Anger mounts at feds’ response
Ryan Summerlin September 4, 2005
WASHINGTON – As the Bush administration tried to show a more forceful effort on Sunday to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, government officials escalated their criticism and sniping over who was to blame for the problems plaguing the initial response.While rescuers were still trying to reach desperate people stranded by the floods, perhaps the only consensus among local, state and federal officials was that the system had failed.Some federal officials said uncertainty over who was in charge had contributed to delays, while officials in Louisiana complained that federal disaster officials blocked some aid efforts.Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary, said on CNN that the lesson of Hurricane Katrina might be that federal authorities need to take “more of an upfront role earlier on, when we have these truly ultra-catastrophes.”But furious state and local officials insisted that the real problem was that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which Chertoff’s department oversees, failed to deliver urgently needed help and, through incomprehensible red tape, even thwarted others’ efforts to help.”We wanted soldiers, helicopters, food and water,” said Denise Bottcher, press secretary for Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Louisiana. “They wanted to negotiate an organizational chart.”Mayor C. Ray Nagin of New Orleans expressed similar frustrations. “We’re still fighting over authority,” he told reporters on Saturday. “A bunch of people are the boss. The state and federal government are doing a two-step dance.”In one of several such appeals, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., called on President Bush on Sunday to appoint an independent national commission to examine the relief effort. She also said she intended to introduce legislation to remove FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security and restore its previous status as an independent Cabinet-level agency.Chertoff tried to deflect the criticism, saying there would be time later to decide what went wrong.”Whatever the criticisms and the after-action report may be about what was right and what was wrong looking back, what would be a horrible tragedy would be to distract ourselves from avoiding further problems because we’re spending time talking about problems that have already occurred,” he said on NBC.But local officials, who still feel overwhelmed by the continuing tragedy, demanded accountability and action.Far from deferring to state or local officials, FEMA asserted its authority and only made things worse, said Aaron Broussard, the president of Jefferson Parish, south of New Orleans. When Wal-Mart sent three trailer trucks loaded with water, FEMA officials turned them away, he said. Agency workers prevented the Coast Guard from delivering 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel, and on Saturday they cut the parish’s emergency communications line, leading the sheriff to restore it and post armed guards to protect it from FEMA, Broussard said on “Meet the Press” on NBC.One sign of the continuing battle over who was in charge was Blanco’s refusal on Friday to sign an order turning over the disaster response to federal authorities.The governor, who asked President Bush for 40,000 troops on Wednesday, did not want to cede control of the National Guard and did not believe signing the order would speed the arrival of troops, said Bottcher, her press secretary.Bottcher was one of several state and local officials who said Sunday that they believed FEMA had inexplicably interfered with the delivery of aid from other states. She said FEMA held up aid offered by the mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley, and the governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson.Adam Sharp, a spokesman for Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said the problem was not who was in command; FEMA repeatedly held up assistance that could have been critical, he said.The U.S. Forest Service had waited for approval to use its water tanker aircraft to douse fires on the New Orleans riverfront, Sharp said, “but FEMA did not act.”The agency also delayed the use of Amtrak trains to move people out of the disaster zone and the distribution of communications equipment offered by private companies, he said.”FEMA has just been very slow to make these decisions,” Sharp said.Bob Mann, Blanco’s communications director, said he hadn’t had a “substantive conversation” with FEMA officials between Wednesday and Sunday, when they finally got in touch.In a clear slap at Chertoff and the FEMA director, Michael D. Brown, Blanco on Saturday announced that she had hired James Lee Witt, who was the director of the agency during the Clinton administration, to advise her on the recovery.