9/12/2005

KR Washington Bureau | 09/11/2005 | Katrina: Failure at every turn

Katrina: Failure at every turn

Knight Ridder Newspapers

Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina crashed into the Gulf coast, there is little argument that the response was botched. But an extensive Knight Ridder review of official actions in the days just before and after Katrina's landfall Monday, Aug. 29, reveals a depth of government hesitancy and a not-my-job attitude that may have cost scores of people their lives.

The Department of Homeland Security, facing its first major catastrophe since it was created, failed to issue a critical disaster declaration until more than a day after the storm. The White House never appointed a coordinator to monitor disaster developments.

Though several government agencies were certain by 6 p.m. on Monday that New Orleans' levee system had given way, no official screamed for urgent help when daylight hours might still have permitted a rescue effort.

By that time, water had been pouring from the damaged 17th Street Canal for perhaps as long as 15 hours. A National Guard Bureau timeline places the breach at 3 a.m. Monday and an Army Corps of Engineers official said a civilian phoned him about the problem at 5 a.m., saying he had heard about it from a state policeman.

But officials sounded no alarm until Tuesday morning, after the city had been flooding for at least 24 hours.

No one knows how many people might have survived Katrina if officials had responded more aggressively. The official death toll in Louisiana and Mississippi is now at 365, at least some of whom died in the sweltering heat of the Superdome or awaiting evacuation from flooded hospitals.

Scores of others may have drowned unnecessarily in their homes. In Mississippi, some may have been lulled into complacency by memories that they'd survived the last great Gulf storm, Camille. In New Orleans, others were cut off by the torrent unleashed by the collapse of levees that were never designed to withstand a Category 4 hurricane like Katrina.

But what's clear is that four years after terrorists, on another late summer day, flew hijacked aircraft into buildings in New York and Washington, the United States is no better prepared to respond to catastrophe — even when it comes with days of public anticipation and warning.

A final accounting of what went wrong and what went right will take months, perhaps longer. Some agencies performed splendidly: the Coast Guard launched rescue missions of people trapped by the flooding as soon as the weather permitted.

But it's already clear that a multitude of local, state and federal officials and agencies failed the people in Katrina's path.

The federal Department of Homeland Security, established in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, waited until 36 hours after Katrina struck to declare it an "incident of national significance." The never-before-used disaster designation was established in the post-9/11 National Response Plan to mobilize the full strength of the federal government, including the military, to deal with a catastrophe.

The Pentagon, even as it moved its own people and equipment out of the storm's way, remained aloof. A 1993 report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, concluded that the Department of Defense "is the only organization capable of providing, transporting and distributing sufficient quantities of items needed" in a catastrophe such as Katrina.

Cargo planes had been put on alert, but Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld took in a baseball game in San Diego on Monday night, Aug. 29, while floodwaters inundated New Orleans. The military didn't set up a task force to respond until Wednesday, Aug. 31, two days after landfall. By then, Katrina was little more than a rainstorm over Ohio.

Before landfall, President Bush, on vacation in Crawford, Texas, was briefed repeatedly on the storm's progress. He was deeply engaged, issuing disaster relief orders, talking to the governors of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, and, on the Sunday before landfall, urging citizens in Katrina's path to seek safety.

But no member of the White House staff was assigned responsibility for tracking federal actions and no senior-level official was given oversight responsibilities. Asked in an e-mail who had been in charge at the White House as the storm bore down, administration spokeswoman Dana Perino replied, "Overall, the president is in charge at the White House."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, its top ranks filled by political appointees and its budget hit by deep cuts, seemed unable to grasp the magnitude of the disaster. On the day after the storm, FEMA director Michael Brown met in Biloxi, Miss., with Gov. Haley Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman, and told him not to worry, because FEMA had had lots of hurricane practice in Florida. "I don't think you've seen anything like this," Barbour responded. "We're talking nuclear devastation."

Brown was removed Friday from overseeing disaster response and replaced with a Coast Guard admiral.

Both Barbour and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, also seemed not to understand the size of the storm headed their way when they issued their first National Guard call-ups — Barbour, on Friday night, and Blanco, on Saturday morning.

Barbour summoned only about 1,000 troops initially, according to Mississippi National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Tim Powell, and placed another 600 on standby. That number was consistent with what the state had needed 36 years earlier after Camille, but it was inadequate given the gambling-fueled boom that had brought tens of thousands of new residents to the coast.

Blanco's contingent was larger, 4,000, but it was dwarfed by the more than 30,000 that eventually would be summoned to help.

Both Louisiana and Mississippi successfully employed so-called contra-flow plans that turned super highways one-way out of the coastal area, to speed evacuation. New Orleans officials were pleased that 80 percent of the city's population had reached safety before the storm hit. But neither state had made any provision for getting people without cars out of the danger zone.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, after receiving the direst of warnings in a dinner-time phone call at home from National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield a day-and-a-half before landfall, delayed issuing a mandatory evacuation order for 15 hours. He finally told residents that the storm surge "most likely will topple our levee system" at 10 o'clock Sunday morning, when Katrina was on his city's doorstep.

Nagin wasn't alone in his hesitancy, however. In Harrison County, Miss., where Biloxi is located, Civil Defense Director Joe Spraggins, in his job less than a month, also declined to order an evacuation on Saturday, saying he wanted to wait to see what the storm did. A mandatory evacuation order came Sunday. The state's emergency management director, Bob Latham, worried that residents wouldn't evacuate because of false alarms in the past.

Perhaps the most startling failure came in the reaction — or the apparent lack of one — from federal, state and local officials to the discovery that New Orleans' fragile levee system had collapsed hours before Katrina even made landfall. Engineers and emergency planners had warned for years that such a collapse would be catastrophic for the below-sea-level city and the people who lived there.

Yet reports of the breach failed to spark action. The commander of the New Orleans district of the Army Corps of Engineers, Col. Richard P. Wagenaar, finally confirmed that a breach had occurred between 3 and 6 p.m. Monday and reported it to headquarters in Vicksburg, Miss.

The mayor had told reporters during a 1 p.m. news conference that there was an unconfirmed report of a levee break, but he quickly turned to other topics. Shortly before nightfall, a FEMA official, back from a helicopter survey of the city, reported the breach to his colleagues in Baton Rouge, then broke the news to the mayor.

Still no concerted effort was made to reach the thousands of people whose houses were rapidly filling with water. As many crawled from their flooded bedrooms into attics, and some hacked their way onto their roofs, much of the world went to sleep thinking that New Orleans had survived the worst.

Not until Tuesday dawned, and morning news show anchors expressed surprise that the once-dry streets around them were filling with water, did the magnitude of the disaster become evident.

There were many other instances of bungling. Federal officials, accustomed to serving a supportive but not commanding role in a disaster, waited for specific requests from state and local officials. Local officials, overwhelmed, trapped by the devastation around them, and unable to survey the damage, couldn't gather the information they needed to make specific requests. Radio communication was impossible and phone service as bad.

"You don't have to be a genius to know when the storm hits, you're going to need water, food, diesel, gasoline, evacuation needs, helicopters, boats, medicine," said Terry Ebbert, New Orleans' director of homeland security. "So why does someone call me up when I don't have any communications and ask me, 'What do I need?' The system needed to go into automatic."

KR Washington Bureau | 09/11/2005 | Katrina: Failure at every turn

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