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Mr. Laz
09-02-2005, 10:29 AM
Posted on Fri, Sep. 02, 2005

Critics assail response to crisis

Federal reaction called a disgrace

By MATT STEARNS and SCOTT CANON and CHRIS ADAMS

The Kansas City Star


As New Orleans disintegrated and other areas Katrina hit still wondered when help might come, federal officials came under fire for not riding in with a quicker rescue.

“This is a national disgrace,” an angry Terry Ebbert, head of New Orleans’ emergency operations, said Thursday. “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. We have got a mayor who has been pushing and asking, but we’re not getting supplies.”

A chorus of emergency management specialists suggested that the response to Katrina suffered because the country had diverted money and attention from natural disasters toward the prospect of terrorism.

Frannie Edwards, the director of emergency preparedness for San Jose, Calif., said the Department of Homeland Security overreacted to 9/11.

“Our natural disasters in the United States are seasonal, not preventable, and we know they’re definitely going to happen,” said Edwards, whose city has been recognized for its anti-terror preparations

Money to deal with natural disasters, she said, has been siphoned off to deal with potential terrorism..

“The federal government’s change in emphasis away from … emergency management … to a very strong focus on terrorism has lessened the resources to respond to events like Katrina,” she said.

Others said that the scale of Katrina and New Orleans’ failed levees were the problem, not a distracted federal government.

“If this were a terrorist attack, people would be saying we wasted money preparing for a natural disaster,” said James Carafano, a security specialist at the Heritage Foundation.

Official Washington cited the complexities of trying to help people in a 90,000-square-mile area while simultaneously dealing with continued flooding.

President Bush prepared to tour the region today, hoping to raise spirits and make clear that the nation stood ready to help. His administration offered sympathy, pledges that the pace would pick up and pleas not to engage in finger-pointing.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said: “We certainly understand frustration coming from people on the ground who are in need of help, and we will continue working to get them the assistance that they need.”

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters that flooding had “dramatically impeded our ability to get supplies into New Orleans.”

William Waugh, a disaster management specialist and public administration professor at Georgia State University, said the federal government appeared slow to pre-position medical and other disaster supplies in the gulf region and slow to get federal troops and other disaster workers into places pummeled by Katrina.

It was only midweek that U.S. Navy ships, including the hospital vessel USS Comfort, began steaming toward Biloxi, Miss., and New Orleans.

“Could the Comfort and other resources have been pre-positioned?” asked Slate.com’s Eric Umanksy.

Waugh said, however, that second-guessing could get out of hand. He said that it had been unclear exactly where the hurricane would hit and that moving the ships in too soon could have put them in Katrina’s path.

Others have criticized the Bush administration for cutting funding for flood control that they say could have steadied New Orleans’ levees.

Federal flood control spending for southeastern Louisiana fell from $69 million in 2001 to $36.5 million in 2005, according to budget documents. Federal hurricane protection for the Lake Pontchartrain area in the Army Corps of Engineers’ budget dropped from $14.25 million in 2002 to $5.7 million this year.

“I’m not saying it wouldn’t still be flooded, but I do feel that if it had been totally funded, there would be less flooding than you have,” Michael Parker told the Chicago Tribune. He is a former GOP congressman from Mississippi who headed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from October 2001 until March 2002, when he was ousted after publicly criticizing a Bush administration proposal to cut the corps’ budget.

Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told reporters Thursday: “I do not see lack of funding as a contributing factor in this case.”

Asked whether more could have been done to prepare for the disaster, White House spokesman McClellan said: “This is a time when the whole country needs to come together to help those in the region. And that’s where our focus is.”

There was evidence Thursday that Americans were more swayed by the agonizing images on their television screens than by proclamations from government officials.

A Survey USA nationwide poll of 1,200 adults found that 59 percent of Americans thought the federal government was not doing enough to help victims of the hurricane, up from 50 percent the previous day.

And in New Orleans, things just kept getting worse.

Capt. Michael Pfeiffer of the New Orleans Police Department said the department’s communication system failed during the storm. Police districts were working their own areas, often unaware of what was happening elsewhere in the city. Pfeiffer still had a handheld radio, but he was almost out of battery power and needed to keep it off most of the time.

“We’re in survival mode here,” Pfeiffer said of the Police Department.

In Mississippi, three days after Katrina, officials opened 20 sites in Harrison County to hand out water and ice. As images were being broadcast of people searching through garbage for food, authorities said they did not expect to be able to distribute food across the community until today.

Col. Joe Spraggins, director of the Harrison County Emergency Management Agency, said debris had hampered the ability to get supply trucks into distribution sites. He said that 18 trucks with water and ice were set up in a staging area before the storm but that storm damage caused them to lose it all.

Spraggins said Mississippi and federal authorities were under stress by the demands of a storm whose impact stretched across three states.

“FEMA is scattered all over the place,”’ Spraggins said. “That’s not their fault.”

The Louisiana National Guard has counted 7,500 guardsmen from throughout the country headed to the state to join 3,000 from Louisiana for security and search and rescue operations.

Disaster specialists say governors can be reluctant to mobilize the National Guard in crises because doing so often borrows key people from police, fire and ambulance crews — often populated by men and women who also serve in the Guard. Instead, they tend to look for help from neighboring states.

So far, only about 2,000 cots had been put on the floor of the Astrodome in Houston, leaving many refugees without a place to lie down. Judge Robert Eckels said the plan was never to house all 25,000 refugees at one time. And officials still did not know when all the refugees would arrive.

“There’s very little communication from New Orleans,” Eckels said. “It’s very frustrating.”


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Gary Fineout of the Biloxi Sun-Herald contributed to this report from Gulfport, Miss., David Wethe of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram contributed from Houston, and Seth Borenstein of the Knight-Ridder Washington Bureau contributed from Washington.