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.
"What the American people need to understand is that the full force of the federal government is bringing all of those supplies in in an unprecedented effort that has not been seen even in the tsunami region," he said. "I was in the tsunami region, and this response is incredibly more efficient, more effective and under the most difficult circumstances."
Local officials in Louisiana said the scope of a double whammy -- a Category 4 hurricane coupled with a large breach of a levee -- simply overwhelmed them.
"There is never a contingency plan for something like this," said Johnny B. Bradberry, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.
Communication has been nearly impossible, and transportation is extremely limited, complicating the rescue and recovery efforts. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) said yesterday that officials were just getting around to putting functioning communications devices out in the field. The rush of water knocked out the 911 system, police radios and telephones, and state police officials have been struggling to communicate with their officers in the field. Blanco also said federal assistance has been problematic.
"I will confess that it has caused us a lot of stress," Blanco said. "We would have wanted massive numbers of helicopters on Day One."
Experts said one of the major problems with the response effort was an ineffective evacuation that began just 24 hours before the storm hit. Though models for such a storm accurately portrayed the circumstances that arose -- a levee breach, flooding, stagnant water, inaccessible portions of the city and large numbers of people unable to leave -- more than 100,000 people remained when the storm hit.
Some people were simply too poor to pick up their lives, and others unwisely figured they could ride out the hurricane in their homes because they had done so in the past. But Rep William J. Jefferson (D-La.) said there was a failure to think about a "holistic approach to the evacuation effort."
Jack Harrald, director of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at George Washington University, said researchers and academics have for years been studying New Orleans because of its particular vulnerabilities to disaster. In the Natural Hazards Observer in Nov. 2004, Shirley Laska, director of the Center for Hazards Assessment, Response and Technology at the University of New Orleans, predicted a direct hit could produce "conditions never before experienced in a North American disaster" and said evacuation problems would be severe.
"They didn't get people out. There was a late mandatory evacuation, and it's a very exposed position," Harrald said yesterday. "The realization of how serious the situation was not shared in all directions."
Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, the Army officer in charge of the military task force set up to respond to Katrina, acknowledged yesterday that the vast extent of hurricane damage had caught him and other military planners off guard.
"All last week, we were collaborating on developing options," he said in a briefing to Pentagon reporters. "None of us -- nobody -- was clairvoyant enough to perceive the damage that was going to be brought by this storm."
Nevertheless, he and other Defense Department authorities insisted that they had acted quickly after recognizing the scale of the disaster and have been able to marshal the necessary assistance.
Some defense specialists argued yesterday that the deployment of thousands of National Guard troops to Iraq had diminished the number available for hurricane relief. Nearly 8,000 troops from Guard units in Mississippi and Louisiana, for instance, are serving in Iraq, many with engineering and other support skills that are especially useful in relief operations.
But Guard officials noted that despite the deployments, 60 percent or more of the total Guard forces in the affected states remain available. Honore added that a large flow of Guard forces from other states around the country has "helped minimize" the Iraq factor.
Martha A. Madden, former secretary of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, said she believes a critical systemic breakdown occurred the moment the levee broke. She said contingency plans have been in place for decades but were either ignored or improperly executed.
Madden, now a national security and environmental consultant, said the lack of immediate federal help, specifically in the form of military assistance, was "incomprehensible."
"How many people are going to die, per hour, before you get 40,000 troops in there?" Madden asked yesterday. "I think it has cost lives. . . . They can go into Iraq and do this and do that, but they can't drop some food on Canal Street in New Orleans, Louisiana, right now? It's just mind-boggling."
Whoriskey reported from Baton Rouge, La. Staff writers Bradley Graham, Dafna Linzer and Shankar Vedantam in Washington and Christopher Lee in Gulfport, Miss., contributed to this report.