Government's Role

Planning, Response Are Faulted

Residents wait on a rooftop to be rescued from the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
Residents wait on a rooftop to be rescued from the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. (Pool Photo By David J. Phillip)
By Josh White and Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 2, 2005

Tens of thousands of people remain stranded on the streets of New Orleans in desperate conditions because officials failed to plan for a serious levee breach and the federal response to Hurricane Katrina was slow, according to disaster experts and Louisiana government officials.

Though experts had long predicted that the city -- which sits mostly below sea level and is surrounded by water -- would face unprecedented devastation after an immense hurricane, they said problems were worsened by a late evacuation order and insufficient emergency shelter for as many as 100,000 people.

Terry Ebbert, head of New Orleans's emergency operations, said the response from the Federal Emergency Management Agency was inadequate and that Louisiana officials have been overwhelmed.

"This is a national disgrace. FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control," Ebbert told the Associated Press as he watched refugees evacuate the Superdome yesterday. "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 Ray Nagin sent out a frustrated plea for help yesterday as thousands of people remained marooned at the city's Convention Center in the heat and filth, with as many as seven corpses nearby.

"This is a desperate SOS. 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 a statement read by CNN.

Frustration rose yesterday as federal, state and local officials responded to what many have described as an unimaginable disaster. Hampered by the lack of power, communications and passable roads, exhausted officials became increasingly worried about saving lives and getting help for those still stranded.

Rep. Charles W. Boustany Jr., (R-La.), said he spent the past 48 hours urging the Bush administration to send help. "I started making calls and trying to impress upon the White House and others that something needed to be done," he said. "The state resources were being overwhelmed, and we needed direct federal assistance, command and control, and security -- all three of which are lacking."

In Mississippi, refugees and survivors also complained about the agonizingly slow pace of aid. Food and fuel were extremely limited in many of the hardest hit counties, and power and telephone communications were distant prospects for thousands of people. Isolated reports of shooting and lawlessness compounded the woes of weary survivors.

Officials said debris on highways slowed the arrival of relief supplies. But most of the bottlenecks had now been finally cleared, said Mississippi Development Authority spokesman Scott Hamilton, and supplies were on their way. The state was also planning to activate thousands of additional National Guard troops, to help maintain order.

Michael D. Brown, FEMA's director, offered an emphatic defense of the federal response, saying that his agency prepared for the storm but that the widespread, unexpected flooding kept rescuers out of the city. He urged the nation to "take a collective deep breath" and recognize that federal officials are doing all they can to save people.

Brown said personnel, equipment, supplies, trucks, and search and rescue teams were positioned in the region ahead of the hurricane.

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