Rural La. communities criticize delayed U.S. response

Parishes awaiting aid had to fend for themselves

Katrina's Wake

September 05, 2005|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Even as federal aid and troops are pouring into New Orleans to assist victims of Hurricane Katrina, the hard-to-reach rural communities around the city have received little -- if any -- assistance from federal agencies, and they are straining to provide for their residents and clean up.

"The federal people don't have a clue," said U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Democrat who represents southeastern Louisiana. "They know where New Orleans is, period."

Federal officials continued to confront an onslaught of criticism that their initial response to Hurricane Katrina was sluggish and often incoherent. But federal officials said yesterday that their response was as rapid as possible once they realized the extent of the damage.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff acknowledged yesterday that systemic problems must be addressed but said that now is not the time for an "after-action analysis." In a series of television interviews, Chertoff said that if the country gets "distracted" with assessments of the government's performance, it risks failing to address the current crisis.

"We have to remember that we have an enormous challenge ahead of us, and there's not a lot of time to get ahead of it," Chertoff said on NBC's Meet the Press.

But frustrated local officials complained that help has not arrived soon enough.

It was not until Saturday, six days after Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast, that federal assistance finally arrived in Plaquemines Parish, a community of 27,000 southeast of New Orleans, said Amos Cormier, chairman of the Plaquemines Parish Council.

Asked what kind of assistance the Federal Emergency Management Agency brought Saturday, Cormier said, "They were two guys in a car."

He said the National Guard also arrived Saturday, even though their presence was requested Wednesday. The parish had to deputize dozens of firefighters and parish workers, giving them weapons to maintain order and prevent looting.

"Bureaucracy has committed murder here," Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, said on Meet the Press yesterday. "Whoever is at the top of this totem pole, that totem pole needs to be chain-sawed off, and we've got to start with some new leadership."

Broussard, whose parish includes parts of New Orleans, pointed to continuing problems such as an incident Saturday when, he said, FEMA cut local emergency communication lines without notice.

Plaquemines Parish has taken to dynamiting levees that border a marsh to release the floodwaters that cover 75 percent of the parish. Plaquemines officials said the Army Corps of Engineers was not fast enough in providing help.

Federal officials blame a breakdown in communications for the failure to quickly deliver aid to small communities like Plaquemines. They say they cannot rush into an area unless asked by the state.

"Did we have a request?" said David Passey, a FEMA spokesman. "We're here supporting the state. Requests come from the locals to the state, from the state to the feds. ... We're sensitive to the fact that this is the state of Louisiana. We don't want to just go places where the state says there isn't a need."

The hurricane was so devastating, Plaquemines Parish officials said, that they could not get in touch with state leaders. Land lines were out, cell phones didn't work and the parish didn't have satellite phones.

"None of the requests could even be delivered" initially, said Cormier, from the parish council. "Communications were totally broken down."

So he drove to Baton Rouge on Wednesday and made the parish's requests to the state in person: 50 military police officers, 50 assault weapons, 50 shotguns, satellite phones and explosives for the levees. He also requested help from the Red Cross, which showed up the next day.

It wasn't until two days later that the National Guard arrived with 300 officers, while the weapons and explosives never arrived.

"It was certainly tardy, to say the least," said Cormier, who lost his house in the flooding.

"We're not trying to place blame or finger-point, but there was such a lack of communication."

The parish also has not received any pumps from the government to help drain the streets. Instead, a Pennsylvania company with an office near Baton Rouge has donated its pumps to get rid of the water. Those were to begin pumping yesterday, Cormier said.

Chertoff said on Meet the Press that the flood that followed the hurricane "really caught everybody by surprise" because they had thought the worst was over after the hurricane passed. "As the dimensions of the catastrophe became clear, we moved as rapidly as we could."

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, also hit the airwaves to defend the federal government's work.

"The federal government's been fabulous," he said on CBS' Face the Nation.

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