FEMA realized its response to Hurricane Katrina was “broken” and braced for rioting over woefully low supplies in Mississippi in the days just after the storm, according to new documents released Monday.
The correspondence among Federal Emergency Management Agency officials, provided by a special House committee investigating the government response to the storm, follows the release last week of more than 100,000 documents by Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Taken together, the details from both states provide evidence that FEMA was unable to provide fast help at disaster sites — even when the needs were obvious.
“This is unlike what we have seen before,” William Carwile, former FEMA’s top responder in Mississippi, said in a Sept. 1 e-mail to officials at the agency’s headquarters. He was describing difficulties in getting body bags and refrigerated trucks to Hancock County, Miss., which was badly damaged by the Aug. 29 storm.
“I personally authorized Hancock County to buy refer (sic) trucks that had been carrying ice because (sic) the coroner was going to have to start putting bodies out in the parking lot as his cooler was getting full,” wrote Carwile, who has since retired from FEMA. “Still lots and lots of bodies out there.”
‘System appears broken’
The next day, in another e-mail to headquarters about substandard levels of food, water and ice being distributed in Mississippi, Carwile reported: “System appears broken.”
In a Sept. 1 exchange, FEMA regional response official Robert Fenton warned headquarters that the expected levels of water and ice being sent were far below what was needed.
“If we get the quantities in your report tomorrow we will have serious riots,” Fenton wrote.
Responding, Carwile wrote: “Turns out this report is true. .... There seems to be no way we will get commodities in amounts beyond those indicated below. And it turns out these shortfalls were known much earlier in the day and we were not informed.
“Will need big time law enforcement reinforcements tomorrow,” Carwile’s e-mail continued. “All our good will here in MS will be very seriously impacted by noon tomorrow. Have been holding it together as it is.”
Some seek inquiry boycott
The special House committee, chaired by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., released eight pages of e-mails. While some Democrats are participating, their party leaders have asked lawmakers to boycott the inquiry that they believe should be done by an independent commission.
In all, the House committee is reviewing hundreds of thousands of documents from local, state and federal officials who were involved in the disaster relief effort.
The Louisiana documents released late Friday revealed delays and state claims that requests for federal help weren’t received, and reflected partisan battling between the Republican Bush administration and Blanco, a Democrat.
The Mississippi documents, though only a handful were released, showed no political tensions between local officials and Washington. But FEMA officials in the state were among the first to admit that needs weren’t being met.
“Gulfport Ms only has enough commodities for roughly 3 hours distribution tomorrow,” FEMA deputy chief of staff Scott Morris wrote in an e-mail sent at 11:46 p.m. on Aug. 29 — just hours after the storm roared ashore. “Apparently, the local law enforcement officials have allowed evacuees back into city.”
Replying to Carwile’s e-mail about body bag shortages, Morris wrote: “Let me know how I can help. 24/7 whatever you need.”
House panel meets Wednesday
The House committee will hold a hearing Wednesday focusing on the response in Mississippi, at which Carwile and Republican Gov. Haley Barbour are scheduled to testify.
“These exchanges point once again to problems of coordination and communication — unfortunately, a recurring theme throughout our investigation,” said committee spokesman Robert White.
FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews said the agency is undergoing an internal review for changes as ordered by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
“One of the things we have learned is that our logistic resources weren’t up to the task, and the technology that we were using wasn’t up to the task.” Andrews said. Chertoff “has said that one of his priorities is retooling FEMA and, as part of that, making it a 21st century agency.”