Interior Offered Extensive Katrina Aid

By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 30, 2006

Hundreds of federal search-and-rescue workers and large numbers of boats, aircraft and bulldozers were offered to FEMA in the hours immediately after Hurricane Katrina hit, but the aid proposals were either ignored or not effectively used, newly released documents show.

The Interior Department, which made the offers, also proposed dispatching as many as 400 of its law enforcement officers to provide security in Gulf Coast cities ravaged by flooding and looting. But nearly a month would pass before the Federal Emergency Management Agency put the officers to work, according to an Interior document obtained by The Washington Post.

"Although we attempted to provide these assets we were unable to efficiently integrate and deploy these resources," Interior officials said in written response to questions by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Acting in the "immediate aftermath" of the hurricane, Interior officials provided FEMA with a comprehensive list of assets that were "immediately available for humanitarian and emergency assistance," according to the memo, dated Nov. 7, 2005. Those assets included more than 300 boats, 11 aircraft, 119 pieces of heavy equipment, 300 dump trucks and other vehicles for clearing debris, as well as Interior-owned campgrounds and other land that could be used as staging areas or emergency shelters.

Also offered were rescue crews from the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service, teams specially trained for urban search-and-rescue missions using flat-bottom boats.

"Clearly these assets and skills were precisely relevant to the post-Katrina environment," the memo said. Yet, the rescue teams and boats were not considered in the federal government's planning for hurricane disasters, the memo states.

Ultimately, many Fish and Wildlife teams did travel to the Gulf and assisted in the rescues of more than 4,500 people -- but they were "never formally tasked" for that assignment by FEMA, the document states.

The Interior Department's criticisms echo those expressed by other government agencies that have publicly faulted FEMA's hurricane response. In October, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta criticized FEMA for moving slowly in requesting buses to evacuate flood victims from central New Orleans. The order for buses was issued in the early hours of Aug. 31, nearly two days after Katrina made landfall.

The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has scheduled hearings this week to explore some of the more notorious shortcomings in the federal government's response, including the communications breakdowns and the bungled effort to evacuate tens of thousands of New Orleans residents who were stranded in the city after the storm.

Bush administration officials have acknowledged mistakes were made and have pledged major changes to the emergency response system.

"We are participating in a very comprehensive after-action review," said Russ Knocke, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA. "We want to be our own toughest critics."

Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu and researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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