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Ex-officials say weakened FEMA botched response
By Frank James and Andrew Martin
September 3, 2005
WASHINGTON -- Government disaster officials had an action plan if a
major hurricane hit New Orleans. They simply didn't execute it when
Hurricane Katrina struck.
Thirteen months before Katrina hit New Orleans, local, state and federal
officials held a simulated hurricane drill that Ronald Castleman, then the
regional director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, called "a
very good exercise."
More than a million residents were "evacuated" in the table-top
scenario as 120 m.p.h. winds and 20 inches of rain caused widespread
flooding that supposedly trapped 300,000 people in the city.
"It was very much an eye-opener," said Castleman, a Republican
appointee of President Bush who left FEMA in December for the private
sector. "A number of things were identified that we had to deal with,
not all of them were solved."
Still, Castleman found it hard to square the lessons he and others
learned from the exercise with the frustratingly slow response to the
disaster that has unfolded in the wake of Katrina. From the Louisiana
Superdome in New Orleans to the Mississippi and Alabama communities
along the Gulf Coast, hurricane survivors have decried the lack of
water, food and security and the slowness of the federal relief
"It's hard for everyone to understand why buttons weren't pushed
earlier on," Castleman said of the federal response.
As the first National Guard truck caravans of water and food arrived
in New Orleans on Friday, former FEMA officials and other disaster
experts were at a loss to explain why the federal government's lead
agency for responding to major emergencies had failed to meet the
urgent needs of hundreds of thousands of Americans in the most dire of
circumstances in a more timely fashion.
But many suspected that FEMA's apparent problems in getting
life-sustaining supplies to survivors and buses to evacuate them from
New Orleans -- delays even Bush called "not acceptable" -- stemmed
partly from changes at the agency during the Bush years. Experts have
long warned that the moves would weaken the agency's ability to
effectively respond to natural disasters.
Less clout, experience
FEMA's chief has been demoted from a near-Cabinet-level position;
political appointees with little, if any, emergency-management
experience have been placed in senior FEMA positions; and the small,
2,500-person agency was dropped into the midst of the 180,000-employee
Homeland Security Department, which is more oriented to combating
terrorism than natural disasters. All that has led to a brain drain as
experienced but demoralized employees have left the agency, former and
current FEMA staff members say.
The result is that an agency that got high marks during much of the
1990's for its effectiveness is being harshly criticized for seemingly
mismanaging the response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The growing anger and frustration at FEMA's efforts sparked the
Republican-controlled Senate Homeland Security and Governmental
Affairs Committee to announce Friday that it has scheduled a hearing
for Wednesday to try to uncover what went wrong.
Meanwhile, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) called on Bush to immediately appoint
a Cabinet-level official to direct the national response.
"There was a time when FEMA understood that the correct approach to a
crisis was to deploy to the affected area as many resources as
possible as fast as possible," Landrieu said. "Unfortunately, that no
longer seems to be their approach."
John Copenhaver, a former FEMA regional director during the Clinton
administration who led the response to Hurricane Floyd in 1999, said
he was bewildered by the agency's slow response this time.
It had been standard practice for FEMA to position supplies ahead of
time, and the agency did preposition drinking water and tarps to cover
damaged roofs near where they would be needed. In addition, FEMA has
coordinated its plans with state and local officials and let the
Defense Department know beforehand what type of military assistance
would be needed.
"I'm a little confused as to why it took so long to get the military
presence running convoys into downtown New Orleans," Copenhaver said.
And there isn't an experienced disaster-response expert at the top of
the agency as there was when James Lee Witt ran it during the
1990s. Before Michael Brown, the current head, joined the agency as
its legal counsel, he was with the International Arabian Horse
That loss of experienced personnel might explain in part why FEMA was
not able to secure buses sooner for the evacuation of New Orleans, a
step anticipated by the hurricane disaster simulation last year.
Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association, said, "I
have a hard time believing there is any game plan in place when it
comes to coordinating or pulling together this volume of business,"
referring to FEMA's effort to obtain hundreds of buses to move tens of
thousands of evacuees from New Orleans. "And what happens in two or
three weeks down the road when all of these people are moved again?"
When FEMA became part of the Homeland Security Department, it was
stripped of some functions, such as some of its ability to make
preparedness grants to states, former officials said. Those functions
were placed elsewhere in the larger agency.
FEMA capability `marginalized'.
"After Sept. 11 they got so focused on terrorism they effectively
marginalized the capability of FEMA," said George Haddow, a former
FEMA official during the Clinton administration. "It's no surprise
that they're not capable of managing the federal government's response
to this kind of disaster."
Pleasant Mann, former head of the union for FEMA employees who has
been with the agency since 1988, said a change made by agency
higher-ups last year added a bureaucratic layer that likely delayed
FEMA's response to Katrina.
Before the change, a FEMA employee at the site of a disaster could
request that an experienced employee he knew had the right skills be
dispatched to help him. But now that requested worker is first made to
travel to a location hundreds of miles from the disaster site to be
"processed," placed in a pool from which he is dispatched, sometimes
to a place different from where he thought he was headed.
Pleasant said he knew of a case in which a worker from Washington
state was made to travel first to Orlando before he could go to
Louisiana, losing at least a day. What's more, that worker was told he
might be sent to Alabama, not Louisiana, after all.
Copyright 2005, Chicago Tribune
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