FEMA Weathers Storm From Critics

"Citizens of the United States expect their government to be there in times of disaster and they were not there," Jane Bullock, a former FEMA official says.

Bullock worked for FEMA during the Clinton administration.

"The job FEMA has done is terrible. I would give it a failing grade," Bullock says.

Some state and local officials have been also criticized for being slow to respond, but no agency has taken greater heat than FEMA.

Earlier this week, CBS News Correspondent Harry Smith asked former FEMA director Michael Brown if the agency's disaster planning was sound.

"Did you screw this up?" Smith asked.

Brown responded, "No."

Brown's credentials seemed conspicuously lacking. A lawyer -- his previous job was running horse shows. His White House résumé claims he was "an assistant city manager" in Edmond, Oklahoma," with emergency services oversight." But Edmond officials say Brown was "more like an intern" with no supervisory authority.

Brown says, "People want to lash out at me. People want to lash out at FEMA, I say that's fine. Just lash out that's fine, because my job is to continue to save lives, my job is to continue to save people and I'm going to do that."

At first, President Bush, who appointed Brown, gave him a vote of confidence.

"Brownie, you doing a great job," Mr. Bush told Brown back on Sept. 2.

But by Friday, Brown himself was an evacuee, let go from his position as director.

Brown's boss, the head of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, announced that Brown was being relieved of his hurricane duties--not fired as FEMA director, just being sent back to Washington. But this storm is not likely to blow over.

"Michael Brown is not the whole problem," Bullock says. "We do not have anyone responsible who knows anything about disaster. And we are suffering the consequences."

Brown was replaced by Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, who had been in charge of rescue and recovery efforts for New Orleans.

Here's how FEMA describes its mission: "Responding to, planning for, recovering from and mitigating against disasters." Katrina showed how well the agency does at "responding," but just last summer this computer model showed how FEMA does "planning."

Hurricane "Pam" was only a simulated storm. But it packed 120-mile an hour winds.

Professor Elizabeth English of Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center helped in this FEMA-directed emergency response exercise.

"Pam simulated a large amount of water being swept from Lake Pontchartrain over the levee into the bowl of new Orleans," English says.

The storm surge projection showed the levees would be overwhelmed by even a Category 3 hurricane they were designed to withstand and the city would be swamped under 20 feet of water.

For five days last summer FEMA, the national weather service and the Army Corps of Engineers all monitored "Pam" and forecast devastating consequences if a similar hurricane hit the city.

"Unfortunately, so much of it is exactly what happened. We predicted that people would be trapped in their houses. Sitting on roofs," English says.

"We were predicting enormous fatalities and enormous distress," she adds.

And what did they learn? FEMA in its own press release at the end of the "Pam" exercise said "We made great progress in our preparedness efforts. Over the next 60 days we will polish the action plans."

So what happened as Katrina approached? On the Saturday morning two days before the hurricane struck, FEMA's watch commanders issued a warning.

"We put a situation report out at 5:30 a.m. saying a catastrophic hurricane is headed straight, dead-center for New Orleans and Brown and Chertoff and these people did nothing," Leo Bosner says.

Bosner has worked at FEMA since the agency was founded in 1979. He says Chertoff, who came to Homeland Security from the Attorney General's office, and Brown were out of their depth when the flood waters rose.

"We've never seen Michael Brown help run a disaster. He doesn't run disasters 'cause he has no idea how to," Bosner says. "He's a courtroom lawyer. If I get sued I'd like to have him or Michael Chertoff defending me in court, but not running a disaster."

But Congress may have helped weaken FEMA when it voted to take away FEMA's cabinet-level status and put it under the Department of Homeland Security. Suddenly, FEMA became just one box in the bureaucracy.

Asked if FEMA failed the Gulf Coast, Louisiana's former Democratic Senator John Breaux says, "I think we made a mistake in not keeping FEMA separate from Homeland Security.

"By putting them under the jurisdiction of Homeland Security where the focus has been, rightfully so, on terrorist attacks from a foreign entity, we diluted their mission," Breaux explains.

Breaux says Katrina has shown that FEMA needs to be made a priority again.

"This has to be not only a disaster. It has to be a lesson on how to prevent these things from happening in the future," Breaux says.

Now, nearly two weeks after Katrina made landfall, the list of disaster debris that needs to be cleaned up seems to keep getting longer. You can add to it FEMA's reputation.


