverall type garment with no respirator used for nuisance contamination's, to the highest fully encapsulated suit with a self contained breathing apparatus. Level 1 garments give the highest quality protection needed from exposures for the skin, respiratory system, and eye.

One of our large main tents housed our protective garments and supplies. Folding collapsible tables were set up along with folding metal chairs surrounding the tables. The backs of the chairs were positioned against the table with the bucket portion of the chair turned outward. The tables were stacked and organized (in an assembly line fashion) with our protective clothing. A team of workers were assigned to the tent. Their tasks were to keep the supplies stocked and assist the recovery teams in suiting up for an assigned mission, which we referred to as relays. It took each recovery team member approximately 15 minutes to prepare and suit up for a mission.

The suits are rated from 20 to 45 minutes of operations, depending on environment and temperatures. An important note for those controlling the logistics of these type operations; Order the largest sizes available in all of your protective garments. The need for the work being accomplished necessitates loose fitting garments. The garments can be altered or tailored with duct tape for smaller individuals. There is no way to expand the smaller size suits.

We learned a new term during this operation. "Rehydration" became your closest assets. We were constantly drinking water or energy type drinks. No carbonated type drinks were made available.

Decontamination Area

On all hazardous type scenes a cordoned off area away from all of the other work areas has to be established for a decontamination area. A decontamination area is a designated area established for the removal of dangerous goods from personnel. A three (3) series rinse station is established for this purpose. Our rinse stations were set up with a 1:20 dilution of fresh chlorine bleach and hoses for fresh water pumped in. This "Decon" station was organized with a team of workers assisting in the wash and rinse of the workers as they exited from their relays. The estimated time for the rinse station was approximately 15 minutes per worker. The disposable protective garments are shed and packaged in a clearly labeled biohazard bag for later incineration. The reusable garments are hung over a wooden rack constructed for a drying process. A gas powered pump with a long hose was used to bring fresh water to the decon area for the rinsing process.

Designated Biohazard area

A designated area needs to be established for securing the recovered remains. This cordoned off area will need limited access. When choosing this designated area consideration to other major access points of the forward operations base should be taken into account.

Practical search methods

There are five (5) search pattern techniques used in practical searching procedures for crime scenes. The strip or line, grid, circular or spiral, quadrant or zone, and the radius or wheel patterns. The organized method is usually chosen dependent on the scene and the number of searchers for the area to be searched. With the terrain, environment, and obstacles that we were faced with we chose an abbreviated combination of several of the search patterns. We needed to maintain the integrity of a line of searchers. With the terrain you could be walking ankle deep in muck and without warning a step could be taken sending the searcher chest deep in the muck. We used a long rope with flex cuffs tightened to the rope in two (2) foot intervals. Each diver was responsible to maintain his/her 2 foot section of ground. A long dowel rod with a flag at the top was put into the ground by the person at each end of the search line as the search was begun. At the completion of each search relay the flag process was repeated, for marking the area, to keep track of the areas searched.

Hopefully this article will assist you in some way. Its purpose is to give other geographic areas an idea of what is entailed to meet some of the challenges presented by a disaster or major incident. Is your department prepared? Do they have an organized plan of action in place just in case an unexpected event were to occur?

After completing most crime scenes the investigator or technician can walk away with the pride and sense of accomplishment in knowing that he has done his task to the best of his/her abilities. Each disaster or major incident has helped prepare us for further unexpected incidents. These events carry a roller coaster of emotions for the workers. The best the worker can settle for after completion of these types of incidents, is that he/she can walk away with the knowledge that the accomplishment has been in giving some type of closure to the families of the victim's.

About the Author

Mike Byrd (1955-2005) joined the Miami-Dade County Police Department in 1983 and started with the Crime Scene Investigations Bureau in 1987. He took an exceptionally active part in the science of forensic crime scene investigations, including development of new techniques, publishing methodology of crime scene procedures, and teaching. Mike developed new techniques for gathering and cataloging crime scene evidence including the lifting of fingerprints, vehicle tire impressions, and footwear impressions.

Mike's methods and analysis withstood the scrutiny of the criminal justice process. He published more than thirty crime scene articles on crime scene evidence collection and for the International Association for Identification and was awarded The Good of the Association Award in 2002 for his innovative identification methodology and techniques. He taught crime scene investigation procedures and techniques at police departments around the country and took great pride at instructing smaller Florida police departments in the latest techniques in evidence gathering.

Mike performed the tough detailed oriented forensic work at many major crime scenes and disasters over two-decades. He gathered, processed, and identified the DNA evidence used to convict the Tamiami Strangler for a string of heinous murders in 1994. His thoughtful gathering of evidence at the Valujet crash allowed families to reach closure for the deaths of loved ones.

Mike Byrd died after a more than two year battle with multiple myeloma cancer. Annually, the Police Officer Assistance Trust awards the Mike Byrd Crime Scene Investigation Scholarship in his honor.

Articles by Mike Byrd

Article posted March 2, 2000
Article submitted by the author