Monday, August 28, 2006

The horrific inside story of FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security: it's worse than you think. In an important new book, Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the failure of Homeland Security, co-author Christopher Cooper looks at the Katrina disaster from inside the highest levels of the federal bureaucracy. One nugget among many: the top information gate-keeper at the Department of Homeland Security, Gen. Matthew Broderick,, who judged whether to pass along reports about the severity of the damage to Michael Chertoff, determined, in part, that it wasn't a major disaster because he saw a 30-second CNN clip of college kids drinking beer in the French Quarter. Apparently, he and the other top leadership weren't watching the rest of the television coverage for a full week.

The same misguided official, Gen. Matthew Broderick, with no emergency management or hurricane experience, also concluded that he didn't believe FEMA's man on the ground who reported that the levees had breached and people were drowning because the evidence wasn't conclusive enough for him.

Here's a dramatic, but condensed, timeline of the disaster.

And an Amazon reviewer of the Disaster book provides a useful guide to the Kafkaesque response to disaster in a timeline of ineptitude (although with a few spelling mistakes) drawn from the book:

Cooper and Block begin by reviewing the years of complacent and misdirected efforts by those responsible for levee and floodwall maintenance, then proceeding to the disaster itself, followed by the subsequent finger-pointing and continuing malfeasance.

President Bush's first budget (2001) proposed cutting .5 million from FEMA's $2.5 billion. He also reversed Clinton's precedent of putting someone experienced in charge, and returned to Bush I's placing an inexperienced politico in charge - ending up with the Hurricane Andrew disaster). This appointee (Allbaugh), in turn, drove out many talented and experienced Witt protégés. Then, in 2004 federal, state, and local officials participated in a large-scale planning exercise (Hurricane Pam) in preparation for a severe hurricane striking New Orleans. While better than most (and close to what happened in Katrina), it ended up as only the latest of many such exercises - accepted with little comment and filed on a shelf. Then came 2005 and the real thing - Hurricane Katrina.

Saturday evening the mid-level FEMA manager in New Orleans (the only representative on-site) realized that efforts were less intense than appropriate - eg. there was not even an effort to organize a bus evacuation. Fortunately, the lead government weather forecaster took the initiative to call local and state leaders to motivate their getting more serious. Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin then appealed to N.O. ministers to emphasize evacuation, and their self-help message got many out. Meanwhile, the Superdome had no food stockpiled, FEMA's pre-staged supplies were three hours away, limited to one day's worth of food and 50 generators (half that promised in the Pam exercise), and included no buses (vs. 400 buses and 800 drivers called for in Pam).

The Louisiana National Guard (LNG) center had never flooded in 170+ years - yet, it was under 8 feet of water 7:30 A.M. Monday, rendering its high water transport trucks unusable. Chertoff, Bush, etc. later maintained the levees didn't breach until the day after the storm. However, this major break was reported to FEMA at 7:30 A.M. by the New Orleans' disaster chief, and by 8 A.M. TSA reported to the Homeland Security Operations Center (HSOC) that the Industrial Canal was breached. Unfortunately, the Army Corp of Engineers (COE) representative buried the topic in page 5 of a 6-page report that covered pay and congratulatory prose more prominently. The local FEMA man cadged two late Monday afternoon chopper rides to get a better assessment - saw water over most of the city, people on rooftops, and a quarter-mile levee gash - his report to HSOC was discounted as hype.

Tuesday: Efforts to have the Pentagon fly in 8 water rescue teams from California failed - Rumsfeld could not be located (was at a ballgame). Brown videoconferences Bush, Chertoff, Cheney at 8:30 A.M. Tuesday - 90% of N.O. people displaced, job "too big for FEMA and the LNG." Mayor Nagin then gave FEMA's Michael Brown a list of equipment and support needed, and later that morning Governor Blanco requested buses to get people out of the Superdome. (Due to paperwork, etc. delays they did not begin to show up until Friday A.M.) COE officers saw a several hundred feet long breech in the 17th St. Canal, with a small state crew tossing 25 lb. sandbags into the breech (immediately swept back out) - asked if they needed help, and when they said "No," left the area and did not become involved for two more days. Secretary Chertoff became angered that Brown did not answer his phone, and when he finally got through, ordered him to the FEMA communications center in Baton Rouge (located there because the staff did not realize that dry roads existed into N.O.).

