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Senators eye FEMA fumble of Katrina aid offers

Poor planning and communication plagued the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response to Hurricane Katrina, a top agency official said on Monday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

William Lokey, 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 the Aug. 29 storm hit.

“Communications and coordination was lacking, preplanning was lacking,” Lokey testified at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing. “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?” asked Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the committee’s chair.

Answered Lokey: “At minimum, that shows we have a lot more work to do at the federal level.”

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.

They did not pull back’
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.

Spokesman: Agency ill-equipped
Russell Knocke, the Homeland Security spokesman, said up to 60,000 federal employees were sent to the Gulf Coast to respond to Katrina. However, “experience has shown that FEMA was not equipped with 21st century capabilities, and that is what (Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff) has committed as one of our top priorities going forward,” he said.

Collins called them “the most candid assessment that we’ve received from any federal agency.”

“Here we have another federal department offering skilled personnel and the exact kinds of assets that were so desperately needed in the Gulf region in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and there was no response that we can discern from FEMA,” Collins said in an interview Sunday. “That is incredible to me.”

Lieberman said the Interior documents underscore “an outrage on top of an outrage.”

800,000 pages
The documents were among 800,000 pages of memos, e-mails, plans and other papers gathered by investigators for the Senate committee.

Lieberman charged last week that the White House was hindering the inquiry by barring some staffers from answering investigators’ questions.

White House counselor Dan Bartlett maintained Sunday that the Bush administration would not give up specific internal documents or information from top presidential advisers.

“We’re making sure that they have all the information necessary while we also protect the separation of government,” Bartlett said on CNN’s “Late Edition.”

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that the federal government will spend “well over $100 billion” to help rebuild the still-reeling Gulf Coast. The government has so far committed about $85 billion, including $67 billion in direct spending approved by Congress.