Thursday, September 01, 2005


Is FEMA absent from New Orleans without leave? It certainly seems so, judging from this evening's news.

A grisly early evening Associated Press dispatch by Allen G. Reed in the New Orleans Times Picayune reports:
Four days after Hurricane Katrina roared in with a devastating blow that inflicted potentially thousands of deaths, the frustration, fear and anger mounted, despite the promise of 1,400 National Guardsmen a day to stop the looting, plans for a $10 billion recovery bill in Congress and a government relief effort President Bush called the biggest in U.S. history.

New Orleans' top emergency management official called that effort a "national disgrace" and questioned when reinforcements would actually reach the increasingly lawless city.

* * *
At least seven bodies were scattered outside the convention center, a makeshift staging area for those rescued from rooftops, attics and highways. The sidewalks were packed with people without food, water or medical care, and with no sign of law enforcement.

* * *

"They've been teasing us with buses for four days," [47-year-old Daniel] Edwards said. "They're telling us they're going to come get us one day, and then they don't show up."

Every so often, an armored state police vehicle cruised in front of the convention center with four or five officers in riot gear with automatic weapons. But there was no sign of help from the National Guard.

* * *
Tourist Debbie Durso of Washington, Mich., said she asked a police officer for assistance and his response was, "'Go to hell — it's every man for himself.'"

"This is just insanity," she said. "We have no food, no water ... all these trucks and buses go by and they do nothing but wave."

* * *
By Thursday evening, 11 hours after the military began evacuating the Superdome, the arena held 10,000 more people than it did at dawn. * * *

As he watched a line snaking for blocks through ankle-deep waters, New Orleans' emergency operations chief Terry Ebbert blamed the inadequate response on the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"This is not a FEMA operation. I haven't seen a single FEMA guy," he said. He added: "We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can't bail out the city of New Orleans."

FEMA officials said some operations had to be suspended in areas where gunfire has broken out.

* * *
When some hospitals try to airlift patients, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Cheri Ben-Iesan said, "there are people just taking potshots at police and at helicopters, telling them, `You better come get my family.'"
There's more , but some of it is not for squeamish.

If all of this sounds to you like no one's in control, apparently you're right. The admirable Jim Lehrer of public broadcasting's News Hour interviewed FEMA director Mike Brown this evening. Brown as much as admitted he didn't have a clue:
JIM LEHRER: Peter Slevin of the Washington Post was interviewed by Ray Suarez a few moments ago here on this program. He's in New Orleans, spent all day there, and he said the most striking thing that he has seen is there seems to be nobody in charge. There's no information being disseminated to the victims of this, and people are in a state of panic. What's the problem, Mr. Brown?

MIKE BROWN: Well, we're -- first of all, it's amazing to me how much communications have been broken down. There literally is no communications within the city of New Orleans. The cell towers are down. It's difficult even to use the satellite phones and to make the communications with those like we normally do.
What a surprise! After a hurricane, the FEMA director finds he can't communicate "like we normally do."

The Washington Post reporter Jim Lehrer referred to, Peter Slavin, filed his article late this afternoon. It's a lengthy and detailed read from a trained observer who's on the spot. Here's a small frament:
At the Superdome, long lines of people waited for evacuation buses as helicopters buzzed through the sky, and thousands more people gathered at the convention center and lined highways hoping for a ride out of the city -- or even some information about what to do.

Some frustrated residents complained that no one seemed to be in charge.

"We've been trying to get out," said Cornelius Washington as he walked along a highway overpass near the Superdome. "No one is giving the who, what, where, why and when. When they give us information, it's about what they're not going to do."

Washington said he had some money but could not find anyone he could pay to take him to Baton Rouge or anywhere else. He was trying to make his way to the Superdome, where buses were arriving in waves to take people to Houston. But authorities at the overwhelmed stadium were accepting no new evacuees other than the 23,000 who had gathered there before the evacuation started Wednesday night.

The mounting frustration was illustrated by an incident at the Superdome around 3:30 a.m. Thursday when three out-of-town buses pulled up. Anxious refugees trying to board the buses began banging on them, and the drivers grew frightened and pulled away empty, one witness said.

At the convention center about a mile from the Superdome, thousands of people gathered after being told Wednesday to go there for relief, only to find no one in authority to hand out water, food or information.
It can't get worse than that, you say? Oh, yes it can.

According to Slavin, across the Gulf Coast there are "massive shortages of food, water and fuel." And the shortages even exist at the New Orleans center for rescue operations!
Even officials at the New Orleans Airport, a staging area for military and civilian rescue operations, lacked resources.

"We need diesel fuel. Gasoline. We need generators," said Charles Cazayoux, the airport manager. "We need manpower, from laborers to folks who can give us relief for our staff."
From the looks of things, FEMA director Brown hasn't yet read any of his own agency's preparedness planning handouts. Time is short, so maybe he should start with the first page of FEMA'S Natural Disasters Coloring Book." There, he'd find this advice:
Ask what disasters are most likely to happen and request information on how to prepare for them.

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