Blanco's assistant spends most of the day getting Pentagon approval to use four idling choppers at Fort Polk - after finally succeeding, is unable to use them because the pilots' allowable "flight hours" were exhausted. FEMA promises buses will arrive Wed. at 7 A.M., so Governor Blanco's staff drops there efforts to get buses. Meanwhile, requests for Gulfport, MS. evacuees to get water/ice were delayed 36 hours - the trucks sate 43 miles away while paperwork was completed. (Similar results for the requested generators to operate their sewage system.)

Wednesday: At noon the buses had not arrived, nor was there any word about where they were. A chopper sent up to look for them did find 35 school buses marshaled through Blanco's efforts (FEMA discouraged their use - not comfortable enough), and directed them to proceed. By this time it was clear that FEMA was making things worse by not living up to its promises - thus delaying real help.

Blanco had also asked Bush for 40,000 troops to help with logistics and rescue efforts - late that night General Honore arrived with a staff of about twelve to "survey" the situation.

Thursday: FEMA withdrew its staff by noon out of fear of violence - greatly overstated by many, including the N.O. Police Chief. This also delayed delivering food to the Convention Center and Superdome. Meanwhile, the HSOC was unaware of the Convention Center crisis - thought was part of the Superdome; regardless, Broderick (its leader) refused to forward any information that did not come from what he thought to be a reliable source. FEMA had been working to start airline evacuations - delays due to working out schedules and destinations, TSA insisting on searching all passengers and luggage and the presence of undercover air marshals stretched out to take up two more days.

Near midnight, Mississippi learns that only 86 of the 900 trucks promised were on the road. Meanwhile, Brown finds himself increasingly irrelevant as Governor Blanco brings in his highly respected FEMA predecessor (James Witt), Chertoff assigns his deputy to be in charge, and the Army ignores him.

Friday: The buses start arriving. HSOC gets the Convention Center situation wrong again - claims only 1,000 there, with food and water. Bush twice tries to get Blanco to federalize the disaster (just as things were starting to work out) - Blanco suspects he is trying to grab credit at this point, and refuses. (Mississippi's Governor also refused - neither governor saw any added resources that would result.)

Saturday: President Bush announces the 82nd Airborne was being sent to N.O. - they had been waiting for days. Negotiations to bring in cruise ships for temporary housing bogs down - could not agree whether the Pentagon or FEMA was in charge. Rations arrived from Germany, but were immediately impounded by the FDA, pending inspection. A Wal-Mart executive calls to complain about the National Guard looting its warehouses - a mid-level FEMA manager defuses the anger by getting Wal-Mart (with its excellent distribution and tracking system) to supply needs and bill later. The manager is later threatened by FEMA lawyers, and resigns when a similar proposal is turned down.

Afterwards: The last of the trailers FEMA ordered for shelter will be produced in 3.5 years - no matter, they do not comply with flood-plain regulations (should have been campers), so they all sit on an Arkansas field. FEMA contracts for roof repair provide highly inflated funds for middle-men.

"Disaster" ends with stories of some of the local officials and volunteers that just jumped into the fray with a "get it done" attitude. Unfortunately, their excellence is not able to make up for FEMA's ineptness. So, FEMA then busied itself by trying to take over management of several subsequent minor hurricanes (irritating competent local leaders), and trying to shift the blame to Louisiana and New Orleans' officials.

Amazon.com: Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security: Books: Christopher Cooper,Robert Block

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