Video: Thwarted by indecision

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updated 9/8/2005 7:46:10 PM ET 2005-09-08T23:46:10

As the floodwaters rose last Tuesday, the civilian director of the New Orleans Port police made a stunning decision. She ordered all harbor officers to abandon their posts and flee to higher ground. Angry eyewitnesses tell NBC News that only the police chief and two officers stayed on duty. So, they say, there were no Harbor Police rescue boats in the water for rescues for four days.

“I sent them to high ground because I did not want them to become victims of rising flood water,” says Cynthia Swain, Port of New Orleans Security Director,

“Those boats certainly could have made a difference in rescuing people,” says Jane Bullock, a former FEMA chief of staff for the Clinton administration.

The decision was just one of many questionable calls, at all levels of government, which delayed or deprived victims of desperately needed help.

One medical assessment team — veterans of 31 disasters — can treat hundreds of patients a day, but for 11 days, it’s been repeatedly redirected by FEMA from Alabama to Biloxi to Dallas to Galveston. So far, they’ve treated one small cut. 

“We joined the team to help people who need it and we are not helping anybody,” says a frustrated Tim Ward, logistics officer and EMT with Georgia-3 Disaster Medical Assistance Team.

Thursday, FEMA told them to pack up again and move to Houston.

For nine days a mobile communications unit has been sitting in Germany with a chartered plane standing by, ready to provide desperately needed equipment for first responders. Company officials complain they’ve placed hundreds of calls and can still get no answer from FEMA.  “This is the most frustrating exercise in futility I’ve had in my entire professional life,” says satellite services provider Uri Bar-Zemer.

Last Friday, Mississippi asked FEMA for 20,000 trailers for temporary housing. On Monday, when nothing had happened, Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi asked President Bush to intervene personally. The next day he was told that 400 trailers were on the way.

“Just put it anywhere,” Lott said Tuesday, “Just get them there. We’ll put them in the right place!”

Thursday, NBC News found hundreds of trailers still sitting in a facility in Georgia.

“I believe that this response has been chaotic, indecisive and has caused the loss of lives that was unnecessary and unacceptable,” says Bullock.

And while the overall situation has improved, the chaos on the ground drags on.  

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