Relief Problems

Bad Communication Hinders Area's Aid Efforts

Gilbert Irwin of Manassas-based Medical Missionaries was bounced between FEMA and the Red Cross in his search for approval for his group to supply aid.
Gilbert Irwin of Manassas-based Medical Missionaries was bounced between FEMA and the Red Cross in his search for approval for his group to supply aid. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Michael Laris and Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 3, 2005

Officials and groups from the Washington area warned yesterday that some of their attempts to help Hurricane Katrina's victims are being slowed or stymied by breakdowns in communication and disorganization among local, state and federal agencies.

The shortfalls have come in the crucial early days of the response to the catastrophe along the Gulf Coast. Among the difficulties:

· Twenty-two Loudoun County sheriff's deputies and six medical personnel who left Thursday for the New Orleans area returned home early yesterday because of poor communication between officials in Louisiana and Virginia that left the team without required approvals. The Loudoun deputies have shelved their mission until the bureaucratic wrangling has been resolved.

"I'm saddened to see that even after 9/11, the system doesn't work any better than this," Loudoun Sheriff Stephen O. Simpson said. "The impression we're left with is that nobody knows what they're doing down there."

· A group of doctors in Prince William County with experience in violence-racked international missions said they told Federal Emergency Management Agency officials Wednesday morning that they were eager to send a team to hard-hit areas. FEMA passed them to the Red Cross, which said it referred them back to federal health officials. The group and its emergency medical trailer remain in Manassas.

· A Fairfax County search and rescue squad has spent much of the week assigned to an area of Mississippi that was not among the regions most devastated by Katrina. As of Thursday evening, they had found no victims.

Simpson said he turned the Loudoun team back because county officials said they could not insure the team without an official invitation and worried that they would not be reimbursed for their efforts. He said he considered sending the group anyway but was told by a Louisiana state trooper to call off his deputies or risk being turned back at the state line.

The apparent inability to efficiently match far-reaching needs with offers of support has upset those most affected by the flooding and unrest.

"There's been a big foul-up," said Jefferson Parish, La., Sheriff Harry Lee, whose office had urgently requested the help from Loudoun. "It's the same problem we've had since Day One: There's been an unbelievable lack of coordination, . . . it's probably due to the almost nonexistent communication."

Although the deployment from Loudoun remains uncertain, Lee said he has been able to work with Louisiana officials to get help from other sheriff's departments.

Representatives from some Washington area organizations said the bureaucratic confusion is endangering lives.

"There's a breakdown," said Harold Schaitberger, a former Fairfax County firefighter who was driving yesterday through flood-ravaged areas of Louisiana on a mission for the District-based International Association of Firefighters, for which he is president. "We've got firefighters still trapped in New Orleans."

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