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Federal response to Katrina a "national disgrace"

Saturday, September 3, 2005

Onsite commentators are blasting the United States federal government, saying the response to Hurricane Katrina has been too slow and otherwise inadequate.

President Bush visits victims in Biloxi Sept. 2

Mayor Ray Nagin has repeatedly pleaded for more help.

The Washington Post reports that on the Friday after the storm, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco got a proposal from the federal government for her to request a federal takeover of the evacuation of New Orleans. The state rejected that option hours later. Blanco had declared a state of emergency on August 26. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has pointed out "our constitutional system really places the primary authority in each state with the governor."

The city's police chief warned that storm victims were being raped and beaten on the streets. Even in the Superdome stadium and the city convention center, where tens of thousands had awaited evacuation, fights had broken out, rubbish burned, and dead bodies have been left uncollected. The Superdome evacuation was completed Saturday night. The Superdome had been opened as a refuge of last resort for people who did not participate in the voluntary evacuation of the city before the storm.

FEMA map of affected areas.

The head of New Orleans' emergency operations, Terry Ebbert, complained that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was not doing its job. "This is a national emergency. This is a national disgrace," he said. "FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control. We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can't bail out New Orleans." Ebbert also said he hasn't seen "a single FEMA guy" at the Superdome Wednesday (the main staging area was 6 miles away along the adjoining I-10 at the Causeway intersection); the photo at right had been taken three days earlier by a FEMA worker before the storm. FEMA estimated the damage in all states affected where 637,994 people usually live.

New Orleans evacuation Wednesday, August 31. (FEMA)

Web pundits suggest that Mike Brown, the head of FEMA, will "be chosen to take the fall" for the poor response. [1] A critic at the International Arabian Horse Association, which previously fired Mike Brown, said "He was an unmitigated, total...disaster. I was shocked as hell when captain clueless (a reference to President G.W. Bush) put him in charge of FEMA a couple of years ago." [2] It has also been suggested that the impact of the philosophy of privatization has damaged federal emergency response, but the validity of such claims has not been assessed. [3]

Not all federal agencies are being blasted for their role in exacerbating the disaster. In particular, the Coast Guard has been lauded for its rescue efforts, which began immediately. There was been widespread criticism of the failure to mobilize National Guard units from other states. Such units have now been deployed, but the debate over their slow deployment will rage for some time. Sunday the Washington Post reported that Louisiana did not reach out to a multi-state mutual aid compact for assistance until Wednesday.

USS Tortuga at dock in New Orleans. (Search and rescue mission began September 4)

A significant component of the criticism directed at federal and state governments has been the lack of access given to local volunteers and the Red Cross.[4] Local officials, especially Mayor Nagin, have been harshly criticized for failing to follow existing evacuation plans. In particular, aerial photographs show numerous unused city school buses, which were to have been used in the evacuation.

Over twenty-five nations, some with assets in the area, have offered aid to the city of New Orleans, but the president has refused all material aid from foreign nations. Such refusal of aid is not uncommon among nations with coldy hostile relationships, such as between the U.S. and Cuba or Venezuela, but it has created a stir among the European media.

As of September 4th, the US has extended a "wish list" largely duplicating the offer from Germany. German supplies, including an airborne hospital are expected to arrive September 5th. The US has also asked the EU and NATO for assistance. [5]

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