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FEMA / Red Cross

Katrina Response a Disaster

America's 2 Leading Emergency Relief Stumble Over their Own Bureaucracies

By Perry Hicks, Keith Burton   Filed 9/27/05

Washington, D.C. - The multitude of complaints about FEMA and the American Red Cross have not been lost on Congressman Gene Taylor-or Senator Trent Lott nor has the frustration of dealing with their respective bureaucracies.  For nearly a month, Taylor and Lott have been trying to work with both organizations in order to relieve the bottlenecks and sticking points that have prevented meaningful aid from reaching Hurricane Katrina’s victims.

"There’s no question that the initial federal response to this hurricane was  bad, hampered by missteps and red tape," said Lott in a recent article published on GCN.

Taylor was very blunt in an interview with GCN. Regarding FEMA's difficulty with its own supply chain management, Taylor said, "We shouldn't have to raid Wal-Marts and grocery stores to feed and clothe our first responders much less the suffering public."

The crisis in the first few weeks of the disaster was close to becoming an absolute nightmare if was not for the thousands of electrical service workers that managed to restore power, just as fuel was running out for emergency workers.

The Red Cross has also stumbled to get aid into the stricken Gulf Coast and survivors in emergency shelters and communities. People everywhere were asking each other, "Where's the Red Cross?" But even after Red Cross trucks started showing up, there were problems.

For example, the American Red Cross would only supply 300 vouchers per day, per relief station- even though thousands may be standing in line.  When Taylor’s office inquired as to why, the American Red Cross answer was that they had security concerns if more than that number of vouchers were kept on hand.

With Police and National Guard pressed to render emergency services, the obvious solution would be to co-locate Red Cross units with FEMA, whose centers enjoy a high degree of security.  However, FEMA would not allow Red Cross to operate under the same roof because FEMA considered victims receiving aid from both organizations to be “double-dipping.”

This notion that some survivors would get rich off of aid is a non sequitur considering the extreme destitution seen all along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Nor does it align with the cost of cleanup.

An insurance company may pay the cost of tree removal only if the tree hits the owner’s house. However, if the tree misses the house, then the homeowner would have to pay to have the tree removed.  For the kind of large old oaks and tall strip pines found along the coast, removal can be upwards of $7800.  FEMA’s allowance is only on the order of $800.

Adding to the homeowner’s misery is that electric power may not be reconnected until after the fallen trees are removed.

Bureaucratic Nightmare

Part of the problem is the scale of this disaster- on the order of 90 thousand square miles- comparable in size to the United Kingdom. Thus, the sheer magnitude of the relief has overwhelmed even the largest organizations.  However, the agency’s lack of common sense cannot be explained away by FEMA’s funding model nor the way its organizational size accordions from small to large with each new emergency.

The failure of an area’s communications system is something that was not taken in account by planners, but should have been. This is a horrendous oversight. Katrina’s devastation left a huge section of the South without any means of communications.

Both FEMA and the American Red Cross have built a system that relies on the Internet and telephones to communicate and process applications for aid, as if the victims of a disaster can sit in the comfort of their destroyed homes to telephone for help or login.  Yet, even when communications were clearly unavailable, mobile satellite Internet equipment has not been seen deployed along the Coast.  Instead, four weeks after the disaster, FEMA workers are still without the tools that their own system requires.

The problem here is that the worst hit victims do not have phone service. It will take another full month after Katrina for many to see service restored. And for those without homes, or phones. Well, the answer is obvious, no help. Bell South is advising repairs may not be completed until late November and new telephone service will not be available until at least early next year.

Telecommunication problems have been lost on FEMA, as the agency has had to use courier vehicles in order to communicate between their disaster relief centers.  Still, they have had no compunction to ask storm victims to do the very thing they could not.

In other ways, FEMA and Red Cross organizations also appear to be callous to public suffering as lines at all relief centers are long drawn-out grueling ordeals where people have had to endure over 100 degree heat indexes without benefit of shade for hours on end. When they do finally reach the front they come to find they are only registering for help. At that point they have no idea when, if ever, that help will arrive.

Even more shocking, Red Cross workers have not shown up at their centers until hours after the posted time and FEMA centers regularly dismantle their operations each night only to have to take valuable time setting them back up the next morning.

The centralized disaster relief services also fail to accommodate victims who  have to travel considerable distance to apply for aid, and on marginal roads, and with limited availability of fuel.

Likewise for phone and Internet banks that have been set up at 7 locations across Hancock County; Wi-Fi access had also been available at one location- a thoughtful convenience for those whose laptops were washed out to sea with the retreating storm surge.

Storm victims cannot receive aid until their property has been inspected.  With no phones, many owners have to camp out in front of their former home's debris- out in the open- so they will be there when the inspector does finally arrive.

Congressman Gene Taylor’s office has even advised GCN that desperate constituents have even flagged down passing FEMA inspectors begging them inspect their property only to be told they are going somewhere else.  The inspection would have only been to acknowledge the home is no more.

The reason FEMA wants as many people to apply online or use call centers is to relieve workers from having to hand process all of the applications for aid.  Another problem, beyond the tiny number of residents who have Internet service, is that FEMA’s website did not function well.  It froze or otherwise did not load correctly.

FEMA officials that GCN has spoken to were actually fearful of talking to us. These people are in a difficult situation without a clear understanding of what to do. Just like others trying to help, the volunteers with the Red Cross and the workers with FEMA were trying to make do with what they were given. “Please don’t get me in trouble,” said one FEMA employee. Another said he would only provide information on background, but asked not to be quoted. This is not the type of communications that garners confidence in an agency that is tasked with literally saving people’s lives following a disaster.

