WASHINGTON — Former FEMA director Michael Brown was warned weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit that his agency’s backlogged computer systems could delay supplies and put personnel at risk during an emergency, according to an audit released Wednesday.
An internal review of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s information-sharing system shows it was overwhelmed during the 2004 hurricane season. The audit was released a day after Brown vehemently defended FEMA for the government’s dismal response to Katrina, instead blaming state and local officials for poor planning and chaos during the Aug. 29 storm and subsequent flooding.
The review by Homeland Security Department acting Inspector General Richard L. Skinner examined FEMA’s response to four major hurricanes and a tropical storm that hit Florida and the Gulf Coast in August and September 2004. It noted FEMA’s mission during disasters as rapid response and coordinating efforts among federal, state and local authorities.
‘No sharing of information’
“However, FEMA’s systems do not support effective or efficient coordination of deployment operations because there is no sharing of information,” the audit found. “Consequently, this created operational inefficiencies and hindered the delivery of essential disaster response and recovery services,” it said.
Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said parts of the report were misleading because FEMA’s system was never designed to track supplies — although it is now testing a Global Positioning System program, used during Katrina, to do just that.
“We are taking a look at a broad range of issues that have come up as a result of the hurricane,” Knocke said. “Obviously, logistics support systems present some concerns and that is an area that we will address moving forward.”
In an Aug. 3 response, Brown and one of his deputies rejected the audit, calling it unacceptable, erroneous and negative.
“The overall tone of the report is negative,” wrote FEMA chief information officer Barry C. West in an Aug. 3 letter that Brown initialed.
“We believe this characterization is inaccurate and does not acknowledge the highly performing, well managed and staffed (informational technology) systems supporting FEMA incident response and recovery.”
Among the problems the audit identified:
- FEMA’s system could not track and coordinate delivery of ice and water to Florida, resulting in millions of dollars worth of ice left unused at response centers, and $1.6 million in leftover water returned to storage.
- An estimated 200,000 victims had to wait for temporary housing aid from disaster assistance employees because of backlogged computers.
- Emergency personnel were potentially put at risk because the system did not provide real-time disaster warnings and other information.
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