September 11, 2005
Eric Lipton, Christopher Drew, Scott Shane and David Rohde, New York Times
Minneapolis Star Tribune
The governor of Louisiana was "blistering mad." It was the third night after Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans, and Gov. Kathleen Blanco needed buses to rescue thousands of people from the fetid Superdome and Convention Center. But only a small fraction of the 500 vehicles promised by federal authorities had arrived.
Blanco burst into the state's emergency center in Baton Rouge. "Does anybody in this building know anything about buses?" she recalled crying out.
They were an obvious linchpin for evacuating a city where nearly 100,000 people had no cars. Yet the federal, state and local officials who had failed to round up buses in advance were now in a frantic hunt. It would be two more days before they found enough buses to empty the shelters.
An initial examination of Katrina's aftermath demonstrates the extent to which the federal government failed to fulfill the pledge it made after the Sept. 11 attacks to face domestic threats as a unified, seamless force.
Instead, the crisis in New Orleans deepened because of a virtual standoff between hesitant federal officials and besieged local and state authorities, interviews with dozens of officials show.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials expected the state and city to direct their own efforts and ask for help as needed.
Leaders in Louisiana and New Orleans, though, were so overwhelmed by the scale of the storm that they were not only unable to manage the crisis, but they also were not always sure what they needed.
While local officials assumed that Washington would provide rapid and extensive aid, federal officials, weighing legalities and logistics, proceeded at a deliberate pace.
FEMA appears to have underestimated the storm, despite an extraordinary warning from the National Hurricane Center that it would cause "human suffering incredible by modern standards." The agency dispatched only seven of its 28 urban search-and-rescue teams to the area before the storm hit and sent no workers at all into New Orleans until after Katrina passed on Aug. 29, a Monday.
On Tuesday, a FEMA official who had just flown over the ravaged city by helicopter seemed to have trouble conveying to his bosses the degree of destruction, according to a New Orleans city councilwoman.
"He got on the phone to Washington, and I heard him say, 'You've got to understand how serious this is, and this is not what they're telling me, this is what I saw myself,' " the councilwoman, Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, recalled the FEMA official saying.
State and federal officials had spent two years working on a disaster plan to prepare for a widely devastating storm, but it was incomplete and had failed to deal with two issues that proved most critical: moving evacuees and imposing law and order.
The Louisiana National Guard, already stretched by the deployment of more than 3,000 troops to Iraq, was hampered when its New Orleans barracks flooded. It lost 20 vehicles that could have carried soldiers through the watery streets and had to abandon its most advanced communications equipment, Guard officials said.
Partly because of the shortage of troops, violence raged inside the New Orleans Convention Center, which interviews show was even worse than previously described. Police SWAT team members found themselves plunging into the darkness, guided by the muzzle flashes of thugs' handguns, said Capt. Jeffrey Winn.
"In 20 years as a cop, doing mostly tactical work, I have never seen anything like it," Winn said.
A NATIONAL DISASTER
Oliver Thomas, the New Orleans City Council president, expressed a view shared by many in city and state government: that a national disaster requires a national response.
"Everybody's trying to look at it like the city of New Orleans messed up," Thomas said in an interview. "But you mean to tell me that in the richest nation in the world, people really expected a little town with less than 500,000 people to handle a disaster like this? That's ludicrous to even think that."
Andrew Kopplin, Blanco's chief of staff, took a similar position. "This was a bigger natural disaster than any state could handle by itself, let alone a small state and a relatively poor one," Kopplin said.
Federal officials seem to have belatedly come to the same conclusion. Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary, said future "ultra-catastrophes" like Katrina would require a more aggressive federal role.
And FEMA Director Michael Brown, whom President Bush had publicly praised a week earlier for doing "a heck of a job," was pushed aside on Friday, replaced by a take-charge Coast Guard admiral.
Richard Falkenrath, a former homeland security adviser in the Bush White House, said the chief federal failure was not anticipating that the city and state would be so compromised.
He said the response exposed "false advertising" about how the government has been transformed four years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"Frankly, I wasn't surprised that it went the way it did," Falkenrath said.
The prospect of a major hurricane hitting New Orleans was a FEMA priority. Numerous drills and studies had been undertaken to prepare a response.
In 2002, Joe Allbaugh, then the FEMA director, said: "Catastrophic disasters are best defined in that they totally outstrip local and state resources, which is why the federal government needs to play a role. There are a half-dozen or so contingencies around the nation that cause me great concern, and one of them is right there in your back yard."
Plan was not finished
Federal officials vowed to work with local authorities to improve the hurricane response, but the plan for Louisiana was not finished when Katrina hit.
State officials said the plan did not yet address transportation or crime control, two issues which proved crucial.
New Orleans had its own plan.
At first glance, Annex I of the "City of New Orleans Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan" is reassuring. Forty-one pages of matter-of-fact prose outline a seemingly exhaustive list of hurricane evacuation procedures, including a "mobile command center" that could replace a disabled city hall and schools designated as shelters.
New Orleans had used $18 million in federal funding since 2002 to stage exercises, train for emergencies and build relay towers to improve emergency communications. After years of delay, a new $16 million command center was to be completed by 2007.
There was talk of upgrading emergency power and water supplies at the Superdome, the city's emergency shelter of "last resort."
But the city's plan said that about 100,000 residents "do not have means of personal transportation" to evacuate and few details are offered on ways to shelter them.
NO STRICT STANDARDS
Although the Department of Homeland Security has encouraged states and cities to file emergency preparedness strategies, it has not set strict standards for evacuation plans.
"There is very loose requirement in terms of when it gets done and what the quality is," said Michael Greenberger, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security. "There is not a lot of urgency."
He said the New Orleans experience illustrates that disaster response was not coordinated between levels of government, even though coordination was part of the agenda Washington outlined in its National Response Plan issued after the Sept. 11 attacks.
FOLLOWING ITS PLAN
As Katrina bore down on New Orleans, Mayor Ray Nagin largely followed the city plan, eventually ordering the city's first-ever mandatory evacuation. Although 80 percent of New Orleans' population left, as many as 100,000 people remained.
Terry Ebbert, director of homeland security for New Orleans since 2003, decided to make the Superdome the city's lone shelter, assuming the city would have to shelter people in the arena for only about 48 hours, until the storm passed or the federal government came and rescued people.
As early as Friday, Aug. 26, as Katrina moved across the Gulf of Mexico, officials in the watch center at FEMA headquarters in Washington discussed the need for buses.
Someone said, "We should be getting buses and getting people out of there," recalled Leo Bosner, an emergency management specialist with 26 years at FEMA and president of an employees' union. Others nodded in agreement, he said.
"We could all see it coming, like a guided missile," Bosner said of the storm. "We, as staff members at the agency, felt helpless. We knew that major steps needed to be taken fast, but, for whatever reasons, they were not taken."
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