Sunday, September 4, 2005

Storm Exposed Disarray at the Top

"The killer hurricane and flood that devastated the Gulf Coast last week exposed fatal weaknesses in a federal disaster response system retooled after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to handle just such a cataclysmic event.

"Despite four years and tens of billions of dollars spent preparing for the worst, the federal government was not ready when it came at daybreak on Monday, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former senior officials and outside experts."

"Joe M. Allbaugh, the former Bush campaign manager who served as his first FEMA head," was "critical of FEMA's natural disaster focus and lectured senior managers about the need to adjust to the post-9/11 fear of terrorism. So did his friend Michael D. Brown, a lawyer with no previous disaster management experience whom Allbaugh brought in as his deputy and who now has the top FEMA post. 'Allbaugh's quote was "You don't get it,"' recalled the senior FEMA official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. 'If you brought up natural disasters, you were accused of being a pre-9/11 thinker.'"

"Jack Harrald, director of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster, and Risk Management at George Washington University, said FEMA's natural disaster focus was nearly liquidated. 'We ended up spending a lot of money on infrastructure protection and not the resiliency of the actual infrastructure,' Harrald said. 'The people who came in from the military and terrorist world thought we had the natural disaster thing fixed.'"

"On the Friday before Katrina hit, when it was already a Category 2 hurricane rapidly gathering force in the Gulf, a veteran FEMA employee arrived at the newly activated Washington headquarters for the storm. Inside, there was surprisingly little action. 'It was like nobody's turning the key to start the engine,' the official recalled.

"Brown, the agency's director, told reporters Saturday in Louisiana that he did not have a sense of what was coming last weekend."

"But other officials said they warned well before Monday about what could happen. For years, said another senior FEMA official, he had sat at meetings where plans were discussed to send evacuees to the Superdome. 'We used to stare at each other and say, "This is the plan? Are you really using the Superdome?" People used to say, what if there is water around it? They didn't have an alternative,' he recalled."

"Federal authorities say there is blame enough to go around. In a news conference yesterday, Chertoff cautioned against 'finger-pointing' and said no one had been equipped to handle what amounted to two simultaneous disasters—the hurricane and subsequent levee break.

"Other federal and state officials pointed to Louisiana's failure to measure up to national disaster response standards, noting that the federal plan advises state and local emergency managers not to expect federal aid for 72 to 96 hours, and base their own preparedness efforts on the need to be self-sufficient for at least that period. 'Fundamentally the first breakdown occurred at the local level,' said one state official who works with FEMA. 'Did the city have the situational awareness of what was going on within its borders? The answer was no.'" ...

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