FEMA turns down water, fuel
for New Orleans, cuts area's
emergency communication line
by Scott Shane, The New York Times
Sept. 4, 2005 [Day 7]
As the Bush administration tried to show a more forceful effort to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, government officials on Sunday escalated their criticism and sniping over who was to blame for the problems plaguing the initial response.
While rescuers were still trying to reach people stranded by the floods, perhaps the only consensus among local, state and federal officials was that the system had failed.
Some federal officials said uncertainty over who was in charge had contributed to delays in providing aid and imposing order, and officials in Louisiana complained that Washington disaster officials had blocked some aid efforts.
Local and state resources were so weakened, said Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary, that in the future federal authorities need to take "more of an upfront role earlier on, when we have these truly ultracatastrophes."
But furious state and local officials insisted that the real problem was that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which Mr. Chertoff's department oversees, failed to deliver urgently needed help and, through incomprehensible red tape, even thwarted others' efforts to help.
"We wanted soldiers, helicopters, food and water," said Denise Bottcher, press secretary for Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Louisiana. "They wanted to negotiate an organizational chart."
Mayor C. Ray Nagin of New Orleans expressed similar frustrations. "We're still fighting over authority," he told reporters on Saturday. "A bunch of people are the boss. The state and federal government are doing a two-step dance."
In one of several such appeals, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, called on President Bush on Sunday to appoint an independent national commission to examine the relief effort. She also said that she intends to introduce legislation to remove FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security and restore its previous status as an independent agency with cabinet-level status.
Mr. Chertoff tried to deflect the criticism of his department and FEMA by saying there would be time later to decide what went wrong.
"Whatever the criticisms and the after-action report may be about what was right and what was wrong looking back, what would be a horrible tragedy would be to distract ourselves from avoiding further problems because we're spending time talking about problems that have already occurred," he told Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" on NBC.
But local officials, who still feel overwhelmed by the continuing tragedy, demanded accountability and as well as action.
"Why did it happen? Who needs to be fired?" asked Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, south of New Orleans.
Far from deferring to state or local officials, FEMA asserted its authority and made things worse, Mr. Broussard complained on "Meet the Press."
When Wal-Mart sent three trailer trucks loaded with water, FEMA officials turned them away, he said. Agency workers prevented the Coast Guard from delivering 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel, and on Saturday they cut the parish's emergency communications line, leading the sheriff to restore it and post armed guards to protect it from FEMA, Mr. Broussard said.
One sign of the continuing battle over who was in charge was Governor Blanco's refusal to sign an agreement proposed by the White House to share control of National Guard forces with the federal authorities.
Under the White House plan, Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré would oversee both the National Guard and the active duty federal troops, reporting jointly to the president and Ms. Blanco.
"She would lose control when she had been in control from the very beginning," said Ms. Bottcher, the governor's press secretary.
Ms. Bottcher was one of several officials yesterday who said she believed FEMA had interfered with the delivery of aid, including offers from the mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley, and the governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson.
Adam Sharp, a spokesman for Senator Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, said the problem was not who was in command. FEMA repeatedly held up assistance that could have been critical, he said.
"FEMA has just been very slow to make these decisions," Mr. Sharp said.
In a clear slap at Mr. Chertoff and the FEMA director, Michael D. Brown, Governor Blanco announced Saturday that she had hired James Lee Witt, the director of FEMA during the Clinton administration, to advise her on the recovery.
Nearly every emergency worker told agonizing stories of communications failures, some of them most likely fatal to victims. Police officers called Senator Landrieu's Washington office because they could not reach commanders on the ground in New Orleans, Mr. Sharp said.
Dr. Ross Judice, chief medical officer for a large ambulance company, recounted how on Tuesday, unable to find out when helicopters would land to pick up critically ill patients at the Superdome, he walked outside and discovered that two helicopters, donated by an oil services company, had been waiting in the parking lot.
Louisiana and New Orleans have received a total of about $750 million in federal emergency and terrorism preparedness grants in the last four years, Homeland Security Department officials said.
Mr. Chertoff said he recognized that the local government's capacity to respond to the disaster was severely compromised by the hurricane and flood.
"What happened here was that essentially, the demolishment of that state and local infrastructure, and I think that really caused the cascading series of breakdowns," he said.
But Mayor Nagin said the root of the breakdown was the failure of the federal government to deliver relief supplies and personnel quickly.
"They kept promising and saying things would happen," he said. "I was getting excited and telling people that. They kept making promises and promises."
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When Wal-Mart sent three trailer trucks loaded with water, FEMA officials turned them away, he said.|
Agency workers prevented the Coast Guard from delivering 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel, and on Saturday they cut the parish's emergency communications line, leading the sheriff to restore it and post armed guards to protect it from FEMA, Mr. Broussard said.
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In a clear slap at Mr. Chertoff and the FEMA director, Michael D. Brown, Governor Blanco announced Saturday that she had hired James Lee Witt, the director of FEMA during the Clinton administration, to advise her on the recovery.|
Nearly every emergency worker told agonizing stories of communications failures, some of them most likely fatal to victims.
Police officers called Senator Landrieu's Washington office because they could not reach commanders on the ground in New Orleans, Mr. Sharp said.