Sept. 2 (Bloomberg) — Reports of families stranded on rooftops, mass looting and violence more than three days after Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S. Gulf Coast are leading disaster experts and local officials to question whether the federal government should have moved quicker and could now do more.
“I need reinforcements, I need troops, I need 500 buses,” New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin told radio station WWL-AM last night. “They’re thinking small.”
“This is a national disgrace, Terry Ebbert, the head of New Orleans’ emergency operations, told Agence France-Presse. “We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims (in Asia), but we can’t bail out the city of New Orleans.”
“It comes down to leadership, and this effort is without a leader,” said George Haddow, deputy chief of staff of the Federal Emergency Management Agency from 1998 to 2000. “I don’t think they understand how to do this at the top level.” Haddow is now a lecturer at George Washington University’s Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management in Washington.
FEMA’s effectiveness was reduced when it was absorbed by the Homeland Security Department after the Sept. 11 attacks, Haddow said, and emphasis shifted from disaster preparedness to countering terrorism.
FEMA is now “a backwater agency,” said Michael Greenberger, director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Health and Homeland Security in Baltimore. “They were so focused on terrorism, they sort of took their eye off the ball here.”
Federal officials yesterday defended the government’s actions. “I think everyone in the country needs to take a big, collective breath,” FEMA director Mike Brown told reporters at a briefing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “What the American people need to understand is that the full force of the U.S. government is bringing all of the supplies in an unprecedented response.”
The response to Hurricane Katrina is a test for Brown, who has held his position since January 2003 and led the response to such emergencies as the 2003 Columbia Shuttle disaster and the 2004 Florida hurricanes.
Brown is a former Colorado lawyer and a college friend of President George W. Bush’s first FEMA director, Joe Allbaugh, who was Bush’s chief of staff when he was governor of Texas and his campaign manager when he ran for president in 2000.
Allbaugh replaced James Lee Witt, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, as the head of FEMA. Witt, who has a background in emergency and disaster management, was widely praised as the most effective FEMA chief ever. During the 2000 presidential debate Witt was hailed by Republican Bush, who said Witt had “done a really good job of working with governors during times of crisis.”
In a rare moment of agreement during that debate, then-Vice President Al Gore said, “FEMA has been a major flagship project in our reinventing government effort.”
On Aug. 31, two days after the storm came ashore, the federal government’s response kicked into high gear. Eight U.S. Navy vessels, including the hospital ship Comfort, were dispatched to the area, along with almost 30,000 military personnel.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said yesterday that Katrina left in its wake “90,000 square miles of devastation and destruction.” On Aug. 31, he declared the disaster an “incident of national significance,” a designation created earlier this year that allows his department to draft other federal agencies into the relief effort.
Joined in Washington yesterday by officials from five other Cabinet departments, he detailed supplies being sent to the area: 39 medical teams, 18 urban-search and rescue squads, a 500-bed mobile hospital, 40 medical shelters with room for 10,000 patients, federal transportation experts to examine damaged bridges and more than 1,700 trucks carrying supplies, including 13.4 million liters of water and 114 generators.
The materiel will not arrive in the area immediately. The Comfort won’t be able to leave its homeport of Baltimore until today and will take at least four days to sail to the Gulf of Mexico.
“We’re in a situation that is far more significant than people recognize,” Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the senior Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, said. “Time is of the essence.”
New Orleans Mayor Nagin yesterday issued a “desperate SOS” as the city descended into anarchy and police officers sent to quell violence were fired upon, the Associated Press reported. There also were reports of dead bodies in the streets, hospitals without electricity and dwindling supplies of food and water.
Police Chief Eddie Compass told the AP refugees were being raped and beaten as tensions mounted among the tired and hungry survivors sheltered in the convention center and awaiting evacuation. “We are running out of supplies for 15 to 20,000 people,” Nagin said.
Many survivors said they were angry at the federal government for its slow response.
Bush “spends $80 billion on Iraq and he doesn’t spend a penny on us,” said Jack Crochet, 56, a Biloxi, Mississippi resident, as he sat in a lawn chair he found on the beach. Crochet, who lost his house in the storm, said the only assistance he had received had been gifts of water from reporters covering the devastation.
“We had a disaster of continued catastrophic proportion,” Brown said on CNN. “What we’re trying to do now is basically work under conditions of urban warfare.”
Lieutenant General Russell Honore, commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, said yesterday that 24,000 troops would be deployed in Mississippi and Louisiana by the end of the weekend.
National Guard troops have begun entering New Orleans at the rate of 1,400 a day, Chertoff said yesterday, and will continue at that pace for three days to restore order. New Orleans has a 1,400- member police force.
Given the magnitude of the disaster and the limited access to flooded areas, the government is doing the best job possible at the moment, some experts said, and cautioned it’s far too early to evaluate the overall response.
“This is the largest mobilization of resources to confront any type of disaster we’ve had to face,” said Paul Maniscalco, an assistant professor at George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute in Washington. “There’s a lot of people banging on the drum here saying we should have done things differently, but I think the system is working as effectively as it can.”
Criticisms of the federal response struck James Carafano, a senior research fellow at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, as “a tad unrealistic.” The response is difficult around New Orleans because of the difficult terrain, destruction of many highways and flooding throughout the city.
“Where do you stage? Where do you go? You have to have communications, you have to have electricity, you have to have dry ground,” Carafano said. “These are all things that have to exist, and these are all things that don’t exist in New Orleans.”
Richard Walden, president of the Los Angeles-based independent relief agency Operation USA, said it would be weeks before a full analysis of the response would be possible.
Representative Thompson predicted his committee on Homeland Security, which has oversight of FEMA, will hold hearings to gauge the agency’s success.
“My hope is, and it’s a sad way to learn this, that people now understand the importance of a federal emergency response,” said Greenberger of the University of Maryland. “It’s not something you can do on the cheap.”
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