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One question builds: Where was FEMA?

Experts say the answer is complicated. Numerous problems made a devastating situation worse.

By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
Published September 3, 2005

WASHINGTON - The blistering criticism of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina reached a fever pitch in the flooded city of New Orleans Friday as the nightmarish aftermath continued to expose numerous flaws in the way the government prepared for and executed disaster relief.

Across the nation, storm survivors, politicians in the nation's capital and the American public watched the horror unfold on TV and blamed the Federal Emergency Management Agency for its slow and inadequate response.

"It's like FEMA has never been to a hurricane," said Terry Ebbert, director of New Orleans emergency operations.

Even President Bush, who on Friday made his first trip to the area since Katrina hit, acknowledged the "results were not acceptable."

So what went wrong?

Bill Lokey, New Orleans coordinator for FEMA, was asked that question at a news conference on Friday. Was it that the scope was just so big?

"I'll make it simple for you: Yes, ma'am," he responded.

Experts say the answer is more complicated. New Orleans suffered from a string of problems, some of which could not have been foreseen and others with roots dating back decades, including a lack of money for preparation, a weak warning to evacuate and a sprawling bureaucratic agency ill-equipped for a quick response.

Emergency management experts say the blame doesn't lie only with FEMA, which coordinates the efforts of more than a dozen agencies with state and local authorities. State and local agencies respond first and design preparedness plans, but in a disaster this unprecedented they could not meet the needs of victims without federal help.

Officials have known for decades that New Orleans was vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding.

Just last year, FEMA hired a private company, IEM Inc. of Baton Rouge, to help conduct an eight-day drill for a fictional Category 5 hurricane in New Orleans named Pam. It included staging a helicopter evacuation of the Superdome, a prediction of 15 feet of water in parts of the city and the evacuation of 1-million people.

But the second part of the company's work - to design a plan to fix unresolved problems, such as evacuating sick and injured people and housing thousands of stranded residents - never occurred because the funding was cut.

Despite all the planning, numerous problems conspired to make a devastating situation worse.

Two of the levees keeping water out of the city were breached and have not been repaired. Flooding over 80 percent of the city, which didn't occur until a day after the storm struck, caught New Orleans' officials and residents by surprise.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was delayed in repairing the levees after discovering they lacked equipment and materials. For example, they did not have enough slings to carry material by helicopters and the delivery of more was hindered by the destruction.

"They should have fixed the levees. That's No. 1," said Martha Madden, former secretary of Louisiana's Department of Environmental Quality and a national security and environmental consultant. "When it breached, they should have immediately put in place the emergency response. Period. The end."

For years, state officials had urged the Corps of Engineers to strengthen the levees, pump system and flood programs, but the money was never provided.

More people stayed in New Orleans than officials expected.

The National Hurricane Center predicted at 11 p.m. Friday, more than two days before the hurricane hit, that Katrina would make landfall in Louisiana, east of New Orleans. Officials called for a voluntary evacuation Saturday, and a mandatory evacuation Sunday, the day before Katrina hit.

Many residents, poor or without cars, did not leave. More than 100,000 remained.

Jack Harrald director of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at George Washington University, said residents needed more assistance in leaving the city and needed to be warned that the hurricane was expected to be Category 5 and could breach the levees.

"They needed a stronger message of what the risks were," he said. "I don't think they got enough information about the danger they were in."

But Max Mayfield, the hurricane center's director, defended the federal response and the evacuation decisions of local and state officials, repeatedly saying they are not "miracle workers." Still, he said, "There is no way FEMA is going to come out looking great on this."

FEMA was absorbed into the U.S. Department of Homeland Security after the Sept. 11 attacks, a maneuver that some say has meant less attention to disaster relief and more focus on terrorism.

"The people running this disaster who have no emergency response background ... The system is fundamentally broken," said Jane Bullock, a former FEMA chief of staff who left in 2000. "The department has been marginalized."

James Lee Witt, a former FEMA director during President Clinton's administration, urged Congress to keep FEMA independent.

Witt testified in March that local and state leaders were "suffering the impact of dealing with a behemoth federal department, rather than the small, agile, independent agency that coordinates federal response effectively and efficiently."

Director Michael Brown has said that joining Homeland Security has given FEMA more resources. But Bullock said while funding has remained constant for crises like Katrina, it has been reduced for preparedness and mitigation.

On Friday, U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, a West Palm Beach Republican, renewed a call to separate FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security.

Despite all the talk of nonexistent federal help, aid did arrive early on, even before Katrina hit.

FEMA moved supplies from logistics centers in Atlanta and Denton, Texas, to Baton Rouge and the New Orleans airport. The agency positioned seven search and rescue teams and 23 medical assistance teams from Tennessee to Texas. About 7,000 National Guard troops were deployed in the state. Army Corps personnel started securing the locks, floodgates and other equipment.

But it clearly wasn't enough.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist called for congressional hearings into the federal government's response.

Four days after Katrina devastated New Orleans, on Friday victims finally began to see significant signs of a federal response that included National Guardsmen arriving with food, water and weapons to bring relief and retake the streets.

"They should have been here days ago," said Michael Levy, 46, at the New Orleans convention center, surrounded by people yelling, "Thank you Jesus!" and "What took you so long?"

Times researcher Angie Holan contributed to this report.


Friday, Aug. 26: At 11 p.m., Katrina is forecast to make landfall near New Orleans.

Saturday, Aug. 27: President Bush declares a state of emergency in Louisiana. White House says FEMA officials are coordinating with authorities in Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, and have supplies ready. Authorities advise Gulf Coast evacuation.

Sunday: Bush declares emergencies for Mississippi, Florida and Alabama. Evacuations ordered for New Orleans. Evacuation orders are also posted along the Mississippi and Alabama coasts, and in barrier islands of the Florida Panhandle. FEMA moves supplies from centers in Atlanta and Denton, Texas, to areas closer to where authorities think the storm will create a need. Monday: Katrina comes ashore between New Orleans and Biloxi, Miss., inundating large areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Tuesday: Medical disaster teams from across the country deployed. The Red Cross sends 185 emergency vehicles. President Bush cuts short his vacation.

Wednesday: An additional 10,000 National Guard troops begin pouring into the Gulf Coast, bringing the number of troops to more than 28,000. This may be the largest military response to a natural disaster. The Navy sends four ships with supplies, while medical disaster teams and Red Cross workers converge on the Gulf Coast region.

Thursday: New Orleans descends into anarchy. FEMA director Michael Brown says the agency was unaware of 15,000 people seeking shelter in the convention center. By evening, 11 hours after the military began evacuating the Superdome, the arena's population is 10,000 more than at dawn. FEMA says some operations suspended because of gunfire, but it's working to feed people and restore order.

Source: Associated Press. Compiled by Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan

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