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Sunday, September 11, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

Complete hurricane coverage

Complete hurricane coverage

A seattletimes.com special section

Government's failures doomed many

Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina crashed into the Gulf Coast, there is little argument that the response was botched. But an extensive Knight Ridder review of official actions in the days just before and after Katrina's landfall Monday, Aug. 29, reveals a depth of government hesitancy and lack of urgency that may have cost scores of people their lives.

The Department of Homeland Security, facing its first major catastrophe since it was created, spun its wheels. The White House never appointed a coordinator to monitor disaster developments.

Although several government agencies were certain by 6 p.m. Monday that New Orleans' levee system had given way, no official called for urgent help when daylight hours might still have permitted a rescue effort.

By that time, water had been pouring from the damaged 17th Street Canal for perhaps as long as 15 hours. A National Guard Bureau timeline places the breach at 3 a.m. Monday, and an Army Corps of Engineers official said a civilian phoned him about the problem at 5 a.m., saying he had heard about it from a state police officer.

But officials sounded no alarm until Tuesday morning, after the city had been flooding for at least 24 hours.

No one knows how many people might have survived Katrina if officials had responded more aggressively. The official death toll is now 383.

But what's clear is that four years after terrorists flew hijacked aircraft into buildings in New York and Washington, the United States is no better prepared to respond to catastrophe — even when it comes with days of public anticipation and warning.

A final accounting of what went wrong and what went right will take months, perhaps longer. Some agencies performed splendidly: The Coast Guard launched rescue missions of people trapped by the flooding as soon as the weather permitted. But it's already clear that a multitude of local, state and federal officials and agencies failed the people in Katrina's path.

Slow to mobilize

The Homeland Security Department, established after the Sept. 11 attacks, waited until 36 hours after Katrina struck to declare it an "incident of national significance." The never-before-used disaster designation was established in the post-Sept. 11 National Response Plan to mobilize the full strength of the federal government, including the military, to deal with a catastrophe.

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The Pentagon had put cargo planes on alert, but Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld took in a baseball game in San Diego on Monday night, Aug. 29, while floodwaters inundated New Orleans. The military didn't activate a task force to respond until Wednesday, Aug. 31, two days after landfall. By then, Katrina was little more than a rainstorm over Ohio.

Before landfall, President Bush, on vacation in Crawford, Texas, was briefed repeatedly on the storm's progress. He was deeply engaged, issuing disaster relief orders, talking to the governors of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, and, on the Sunday before landfall, urging citizens in Katrina's path to seek safety.

But no member of the White House staff was assigned responsibility for tracking federal actions, and no senior official was given oversight responsibilities. Asked in an e-mail who had been in charge at the White House as the storm bore down, administration spokeswoman Dana Perino replied, "Overall, the president is in charge at the White House."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, its top ranks filled by political appointees and its budget hit by deep cuts, seemed unable to grasp the magnitude of the disaster. On the day after the storm, FEMA Director Michael Brown met in Biloxi, Miss., with Gov. Haley Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman, and told him not to worry because FEMA had had lots of hurricane practice in Florida.

"I don't think you've seen anything like this," Barbour responded. "We're talking nuclear devastation."

Brown was removed Friday from overseeing disaster response and replaced by a Coast Guard admiral.

Both Barbour and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, also seemed not to understand the size of the storm headed their way when they issued their first National Guard call-ups — Barbour on Friday night, Aug. 26, and Blanco the following morning.

Barbour summoned about 1,000 troops initially, according to Mississippi National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Tim Powell, and placed an additional 600 on standby. That number was consistent with what the state had needed 36 years earlier after Camille, but it was inadequate given the gambling-fueled boom that had brought tens of thousands of new residents to the coast.

Blanco's contingent was larger, 4,000, but it was dwarfed by the more than 30,000 that eventually would be summoned to help.

Both Louisiana and Mississippi successfully employed so-called contra-flow plans that turned highways one-way out of the coastal area, to speed evacuation. New Orleans officials were pleased that 80 percent of the city's population had reached safety before the storm hit. But neither state had made any provision for getting people who did not have cars out of the danger zone.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, after receiving the most dire of warnings in a phone call from National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield a day and a half before landfall, delayed issuing a mandatory evacuation order for 15 hours. He finally told residents that the storm surge "most likely will topple our levee system" at 10 o'clock Sunday morning, when Katrina was on his city's doorstep.

In Harrison County, Miss., where Biloxi is located, Civil Defense Director Joe Spraggins, in his job less than a month, also declined to order an evacuation on Saturday, saying he wanted to wait to see what the storm did. A mandatory evacuation order came Sunday.

Perhaps the most startling failure came in the reaction — or the apparent lack of one — from federal, state and local officials to the discovery that New Orleans' fragile levee system had collapsed. Engineers and emergency planners had warned for years that such a collapse would be catastrophic for the below-sea-level city and the people who lived there.

Yet reports of the breach failed to spark action. The commander of the New Orleans district of the Army Corps of Engineers, Col. Richard Wagenaar, finally confirmed between 3 and 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 29, that a breach had occurred and reported it to headquarters in Vicksburg, Miss.

Mayor Nagin had told reporters during a 1 p.m. news conference that there was an unconfirmed report of a levee break, but he quickly turned to other topics. Shortly before nightfall, a FEMA official, back from a helicopter survey of the city, reported the breach to his colleagues in Baton Rouge, then broke the news to the mayor.

Still, no concerted effort was made to reach the thousands of people whose houses were rapidly filling with water. As many crawled from their flooded bedrooms into attics, and some hacked their way onto their roofs, much of the world went to sleep thinking that New Orleans had survived the worst.

Not until Tuesday dawned did the magnitude of the disaster become evident.