Lessons from a tragedy
Along Gulf Coast, slow response raises concerns over what went wrong and why; failures went far beyond the levees

Knight Ridder Newspapers
The collapse in New Orleans’ 17th Street canal levee occurred as early as 3 a.m., hours before Hurricane Katrina battered its way onto the Gulf Coast Aug. 29.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in charge of the 350 miles of earthen and concrete walls protecting the city, got its first inkling about two hours later on that Monday morning. There’s a break, a civilian called in. A state policeman had told him.
By early afternoon, the corps had confirmed it. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials waiting in Baton Rouge, La., also were notified. The mayor, too, was informed of the ugly truth creeping toward his downtown emergency command post.
Yet no alarm about the incoming water was sounded until Tuesday morning.
That’s but one example of why, two weeks later, it’s clear that Katrina was a bureaucratic disaster as well as a natural one. An extensive Knight Ridder review of the days just before and after Katrina’s landfall reveals that both local and federal underestimation of what was coming contributed to the deaths of hundreds and the suffering of thousands.
Among the problems:
? The mayor lost 15 crucial hours before calling for a mandatory evacuation the day before the storm hit New Orleans.
? The governors of Louisiana and Mississippi underestimated the need for National Guardsmen and for plans to get people without cars out of the danger zone.
? The Department of Homeland Security failed to issue a crucial disaster declaration for more than 36 hours after Katrina passed.
? The Pentagon didn’t mobilize serious response efforts for days after the storm.
? The White House never appointed a coordinator to monitor disaster developments.
Some agencies performed splendidly, even heroically: The Coast Guard, also under the Homeland Security umbrella, launched rescue efforts as soon as weather permitted, saving 9,500 victims; the region’s Veterans Administration hospitals evacuated their patients early and efficiently; and many local emergency personnel worked night and day, knowing that their own homes and families were hurt.
But the “blame game” — as President Bush and others in his administration decry it — for what happened or didn’t happen in that first week has begun. A final accounting will take months, perhaps longer, but what follows is what’s known so far.
Friday, Aug. 26
By 10 p.m. the National Hurricane Center in Miami seemed to draw the bull’s-eye on New Orleans, and officials reacted quickly, at least in terms of saying all the necessary words.
That night, Gov. Kathleen Blanco declared a state of emergency in Louisiana. Gov. Haley Barbour did the same in Mississippi the next day. But neither governor grasped the size of the storm headed their way when they issued their first National Guard call-ups.
Barbour summoned only 2,000 troops. That number was consistent with what the state had needed 36 years earlier after Camille, but it would turn out to be 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 eventually more than six times that number would be deployed.
In Washington, at the Katrina headquarters FEMA had set up, there was little activity. Leo Bosner, a longtime FEMA emergency specialist and employee union leader, later recalled that everyone nodded when someone suggested, “We should be getting buses and getting people out of there.”
“We could see it coming,” he told The New York Times. “We, as staff members of the agency, felt helpless. We knew that major steps needed to be taken fast, but, for whatever reasons, they were not taken.”
Saturday, Aug. 27
National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield made a round of worried phone calls to top state and local officials.
He wanted to impress on them the severity of what was about to happen. He wanted to be able to sleep that night knowing that he’d done everything in his power to save lives.
One of his calls went to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who was having dinner at home with his wife and 6-year-old daughter.
Earlier in the day, the mayor’s office had made preparations, moving to the Hyatt Regency hotel a few blocks from City Hall, assuming it would have better power sources and amenities.
The mayor had asked residents to leave. But his order was voluntary, not mandatory, and residents understood the distinction. Worried about such matters as the city’s liability in ordering hotels and other businesses to shut down, Nagin had been reluctant to take the next step.
Mayfield told Nagin that this was the worst hurricane he’d ever seen and that public officials ought to do everything in their power to get people out.
“It scared the crap out of me,” Nagin recalled. “I immediately said, ‘My God, ”?I have to call a mandatory evacuation.’
Still, he hesitated. About 130,000 New Orleans residents lived below the poverty line, and he knew that he didn’t have enough public transportation to move them all or enough police to roust out the stubborn.
And what about hospitals? He and the city’s lawyers wrestled with the issues through the night.
Nagin wasn’t alone in his hesitancy. 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.
The military also was watching the storm. Maj. Gen. Richard Rowe said the military’s Northern Command planners expected it to be one of the worst ever to hit the United States.
“I knew there was an excellent chance of flooding,” he said.
And FEMA thought it had everything well in hand. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley said he offered emergency and medical assistance Sunday night, but FEMA accepted only a tanker truck. The American Ambulance Association tried to send 300 emergency vehicles to the area, but the offer was bounced from the General Services Administration to FEMA. They weren’t sent.
Sunday, Aug. 28
The winds were picking up. At 10:11 a.m., the National Weather Service issued a warning that Katrina, by then a Category 5 storm — the most severe, with winds of 155 mph or more — would make most of southeast Louisiana “uninhabitable for weeks, perhaps longer.” The forecast predicted “human suffering incredible by modern standards.”
Only a few minutes earlier, Nagin had gone on television to issue the mandatory evacuation order. People who couldn’t get out on their own could board city buses at 12 locations for transport to the Louisiana Superdome, the shelter of last resort, he said.
In Mississippi, the mandatory evacuation came as well, but the state’s emergency management director, Bob Latham, worried that residents wouldn’t evacuate because of false alarms in the past.

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