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Storm Exposed Disarray at the Top

Rebuffed Offers of Aid

A covered corpse lay on the ground early Saturday outside the New Orleans convention center as evacuees remained stranded.
A covered corpse lay on the ground early Saturday outside the New Orleans convention center as evacuees remained stranded. (By Shannon Stapleton -- Reuters)

On the Friday before Katrina hit, when it was already a Category 2 hurricane rapidly gathering force in the Gulf, a veteran FEMA employee arrived at the newly activated Washington headquarters for the storm. Inside, there was surprisingly little action. "It was like nobody's turning the key to start the engine," the official recalled.

Brown, the agency's director, told reporters Saturday in Louisiana that he did not have a sense of what was coming last weekend.

"I was here on Saturday and Sunday, it was my belief, I'm trying to think of a better word than typical -- that minimizes, any hurricane is bad -- but we had the standard hurricane coming in here, that we could move in immediately on Monday and start doing our kind of response-recovery effort," he said. "Then the levees broke, and the levees went, you've seen it by the television coverage. That hampered our ability, made it even more complex."

But other officials said they warned well before Monday about what could happen. For years, said another senior FEMA official, he had sat at meetings where plans were discussed to send evacuees to the Superdome. "We used to stare at each other and say, 'This is the plan? Are you really using the Superdome?' People used to say, what if there is water around it? They didn't have an alternative," he recalled.

In the run-up to the current crisis, Allbaugh said he knew "for a fact" that officials at FEMA and other federal agencies had requested that New Orleans issue a mandatory evacuation order earlier than Sunday morning.

But DHS did not ask the U.S. military to assist in pre-hurricane evacuation efforts, despite well-known estimates that a major hurricane would cause levees in New Orleans to fail. In an interview, the general charged with operations for the military's Northern Command said such a request to help with the evacuation "did not come our way."

"At the point that we were all watching the evacuation and the clogged Interstate 10 going to the west on Sunday, we were watching the storm very carefully," Maj. Gen. Richard Rowe said. "At that time, it was a Category 5 storm and we knew that it would be among the worst storms to ever hit the United States. . . . I knew there was an excellent chance of flooding."

Others who went out of their way to offer help were turned down, such as Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who told reporters his city had offered emergency, medical and technical help as early as last Sunday to FEMA but was turned down. Only a single tank truck was requested, Daley said. Red tape kept the American Ambulance Association from sending 300 emergency vehicles from Florida to the flood zone, according to former senator John Breaux (D-La.) They were told to get permission from the General Services Administration. "GSA said they had to have FEMA ask for it," Breaux told CNN. "As a result they weren't sent."

Federal authorities say there is blame enough to go around. In a news conference yesterday, Chertoff cautioned against "finger-pointing" and said no one had been equipped to handle what amounted to two simultaneous disasters -- the hurricane and subsequent levee break.

Other federal and state officials pointed to Louisiana's failure to measure up to national disaster response standards, noting that the federal plan advises state and local emergency managers not to expect federal aid for 72 to 96 hours, and base their own preparedness efforts on the need to be self-sufficient for at least that period. "Fundamentally the first breakdown occurred at the local level," said one state official who works with FEMA. "Did the city have the situational awareness of what was going on within its borders? The answer was no."

But many outraged politicians in both parties have concluded that the federal government failed to meet the commitments it made after Sept. 11, 2001. Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said DHS had failed. "We've been told time and time again that we are prepared for any emergency that comes, that we're ready," he said. "We're obviously not."

Thompson said, for example, that oil pipelines in the Southeast have been identified by DHS as critical national infrastructure to be protected against terrorist attack. In the wake of the hurricane, they have been crippled by floods." We have to review all our systems," Thompson said. "If a byproduct of what happened in New Orleans is we have this gas crisis all over the country, it doesn't matter whether a terrorist hits it or a hurricane hits it. You have the same effect."

Staff writers Peter Baker, Bradley Graham, Spencer S. Hsu, Dafna Linzer and Michael Powell and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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