Bodies of people killed by Hurricane Katrina went uncollected for more than a week in the New Orleans area as the federal government waited for Louisiana’s governor to decide what to do with them, according to memos released Thursday by a Republican-led House committee.
The 38 pages of e-mail between FEMA representatives and Pentagon officials contradict the contention by Louisiana’s Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco, two weeks after Katrina hit on Aug. 29, that the federal government was moving too slowly to recover the bodies.
They also underscore ongoing political tensions between the Republican Bush administration and Democratic state and local officials over the botched response to Katrina, which killed more than 1,000 people in Louisiana. They were released by a House panel that many Democrats have shunned, chaired by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., that is investigating the government’s sluggish preparations and reaction to the storm.
The memos indicate that morgues were not ready to receive bodies until Sept. 7 — two days after the first memo complaining about Blanco’s inaction and nine days after Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast.
“Number 1 issue is body collection,” Army Col. John J. Jordan, the military assistant to former Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown, wrote in a Sept. 5 e-mail to various Pentagon officials.
“This issue must be addressed, and frankly, there is operations paralysis at this point,” Jordan wrote. “FEMA is pushing state to see what they want to do, and indications are that governor is involved in some of the decisions,” especially regarding burial.
Urging Michael Brown to begin body collection
“Believe organized collection must begin today once morgue is operational or it will become evident to media that plan for collection is not in place,” Jordan wrote in the e-mail, which was sent to Brown and Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, the military coordinator for the disaster.
But the morgue did not open until two days later, according to the Sept. 7 e-mail from Jordan.
“First morgue site is fully operational,” Jordan wrote to the Pentagon officials. “...Believe media and family member interest will continue to cause security concerns.”
Nearly a week later, on Sept. 13, Blanco lashed out at the federal government, accusing it of moving too slowly in recovering the bodies and saying it was disrespectful to wait so long.
Blanco spokesman Bob Mann said Thursday it was FEMA’s responsibility for removing bodies, which was delayed because the agency failed to sign a contract with Houston-based Kenyon International Emergency Services to do so.
Blanco “was almost literally jumping up and down and screaming about FEMA’s failure to execute the contract with Kenyon,” Mann said. “There were few things during that period that were more important and more urgent to the governor than doing something about this body removal. It was important to her that these people be treated with dignity, that these bodies not be allowed to lay out in the street.”
“Yes, there was paralysis, but it was on the part of FEMA,” Mann said.
Kenyon International President Robert Jensen said in a telephone interview Thursday night that it was his company’s decision not to sign a contract with FEMA. He declined to give reasons, other than to say that money was not the issue. Kenyon later accepted a contract with the state.
Focusing on survivors first
Officials have said they were more focused on rescuing Katrina’s survivors immediately after the storm hit than on picking up bodies.
“For that first week following the storm ... all efforts were focused almost exclusively on rescuing the victims who were still alive,” said Bob Johannesen, a spokesman for Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals.
Davis spokesman David Marin said the issue “offers further evidence that state and local officials were utterly overwhelmed.”
Rep. Bennie Thompson, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said the federal government must be better prepared to quickly step in disasters of Katrina’s size.
“Finger-pointing does not provide answers to grieving relatives,” said Thompson, D-Miss.
Evacuation not enforced?
The memos describe what federal officials called a decision by Blanco to not enforce a mandatory evacuation order in New Orleans. They also note that New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin “is not prohibiting residents from returning.”
“Since FEMA did not anticipate reversal of decision for mandatory evacuation, crisis-action planning is now underway to provide this support,” Jordan wrote in the Sept. 5 e-mail.
Mann said more than 1 million people evacuated New Orleans by the eve of Katrina’s arrival, and that Blanco encouraged people to leave town through a major public information effort.
Forcibly removing people or threatening arrest for those who chose to stay behind was not a realistic option, Mann said. “I don’t know how you enforce a mandatory evacuation order,” he said.