Coast under water, FEMA under fire

Head of federal agency defends disaster response

Katrina's Wake

September 02, 2005|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Outraged by the federal government's performance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans' chief of emergency operations appeared to speak for many yesterday along the Gulf Coast and elsewhere:

"This is a national emergency. This is a national disgrace," said Terry Ebbert. "FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control. We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can't bail out the city of New Orleans."

When those words were thrown in his face at a news conference a few hours later, Michael Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, grew testy.

"Everyone in the country needs to take a big collective deep breath," Brown said.

Complaints about the agency's performance in the first days after Katrina struck were not limited to New Orleans, the scene of further chaos yesterday as uncounted thousands of residents desperately sought escape from a lack of food, water and electricity and lawlessness in the streets. From across Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana came complaints about the government's failure to anticipate and respond more effectively to the crisis as it developed.

Even within Brown's own agency, there was criticism of the government's emergency response.

One FEMA middle manager, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that FEMA's teams in the region were as frustrated as state and local officials. He said they had been unable to reach people in need because they were being forced to wait for direction from Washington - direction that had not come.

Brown and other federal officials defended the government's performance.

The Katrina situation is unique, they said, because it is essentially two disasters in one - a hurricane followed by flooding that was unanticipated and has continued.

It is the flooding, they said, that is primarily to blame for the speed of FEMA's response.

FEMA is no stranger to controversy. After last year's hurricanes in Florida, FEMA was criticized by local officials and members of Congress for botching damage assessments and improperly spending $30 million.

But Brown, who has headed the agency since 2003, said FEMA and 27 other federal agencies are doing as much as can be expected.

"The federal government is bringing all of those supplies in, in an unprecedented effort that has not been seen, even in the tsunami region," said Brown, who visited the East Asian tsunami region in December.

As Americans for the first time saw footage of dead bodies in the New Orleans Superdome and the city's mayor resorted to e-mailing an "S.O.S" to CNN in a plea for government help yesterday, a chorus of critics questioned FEMA's ability to respond effectively to catastrophic natural disasters.

The local complaints were many and varied but they boiled down to: Where is the Federal Emergency Management Agency?

Faced with near-anarchy in New Orleans and supplies running short, local officials continued to beg for help.

The challenges are likely to grow as emergency workers begin trying to help citizens in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama reassemble their lives.

"You look at it and say how are they even going to develop the manpower to be able to get things back to normal?" said Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., a Florida Republican who pressed FEMA to improve its response after last year's Florida hurricanes.

Jack Harrald, director of the Institute for Crisis and Risk Management at George Washington University, said government officials at all levels had no reason to be surprised.

"This is one of the catastrophic incidents that has been on the table for a long time," he said. "The capacity is not in the system to deal with this event, and that is going to unfold as we go forward."

In 2001, FEMA ranked a hurricane striking New Orleans and subsequent flooding as one of the three most likely and catastrophic disasters that could hit the country - killing 10 percent of those left in the flooded city.

The other two scenarios were an earthquake hitting San Francisco - and a terrorist attack on New York City.

In July 2004, Louisiana State University worked with FEMA and others in a weeklong exercise to gauge the impact of a hurricane hitting New Orleans and causing a levee to breach.

The deaths were in the "many, many thousands" said Marc Levitan, director of LSU's Hurricane Center. He declined to be more specific because, he said, the information is sensitive.

That exercise produced a response plan.

"They're certainly following major elements of that plan," he said. "As bad as this situation is, we are much more prepared than we would have been a year ago."

The failure by officials at all levels of government to anticipate the flooding in New Orleans is to blame for the slow response, say emergency planners.

But that, too, is not a surprise, said John Pine, director of disaster science and management at LSU.

In January, Pine and a team of researchers offered their prediction of a hurricane's impact on New Orleans to a meeting of regional officials.

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