Tuesday, January 31, 2006

FEMA Official Acknowledges Agency Ignored Some Offers for Help During Hurricane Katrina Response

ABC News
FEMA Acknowledges Blunders During Katrina
FEMA Official Acknowledges Agency Ignored Some Offers for Help During Hurricane Katrina Response
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Poor planning and communication plagued FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina, a top agency official said Monday, acknowledging that other federal departments' offers to help rescue storm victims went unheard or were ignored.

But new documents released hours later showed that state officials, in at least some cases, initially turned down federal assistance as the Aug. 29 storm bore down on the Gulf Coast.

Two days before Katrina hit, offers by the Department of Health and Human Services to help evacuate or move Louisiana patients were turned down by the state's health emergency preparedness director, according to an internal e-mail.

The state official, identified in the Aug. 27 e-mail as Dr. Roseanne Pratts, "responded no, that they do not require anything at this time and they would be in touch if and when they needed assistance," HHS senior policy analyst Erin Fowler wrote.

But in an interview Monday night, Louisiana Medical Director Dr. Jimmy Guidry said HHS was helping state health officials plan for evacuating hospitals and nursing homes by the eve of the storm. The federal department also stayed after Katrina hit to help the state coordinate transportation assets, like ambulances and military vehicles, Guidry said.

"They sent people to help us out," Guidry said of HHS officials in Louisiana. "They helped us get all those assets lined up."

At the time of the HHS e-mail, Guidry said, the state was still weighing "what the needs would be" for patient safety including those whom officials initially did not want to move for fear of worsening their conditions. "At that point in time there was no request as to any kind of evacuation," Guidry said.

At least 40 bodies, many of them elderly patients, were found inside a flooded New Orleans hospital after Katrina hit. Additionally, 34 patients at a nursing home near New Orleans died Aug. 29 in the wake of massive flooding brought by the storm's surge. The nursing home's owners have since been charged with negligent homicide for failing to evacuate the patients.

The e-mail was released by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is investigating the government's response to Katrina. It also released a Senate interview of Louisiana Transportation Secretary Johnny Bradberry, during which he told investigators that "we have done nothing to fulfill this responsibility" of ensuring evacuation plans are in place for at-risk populations.

"We put no plans in place to do any of this," Bradberry said in the Dec. 21 interview, of which 12 pages were released by the Senate committee.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the panel's chairwoman, called the documents "disturbing findings that our investigation will examine very closely." The committee is scheduled to examine evacuation procedures in a hearing Tuesday.

At a hearing Monday , the chief of response operations at the Federal Emergency Management Agency told senators he was unaware that the Interior Department offered to send boats, planes, trucks and personnel to rescue Katrina's victims immediately after Katrina hit.

"Communications and coordination was lacking, preplanning was lacking," FEMA official William Lokey testified. "We were not prepared for this."

"Does that suggest a symptomatic problem when you, as a federal coordinating official, do not get word that these assets are available?" Collins asked.

"At minimum, that shows we have a lot more work to do at the federal level," Lokey replied.

Underscoring communication problems between state and federal officials, Lokey said FEMA rejected a request by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries for rubber boats to rescue victims stranded in flooded areas. Instead, he said, FEMA provided a smaller number of flat-bottom boats that could not be punctured by debris in the water.

Lt. Col. Keith Lacaze, the state Wildlife and Fisheries assistant administrator, said the rubber boats could have been used to rescue sick and immobile victims in shallow-water areas.

"I believe the rafts would have been beneficial, especially in the early stages," Lacaze said.

But Lokey strove to explain an internal FEMA e-mail, dated Sept. 1, indicating the agency was pulling back its search and rescue task force efforts in Louisiana even as other federal departments frantically kept trying.

Lokey said rescues were suspended only temporarily perhaps only a day because of looting and other security problems in the days right after the storm hit

"They did not pull out," Lokey said.

"They just pulled back?" asked Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., the panel's top Democrat.

"They redirected in other places and they did not go into the hazardous area until they ascertained exactly what the threat was and were able to get law enforcement people to accompany them," Lokey said.

The testimony came in the latest hearing of the Senate inquiry into the government's sluggish response to Katrina. The panel is expected to issue its findings in mid-March. A separate House panel is concluding its own investigation with a report due Feb. 15.

On the Net:

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs: http://hsgac.senate.gov/