Troops were ready to aid hurricane victims but were delayed three days

August 29, 1992|By John Fairhall and Richard H.P. Sia | John Fairhall and Richard H.P. Sia,Washington Bureau Cox News Service contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Troops and military supplies were ready to be airlifted to South Florida soon after Hurricane Andrew struck a deadly blow Monday, but it took state and federal officials three more days to assess the damage and ask for the Pentagon's help.

The delay left tens of thousands of people hungry and homeless and angered local emergency workers, who were unable to restore services without outside help.

An emotional -- and televised -- appeal for help Thursday morning by Kate Hale, director of emergency operations for Dade County, Fla., may have been a catalyst for the action that did finally occur.

Later in the day, Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles asked for federal troops to help provide food, water and shelter; that evening President Bush approved the request. The troops began arriving yesterday morning.

Why did it take so long?

With state, federal and local officials all pointing fingers at one another, it's hard to determine.

Mr. Bush said he acted as soon as Mr. Chiles -- a Democrat -- requested aid. But the president also admitted that federal authorities hadunderestimated the damage. He said yesterday it was difficult to assess damage in "isolated areas" and blamed a "large discrepancy in numbers of people that are out of their homes."

Mr. Chiles's aides said the governor was receiving conflicting advice about the need for federal troops as late as Thursday morning.

While Dade County law enforcement officials were telling him troops weren't needed to deliver food and water, leaders of the Florida National Guard said they needed help.

Ms. Hale, however, couldn't believe the need for federal help wasn't obvious. "Dade County is being victimized by a lot of people who are posturing while we're not getting what we asked for," she complained.

While there are conflicting explanations for the delay, it's apparent that there was poor communication and lack of coordination among state, federal and local agencies.

Part of the problem evidently stemmed from Mr. Bush's attempt earlier in the week to bolster relief efforts by appointing a task force headed by Transportation Secretary Andrew H. Card Jr.

Though administration officials said Mr. Card would examine long-term relief issues, he became immersed in making immediate, critical decisions about the extent of damage and the appropriate emergency response. That blurred the lines of authority, because these decisions are normally made by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and may have held up federal assessment of the damage. It wasn't until Thursday that Mr. Card made his report.

"Clearly it appears to have taken some time for that assessment to have been made," said Army Maj.Gen. John C. Heldstab, who coordinates military relief operations.

Army records show military units were put on standby Monday morning, the day the hurricane ripped through Florida. They were fully mobilized at Fort Bragg, N.C., Thursday morning, but nearly 12 hours elapsed before President Bush actually ordered them to move out."

"We were leaning forward in the foxhole ready to move out for some time," said an officer at the Army's basement operations center in the Pentagon.

The White House authorized some military action Monday, sending Army engineers to erect lights for the Miami federal prison, the Army Corps of Engineers to devise debris removal plans with Dade County officials and to help Louisiana officials with flood levees and communications systems.

Military airlifts of vehicles, radio gear, airlift control and medical personnel and over 200,000 military rations also got underway.

"We could have moved larger quantities than we moved" Monday, General Heldstab said.

Meanwhile, FEMA officials, though their authority was clouded by Mr. Card's presence, remained in charge of coordinating the efforts of 27 federal agencies with those of state and local governments.

The protests of hurricane victims and Ms. Hale notwithstanding, they insisted that the relief effort has been going as well as possible, given the problems caused by debris in the roads and broken power lines.

"As far as we're concerned we've done everything we're supposed to do and are continuing to do that," said Vince Brown, the agency spokesman

But the sluggish response to the hurricane damage is raising new doubts about the agency, which came under fire three years ago for its response to Hurricane Hugo and the earthquake in California.

"They assured us they had been studying Hugo and had been learning its lessons," said Rep. Bill Green, a New York Republican who oversees FEMA's budget as a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

"I'm not sure they've yet developed the capacity to function quickly in that kind of disaster," he said.

Some problems that occurred in 1989 -- particularly a lack of coordination among state, federal and local agencies -- appear to be occurring in Florida.

"We've got 120,000 C-ration meals that are here somewhere, but we don't know where the hell they are," Mr. Chiles complained Thursday, citing bureaucratic bungling.

Florida officials also are under fire from unhappy hurricane victims. Under law, state and local agencies have primary responsibility for dealing with natural disasters.

A governor can request a presidential declaration of disaster and federal aid, as Mr. Chiles did, which permits FEMA and the agencies it works with to become involved and act as a pipeline for federal funds.

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