There were many other instances of bungling. Federal officials, accustomed to serving a supportive but not commanding role in a disaster, waited for specific requests from state and local officials. Local officials, overwhelmed, trapped by the devastation around them and unable to survey the damage, couldn't gather the information they needed to make specific requests. Radio communication was impossible and phone service was bad.

"You don't have to be a genius to know when the storm hits, you're going to need water, food, diesel, gasoline, evacuation needs, helicopters, boats, medicine," said Terry Ebbert, New Orleans' director of homeland security. "So why does someone call me up when I don't have any communications and ask me, 'What do I need?' The system needed to go into automatic."

Once the Hurricane Center drew the bull's-eye on New Orleans, at 10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 26, officials reacted quickly, at least in terms of saying all the necessary words.

On Friday night, Gov. Blanco declared a state of emergency in Louisiana. Gov. Barbour did the same in Mississippi. Bush backed up each declaration with a federal declaration.

Saturday evening, the Hurricane Center's Mayfield made a round of phone calls to top state and local officials to impress on them the severity of what was about to happen.

One of his calls went to Mayor Nagin in New Orleans. Earlier in the day, the mayor had called for a voluntary evacuation. But worried about such matters as the city's liability in ordering hotels and other businesses to shut down, Nagin had been reluctant to make the evacuation mandatory.

Now Mayfield told Nagin that this was the worst hurricane he had ever seen and that public officials ought to do everything in their power to get people out of the way.

"It scared the crap out of me," Nagin recalled. "I immediately said, 'My God, I have to call a mandatory evacuation.' "

Still, he hesitated. About 130,000 New Orleans residents lived below the poverty line, and he knew that he didn't have adequate shelter space or public transportation available to get the poor out of town. And what about hospitals? Should they be exempted? He and the city's lawyers wrestled with the issues through the night.

It was 10 a.m. Sunday morning before Nagin issued the order. People who couldn't get out on their own could board city buses at 12 locations for transport to the Louisiana Superdome, the shelter of last resort, he said.

As he was speaking, the National Weather Service at 10:11 a.m. issued a warning that Katrina, by then a Category 5 storm — the most severe, with winds of 155 mph or more — would make most of southeastern Louisiana "uninhabitable for weeks, perhaps longer." The forecast predicted "human suffering incredible by modern standards."

Superdome overwhelmed

By bus and by foot, as many as 25,000 people streamed to the Superdome. FEMA before the storm had dropped off 90,000 liters of water and 43,776 Meals-Ready-to-Eat at the Superdome, a place neither the state of Louisiana nor the city of New Orleans had planned to stock with food or water.

Why not? According to Art Jones, chief of the disaster recovery division of the Louisiana Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, the idea was that the Superdome should be the shelter of last resort, not a place where people would stay.

The elements, of course, would have something to say about that.

By Tuesday, Aug. 30, the focus was on FEMA.

With New Orleans flooded and the extent of the devastation in such Mississippi cities as Biloxi and Gulfport becoming clear, FEMA's few publicly available reports show that it had sent emergency crews to check out possible oil spills; that it was working with the Agriculture Department to provide food and water, and with Health and Human Services to supply doctors and medicine; and that it was deploying eight additional disaster medical-assistance teams, each team made up of 35 members. A medical team from Washington state was among the earliest to reach the devastated area.

That was about it.

FEMA Director Brown had flown into Baton Rouge on Sunday and had ridden out the storm at the state operations center there, confident that adequate preparations had been made. His agency had positioned ice, water and MREs in three layers — in the storm zone, in adjacent states, and at logistical centers in Atlanta and Denton, Texas. But getting the supplies distributed was proving to be a daunting challenge.

Problems mount

Homeland Security officials acknowledge they were struggling to come to grips with the problems on the ground. On Monday, Bush, while flying from his ranch to California, had made major emergency disaster declarations for Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, freeing up federal money.

But there was one step that the government had failed to take in this new, post-Sept. 11 emergency system: issuing an "incident of national significance" declaration. That would make disaster recovery a national responsibility.

Sometime in the late afternoon or early evening on Tuesday, Chertoff made the declaration, but no public announcement was made until Wednesday.

From the outset, it was clear that this was the sort of disaster that would require the intervention of the active-duty military — the arm of the government with the most personnel, the most resources and the most equipment.

That intervention, when it came, would prove critical in turning the tide.

FEMA's initial request for military help did not come until Tuesday, Aug. 30, the day after the storm, according to a Defense Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. It was for two helicopters for flyovers.

The military's Task Force Katrina, based at Camp Shelby, Miss., under Army Lt. Gen. Russell Honore, wasn't activated until Wednesday.

Coordination difficult

For all the criticism that has been directed at the decision-makers at every level, it's important not to forget how daunting the aftermath of Katrina was.

The storm will be remembered by the numbers: the death toll, the homes wiped out, the cost of rebuilding, and the amount of time the city and port of New Orleans were out of business. But dealing with its aftermath was an extraordinary challenge for all concerned. The communication breakdown made coordination difficult. No one, including Mayor Nagin, seemed to know that there were thousands of people at the New Orleans Convention Center, desperate for sustenance and protection, until television showed the scene (and the dead bodies) on Thursday.

The disaster deprived local communities, especially New Orleans, of many of their first responders. Some police officers and firefighters were trapped or dead or occupied with their own families. Some simply abandoned their jobs, contributing to the breakdown of law and order.

The flooding in and around the city caused all sorts of logistical problems.

When the time comes for the postmortems, and it will, one big question will be one that Nagin posed during hurricane week: How many people died as a result of us not having the resources to get them water, to get them pulled out of harm's way quick enough, to get them evacuated out of this city?

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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