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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

FEMA head ignored warnings

FEMA's top official was told more than a year before Hurricane Katrina that the agency's emergency response teams were unprepared for a major disaster and were operating under outdated plans, documents show.

FEMA’s top official was told more than a year before Hurricane Katrina that the agency’s emergency response teams were unprepared for a major disaster and were operating under outdated plans, documents show.

Additionally, e-mails obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press indicate that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff tried to call Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco the afternoon before Katrina hit. The e-mails indicate she could not be immediately reached and may have been napping.

A spokeswoman for the governor said Wednesday that Blanco was getting personal items at her residence when Chertoff called. “There was no time for napping,” Denise Bottcher said.

An 11-page memo to Michael Brown, former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, from June 2004 described teams of national response managers that were not prepared and were getting “zero funding for training, exercise or team equipment.”

Those responders “provide the only practical, expeditious option for the (FEMA) director to field a cohesive team of his best people to handle the next big one,” wrote William Carwile, one of FEMA’s federal coordinating officers.

As for the plans that response teams use during an emergency, Carwile wrote: “Revision should be a priority since not one word of response doctrine … has been published in over two years.”

Carwile told Senate aides in a meeting this week that his memo largely was ignored at FEMA’s headquarters, as were four budget requests over an 18-month period for money for the teams. He said each team needed about $1.2 million for training and equipment, according to an aide who attended the meeting.

Brown resigned from FEMA on Sept. 12, under fire in the wake of the government’s sluggish reaction to Katrina and questions about his own professional experience in responding to disasters.

FEMA’s two national response teams are sent from Washington only during catastrophic events. The teams include FEMA’s most experienced emergency managers, who coordinate response and recovery operations with state officials, and assign tasks to other federal agencies.

FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews said one team was sent to Louisiana on Aug. 27, two days before Katrina hit.

The teams were redesigned this May 2005 to make them “more responsive and more nimble,” Andrews said. She said the agency budgeted $6.2 million last year to boost similar response operations.

Asked if any of the changes reflected Carwile’s concerns, Andrews said: “It certainly addressed the process of making them more efficient and effective.”

Carwile, who retired from the agency in October, wrote the memo on behalf of the agency’s other regional coordinating officers.

He planned to testify Thursday at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on FEMA’s response operations.

The committee’s top aide, Michael Bopp, questioned Carwile during the meeting this week and said the former FEMA official described himself as “very uncomfortable that the teams weren’t ready to go.”

“You have your most senior operations people within FEMA telling you, loud and clear, what needs to be changed to make the response and recovery to major disasters to be effective, and nothing is ever done,” Bopp said. “That is a real failure in management.”

A separate batch of federal documents details Chertoff’s efforts to get in touch with Blanco as Katrina neared the Gulf Coast.

“Your assistance would be appreciated,” Homeland Security senior intelligence analyst Mark Fischer wrote in an e-mail to two of Blanco’s press aides. It was dated 12:30 p.m. on Aug. 28, the day before Katrina hit.

“Secretary Chertoff, Department of Homeland Security, is attempting to contact Governor Blanco via telephone,” the e-mail said.

Subsequent e-mails between Blanco’s aides show their attempts to get the message to the governor. One, at 1:59 p.m. noted: “I think she’s asleep now.”

At 2:13 p.m., the e-mails show, Blanco deputy press secretary Roderick Hawkins wrote Fischer back to report: “Governor Blanco is unavailable at the present time. However, I have given her staff the numbers you provided in your original message. You may try to reach her at approximately 3 p.m.”

Bottcher, the governor’s spokeswoman, said Blanco spoke with President Bush that day and talked with Chertoff “several times during the course of the storm.” She said Blanco started her day at 4:30 a.m. and worked until after midnight, returning to her residence briefly for some personal items and to make some phone calls.

“No one got confirmation that she was napping,” Bottcher said. “There was no time for napping.”

© 2005 The Associated Press