FEMA’s leaders have blamed local governments and politicians for their failure to get services to the people. “We have to be asked,” is the statement FEMA has repeated told the press. But this is nonsense. Local officials don’t even know what to ask for, or who, as there is very little instruction prior to an event that local officials can even implement in their own disaster planning. Just how hard would it be for FEMA and the Red Cross to provide necessary instructions prior to a disaster?

Cleanup Contractors: No Jobs for Locals

Without detailed national reporting, much of the country may believe that the situation along the Mississippi Gulf Coast is now under control.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Entire towns have been utterly destroyed; a great number of people are without homes; without insurance protection they thought their premiums had paid for; without jobs; and after a full month, savings are running out with no prospect of a paying job coming anywhere in the near future.

Adding insult to injury are new reports that recovery contractors prefer illegal immigrants to local workers who are desperate for the income.  Contractors have been reported to have told prospective applicants, “We have no jobs for locals.”

The outlook for local governments is just as dire.  With vast numbers of homes utterly destroyed, both county and municipal tax revenue will be severely depressed at just the very time most every government function will have to be rebuilt or repurchased.  There is a very real possibility that Waveland, Pass Christian, and Long Beach, will be bankrupted to the point one or more could, if not supported at the state level, incorporation-wise, cease to exist.

Furthermore, the specter of long-term depopulation will blight local government prospects to float bonds or otherwise raise the funds necessary to render their communities fit for repopulation.

Has the Blame-game Impacted Relief Efforts? 

With much of the media attention having been on the New Orleans debacle, Mississippi would seem to have been short changed in the allocation of relief resources.  Senators Trent Lott and Thad Cochran along with Congressman Gene Taylor have had to remind President Bush that while 80% of New Orleans was flooded, an 80-mile band along the Mississippi Gulf Coast was utterly destroyed. Mississippi needs resources, too.

Recognizing this disparity raises an interesting question: Did the latest incarnation of “Get Bush” attacks- blaming the president for the failings of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco- deprive Mississippi of much needed relief?

Congressman Gene Taylor told GCN he could not objectively comment on the scope of the comparative aid given to Louisiana because he simply did not have all of the facts.  Still, Taylor had harsh words for former FEMA chief Michael Brown. GCN’s interview with Taylor occurred shortly after Taylor spoke at a Congressional hearing on the government’s response to Katrina.

"I was able to speak with Mr. Brown at some length today and I can tell you the attitude of FEMA's people is a reflection of him; self-centered and bureaucratic," Taylor told GCN, "Brown is just out of touch with reality. He talks as if ice were a luxury.  He has no idea of what ice is being used for."

Brown's defense has been that FEMA is not a first-responder, a notion that obviously angers Taylor.

"The Red Cross is a private organization whose performance can be judged by it donators.  On the other hand, FEMA has the responsibility and full authority of the Federal Government.  It is not for them (FEMA) to rely on faith-based groups or the Red Cross or anyone else," said Taylor, his voice rising a note in measured passion.

When asked if he believed charges that FEMA withheld or even diverted much needed relief supplies, Taylor answered in the affirmative.

"I believe these charges to be true.  FEMA had no accurate count of what supplies were coming or when they would be there.  You can't ration if you don't know what you have or what is coming," said Taylor.

As to the performance of state and local entities Taylor indicated that he was well pleased, particularly law enforcement and the Mississippi National Guard:

"The National Guard had to go around FEMA's bad decisions to get things done and if they hadn't, people would have died of dehydration - and remember, the Mississippi National Guard is at only ½ strength (due to deployment in Iraq) and a better part of their heavy equipment was left behind."

Inappropriate Uses of Force

It would only be expected that with such indifferent attitudes from relief organizations that some storm victims would snap.  Reported in Biloxi’s Sun Herald, one man, Billy Wayne Livingston, made a non-specific threat along the lines of “Watch what might happen.” Evidently, expressing strong disenchantment with relief efforts is sufficient to warrant his arrest.

While the man obviously needs help on a multitude of levels, official conduct otherwise raises concern that inappropriate levels of force are being used even in non-threatening situations.

For example, GCN publisher and editor, Keith Burton was accosted by a Homeland Security officer for merely taking a picture in the FEMA relief center housed in Biloxi’s Donnell Snyder Center.

“There were no signs saying cameras are not allowed. I was in the process of taking a photo when the officer grabbed my arm and told me I would not be taking pictures,” Burton said. “After I lowered my camera, he still didn't let go of my arm.  He was very threatening.”

Burton explained that this action made him feel violated.  “This is a public place owned by the city in which I am a resident.  This is in a place that before the storm I played racquetball 3 days a week.  The officer made me feel like he was some kind of invader. His reaction to my presence was totally unwarranted. I was no terrorist”

Perfection Not Expected, But…

Because the storm-affected area is enormous, some amount of time for relief agencies to ramp up efforts could be expected.  However, failure to plan for field communications, manage the emergency supply chain, staff relief centers in a timely manner, or have an orderly method in place to interact with local governments is inexcusable. These are common sense issues that would save lives and time and should have been understood in light of 911. It seems even 911 was not enough to provide a clarity of mission for FEMA. 

Real boots-on-the-ground care for the suffering survivors of Katrina and now Hurricane Rita have been far better afforded by faith-based and other private relief efforts than either the Red Cross or FEMA, which suggests both agencies need to re-examine their missions and their methods. Already, it has been too little, too late and we are tired of excuses.

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