By Frank James and Andrew Martin
Published 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 efforts.
"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 1990s 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 Association.
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.
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