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."
Even though federal officials have established some communication links in the area, firefighters have been left isolated in many cases. "Those communications are not reaching the actual local responders," Schaitberger said.
Others emphasized that some of the problems can be blamed on the sheer scope of the disaster.
"Obviously, there's a lot of confusion and stuff going on, and we just want to help if we're going to be of some service," said Gilbert Irwin, founder of Manassas-based Medical Missionaries. "We're not trying to create any clouds here."
But Irwin said he is eager to take his team to the disaster area and use the experience he's had in such dangerous areas as Haiti. "What you are seeing down there in New Orleans is what you see on a daily basis in Haiti," he said.
There was confusion yesterday over which federal and Red Cross officials Irwin needed to get approvals from, so he waited.
"I'm pulling a big, heavy trailer, and I've got lots of people and whatnot," Irwin said. "We'll go if the authorities say, 'We really need you and we'd like to have you here.' You don't want to compound the situation."
A spokesman for the Fairfax search and rescue squad, Mark Stone, said team members were not frustrated by their deployment in Mississippi, although the damage "was not as significant as some had thought."
"I think we feel just as much as a team player as anybody getting in those areas, so we can at least say it's been done," Stone said.
In the case of the Loudoun group, Simpson said he received a request for help from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Department on Wednesday night and quickly lined up a crew.
But what followed Thursday, he said, was a maddening whirlwind of phone calls, with one federal department passing him off to another, all in an attempt to get the contingent's mission authorized.
Simpson said he was routed through military units and a FEMA representative in Denton, Tex., who told him he needed to talk to FEMA in Baton Rouge, La. -- but could not provide contact information.
"I felt like I talked to everybody but NASA," he said.
By 9 p.m., with his team still in Leesburg, Simpson said, he still did not have an answer. But the desperate scenes on television -- and emotional pleas from his Jefferson Parish sheriff's contacts -- persuaded him to send his team south. He instructed them to go no farther than the Virginia state line, figuring, "Geez, in six hours, we've got to have gotten through all this red tape," he said.
Not so. Ultimately, the warning from Louisiana authorities made him bring the group home.
"I said, 'I'm kind of confused. We just saw your governor on TV putting out this request for help, asking anybody and everybody to come down, and now you're telling me not to come down,' " Simpson said.
He ordered his deputies, who had reached Harrisonburg, to turn around -- but not to unpack.
The Loudoun saga took many bureaucratic twists and turns yesterday. At one point, it looked as though the group was headed to Mississippi, but the team remained grounded.
Last night, after relating the tale in an appearance on CNN, Simpson said his phone was ringing nonstop with calls from federal officials saying they would somehow get his team to Louisiana. Simpson said he is hopeful the journey will restart in the coming days.