As officials struggle with efforts to rescue people, deliver needed supplies, provide security and care to tens of thousands of New Orleans residents still stranded in the beleaguered city following Hurricane Katrina, many have become targets of blame, ridicule and derision for what critics say is an unforgivable lack of disaster planning.
Among the most common complaints are that authorities waited too long to issue an evacuation order, that there were not enough facilities to house and care for refugees and that it was long known the city was vulnerable to such hurricane-related damage, the Washington Post reported.
“This is a national disgrace,” Terry Ebbert, head of New Orleans’s emergency operations, told the Associated Press, describing the response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, thus far.
“FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control,” he said. “We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can’t bail out the city of New Orleans. We have got a mayor who has been pushing and asking, but we’re not getting supplies.”
New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin also lashed out at the responding federal agencies.
“They don’t have a clue what’s going on down there,” he told local radio station WWL-AM. “They flew down here one time two days after the doggone event was over with TV cameras, AP reporters, all kind of [expletive] – excuse my French everybody in America, but I am p—ed.”
Part of the frustration being expressed by state and local officials in Louisiana is because their own resources to handle such emergencies were depleted so quickly and completely.
“Right now we are out of resources at the Convention Center and don’t anticipate enough buses. Currently the Convention Center is unsanitary and unsafe and we are running out of supplies for 15,000 to 25,000 people,” Nagin said in describing a group of refugees still holed up in the city, in a statement read by CNN.
Rescue and relief efforts also are being delayed by the storm’s near-complete devastation of New Orleans’ infrastructure. Roads and bridges are washed out or under water; there are no communications; electricity is non-existent; and, since few expected the kind of damage Katrina caused, there are nowhere near the numbers of boats, helicopters and other craft needed to get to the stranded.
“The state resources were being overwhelmed, and we needed direct federal assistance, command and control and security – all three of which are lacking,” Rep. Charles W. Boustany Jr., R-La., told The Washington Post.
“We would have wanted massive numbers of helicopters on Day One,” Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, said.
As a sidebar to complaints about the federal government’s lack of adequate disaster planning in New Orleans, the Bush administration also is being blamed for cutting funds to the Army Corps of Engineers, the agency responsible for water and flood control projects. Critics say had President Bush not sought substantial cuts in the Corps’ budget, there would have been enough money to construct adequate flood defenses for The Big Easy.
Still others blamed the disaster on global warming.
But Michael Brown, the director of FEMA, defended federal efforts, saying the government has been doing all it can to mitigate the suffering. He also noted resources were pre-positioned near Katrina’s expected storm path before it reached land.
And Michael Chertoff, director of Homeland Security, said the government was focused on its priorities, as set out by President Bush earlier this week.
“First, save lives; second, sustain lives by ensuring the necessary supplies of food, water, shelter, and medical supplies; and third, execute a comprehensive recovery effort to bring this area and these people back to the prosperity and the enjoyment of life that they’re entitled to,” he said during a press conference yesterday. “Let me emphasize, from the very beginning and as we speak, rescue operations have continued and are continuing in full force.”
Chertoff said the government was continuing “to pour in additional supplies every hour in this area – massive quantities of water, ice and food; 5.6 million MREs; over 13 million liters of water; thousands of generators, blankets and cots.”
He said 50 disaster medical teams and 28 urban search and rescue teams were also deployed.
And in addition to tackling a massive logistics operation, police, fire and medical personnel – as well as the elements of National Guard and active-duty military forces deployed to the area – must deal with some of the worst elements of behavior.
Widespread looting of businesses and homes began almost immediately after Katrina blew through. Lawlessness and chaos is rampant. Police, rescue and military personnel have been shot at.
In one case, said New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass, 88 officers were nearly crushed by refugees when they responded to check on reports of rape, assault and other crimes in and around the Convention Center.
“We have individuals who are getting raped, we have individuals who are getting beaten,” he told AP. “Tourists are walking in that direction and they are getting preyed upon.”
In another case, a military policeman was shot in the leg as he and another man scuffled for the MP’s rifle.
In still another instance, a military helicopter carrying food and water tried several times to land, but because crowds were rushing the landing zone, the chopper could only hover about 10 feet off the ground while its crew pushed out the supplies.
Louisiana State Police commander Col. Henry Whitehorn told AP he had heard reports that a number of New Orleans police officers who had homes in flood-ravaged areas were quitting.
“They indicated that they had lost everything and didn’t feel that it was worth them going back to take fire from looters and losing their lives,” he said.
Despite impossible conditions, however, local residents and leaders were unyielding in their criticism.
“There’s a lot of very sick people – elderly ones, infirm ones – who can’t stand this heat, and there’s a lot of children who don’t have water and basic necessities to survive on,” 47-year-old resident Daniel Edwards told AP.
Pointing out several elderly residents who had died and were left lying about, he added: “I don’t treat my dog like that. You can do everything for other countries, but you can’t do nothing for your own people.”
Added Nagin: “I have no idea what they’re doing, but I will tell you this: God is looking down on all this and if they’re not doing everything in their power to save people, they are going to pay the price because every day that we delay, people are dying and they’re dying by the hundreds.”
But Chertoff says while he understands the frustration, Washington is on top of things.
“What the American people need to understand is that the full force of the federal government is bringing all of those supplies in an unprecedented effort that has not been seen even in the tsunami region” of Asia, he said. “I was in the tsunami region, and this response is incredibly more efficient, more effective and under the most difficult circumstances.”
And state emergency officials said planning for a disaster of Katrina’s magnitude is impossible.
“There is never a contingency plan for something like this,” Johnny B. Bradberry, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, told reporters.
That sentiment was echoed by Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, who was in charge of coordinating response efforts in the days before Katrina made landfall.
“All last week, we were collaborating on developing options,” he told a Pentagon briefing. “None of us – nobody – was clairvoyant enough to perceive the damage that was going to be brought by this storm.”
Also, not all experts agree levees are the best defense against flood waters.
University of California-Davis geologist Jeffrey Mount, a critic of urban flood management, says it is folly to rely on costly and fallible levees.
“New Orleans lost the battle with the inevitable; the same will eventually occur here in Sacramento,” he said.