Tuesday, September 13, 2005

"heck of a job"

Documents Reveal Extent of Fumbles On Storm Relief

September 13, 2005; Page A3

WASHINGTON – As the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency stepped down yesterday, government documents surfaced showing that vital resources, such as buses and environmental health specialists, weren't deployed to the Gulf region for several days, even after federal officials seized control of Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.
Separately, internal documents and emails from FEMA and other government agencies dating back to Aug. 31 and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show the extent to which the federal government bungled its response to the hurricane. The documents highlight serious deficiencies in the Department of Homeland Security's National Response Plan, a post-Sept. 11 playbook on how to deal with catastrophic events. Mr. Chertoff activated the National Response Plan last Tuesday by declaring the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina an "Incident of National Significance."

The plan, which was rolled out to much fanfare in January, essentially enables Washington to move federal assets to the disaster without waiting for requests from state officials. It then funnels help from all federal agencies through a single point of contact -- usually the secretary of homeland security -- a reform demanded after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.


See Michael Brown's legal profile on FindLaw.


In one instance, federal environmental health specialists, who were charged with protecting both rescue workers and evacuees, weren't called in by the Department of Homeland Security until Sunday -- 12 days after the Occupational Safety & Health Administration announced it had teams from various agencies standing by ready to assist. Even now, with mounting evidence of environmental problems, the deployment is being held up by continuing interagency wrangling, according to officials at the National Institutes of Health, which also is involved in the effort.

Homeland Security officials said that when Mr. Chertoff declared Katrina a nationally significant event, all provisions of the National Response Plan -- including ones for health and safety -- were activated. "This is the first test of the NRP and we will have lessons learned," said Valerie Smith, a department spokeswoman.

In addition, FEMA's official requests, known as tasking assignments and used by the agency to demand help from other government agencies, show that it first asked the Department of Transportation to look for buses to help evacuate the more than 20,000 people who had taken refuge at the Superdome in New Orleans at 1:45 a.m. on Aug. 31. At the time, it only asked for 455 buses and 300 ambulances for the enormous task. Almost 18 hours later, it canceled the request for the ambulances because it turned out, as one FEMA employee put it, "the DOT doesn't do ambulances."

FEMA ended up modifying the number of buses it thought it needed to get the job done, until it settled on a final request of 1,355 buses at 8:05 p.m. on Sept. 3. The buses, though, trickled into New Orleans, with only a dozen or so arriving on the first day.

Hours before FEMA realized that it needed buses, Jonathan L. Snare, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, said he was prepared to offer the full resources of the agency to help protect the safety and health of workers responding to Katrina.

Health and safety experts play an important role by testing the environment at a disaster for toxins, disease and pathogens. They then advise rescue workers about needs for protective clothing for themselves as well as for the people they are trying to move from harm's way.

The National Response Plan gives OSHA responsibility to coordinate efforts to protect and monitor disaster workers and victims from environmental hazards.

But the part of the plan that authorizes OSHA's role as coordinator and allows it to mobilize experts from other agencies such as NIH wasn't activated by FEMA until shortly before 5 p.m. Sunday. The delay came despite repeated efforts by the agencies to mobilize.

Attempts by officials at NIH to reach FEMA officials and send them briefing materials by email failed as the agency's server failed.

"I noticed that every email to a FEMA person bounced back this week. They need a better internet provider during disasters!!" one frustrated Department of Health official wrote to colleagues last Thursday.

By Friday, experts and officials from NIH, the Department of Labor and the Environmental Protection Agency began to make frantic calls to the Department of Homeland Security and members of Congress, demanding that the worker-safety portion of the national response plan be activated.

No reason has been offered by either FEMA or the Department of Homeland Security for the delay in activating OSHA's role.

Some Homeland Security officials are already starting to acknowledge significant weaknesses in the national response plan, which was completely disregarded at times during the crisis.

"We at the department are not well prepared, and unfortunately, recent history has shown that that's the case," Lee Holcomb, the department chief technology officer told a breakfast meeting of Information Technology executives on Wednesday in Washington.


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