FEMA, Slow to the Rescue, Now Stumbles in Aid Effort

JENNIFER STEINHAUER and ERIC LIPTON

New York Times

September 17, 2005

BATON ROUGE, La., Sept 16 - Nearly three weeks after Hurricane Katrina cut its devastating path, FEMA - the same federal agency that botched the rescue mission - is faltering in its effort to aid hundreds of thousands of storm victims, local officials, evacuees and top federal relief officials say. The federal aid hot line mentioned by President Bush in his address to the nation on Thursday cannot handle the flood of calls, leaving thousands of people unable to get through for help, day after day.

Federal officials are often unable to give local governments permission to proceed with fundamental tasks to get their towns running again. Most areas in the region still lack federal help centers, the one-stop shopping sites for residents in need of aid for their homes or families. Officials say that they are uncertain whether they can meet the president's goal of providing housing for 100,000 people who are now in shelters by the middle of next month.

While the agency has redoubled its efforts to get food, money and temporary shelter to the storm victims, serious problems remain throughout the affected region. Visits to several towns in Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as interviews with dozens of local and federal officials, provide a portrait of a fragmented and dysfunctional system.

The top two federal relief officials in charge of the effort both acknowledged in interviews late this week that they too have listened to the frustrated voices of local officials and citizens alike, and find their complaints valid.

"It is not happening fast enough, effective enough and it is not impacting the people at the bottom as quickly as it should," said Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, standing along the waterfront in New Orleans on Friday. "I have heard frustrations."

Admiral Allen, who was put in charge of the federal government's emergency operations along the Gulf Coast a week ago Friday, said entrenched bureaucracies hampered attempts to accelerate his top priorities: aid to residents, providing housing and clearing the vast swaths of wreckage from homes and trees damaged by the storm.

Working from Baton Rouge, William Lokey, FEMA's coordinating officer for the three-state region, echoed Admiral Allen's criticisms. "It is not going as fast as I would like, and yes, I do not have the resources I would like," he said on Thursday. "I am going as fast as I can to get them."

The problems clearly stem largely from the sheer enormousness of the disaster. But the lack of investment in emergency preparedness, poor coordination across a sprawling federal bureaucracy and a massive failure of local communication systems - all of which hurt the initial rescue efforts - are now also impeding the recovery.

FEMA, Mr. Lokey said, is an agency with limited federal money that must quickly expand its operational capacity only after a major disaster strikes. It has not won a large chunk of the new federal homeland security dollars, that have been dedicated to terrorism.

"If the billions of dollars that have been spent on chemical, nuclear and biological response, if some of that had come over here, we would have done better," he said. "But after 9/11, the public priority was terrorism."

The Katrina troubles underscore serious questions about the federal government's ability to handle similar disasters in the future.

"I don't think federal bureaucracy can handle the next disaster," said Toye Taylor, the president of Washington Parish, one of the hardest hit areas in Louisiana, who met with Mr. Bush this week.

"I expressed to the president that it would take a new partnership between the military and private sector," Mr. Taylor said. "Because there will be another one and I don't think the federal government is going to be able to help." Indeed, Mr. Bush said in his address to the nation from New Orleans on Thursday night that the military would play a new role in federal disaster relief.

The struggle to return parishes, towns and individual lives to some semblance of working order is visible throughout the region.

The president of St. Tammany Parish, Kevin Davis, is praying that it does not rain in his sweltering corner of Louisiana, because three weeks after the storm severely damaged his drainage system, FEMA has yet to give him approval to even start the repairs.

Up north in the poor parish of Washington, residents are sleeping in houses that were chopped in half by oak trees. The promised wave of government inspectors have not shown up to assist them.

James McGehee, the mayor of Bogalusa, a small Louisiana city near the Mississippi border, could barely contain his rage in an interview on Thursday.

"Today is 18 days past the storm, and FEMA has not even put a location for people who are displaced," he said. "They are walking around the damn streets. The system's broke."

Some critical aspects of the federal response to the storm are moving significantly faster than expected. The Army Corps of Engineers, which initially predicted that pumping out New Orleans would take up to three months, now predicts that the enormous task will be wrapped up by Oct. 2.

FEMA and its partners have delivered as of Friday morning more than 177 million tons of ice, 63 million liters of water and 26 million ready-to-eat meals throughout Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

More than $1.25 billion of federal disaster aid has also been distributed directly to many of the just over one million victims in the three-state region that registered for aid. Just in Louisiana, another $100 million in disaster food stamp benefits have been distributed.

"The commitment is an aggressive one," said Ann Silverberg Williamson, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Social Services, which is working with federal officials on several of these efforts.

In many affected areas, Americans continue to live in conditions unthinkable in most of the industrialized world, like the rural unincorporated areas in Washington and surrounding parishes, where the uprooted trunks of 20-ton trees have left dinosaur foot-size crevices in roads, and homes are still surrounded by a maze of twisting branches.

In Tangipahoa Parish, the parish president, Gordon Burgess, said he called FEMA officials daily to ask when they would arrive to assist residents with housing. Mr. Burgess said the federal workers say, " 'I'll get to you next week,' and then the next week and then you'd never hear from them again."

Indeed, almost every local leader interviewed - even those sympathetic to FEMA's plight - complained that they could not get FEMA to approve their contracts with workers, tell them when they would be opening help centers or answer basic questions. Often, they say, the FEMA worker on the ground, eager to help, has to go up the chain of command before taking action, which can take days.

"People on the ground are wonderful but the problem is getting the 'yes,' " said Mr. Davis of St Tammany parish, who has a contractor ready to clean his drainage system of the same trees FEMA allowed him to take off his streets, and to repair parts of the sewage system.

"I'm saying, 'Wait a minute, you pick up debris on the road but not the drainage?' If it rains, I've got real problems. I just need someone to tell me make the public bids and I could rebuild our parish in no time."

Perhaps the greatest frustration expressed by state and local officials - as well as by some federal officials - is the pace of finding or setting up temporary housing to move people out of emergency shelters and the slow opening of specialized recovery centers.

The Bush administration had set Oct. 1 as the deadline for moving those 100,000 people in shelters out of these often overcrowded and uncomfortable facilities and into temporary homes. The goal is to install tens of thousands of mobile homes and trailers, so people are not only out of the shelters, but they can move back closer to their homes. But progress on the installation of these new homes is off to a slow start.

"That is not going to happen," Mr. Lokey said Thursday afternoon of the Oct. 1 goal. "It is just too big." By Thursday night, in his speech to the nation, Mr. Bush had revised the deadline to Oct. 15, which Mr. Lokey said would still be hard to meet.

Tempers are already flaring among many of the thousands of people displaced by the storm who have had a hard time getting through to FEMA on the telephone or finding centers where FEMA representatives can answer questions about various federal assistance programs. Only 8 of 40 promised sites have opened in Louisiana.

"I still do not have a firm date as to when they will put a site," said Mr. Taylor of Washington parish. Baton Rouge, which has received a huge influx of evacuees, did not get such a center until this Thursday. Evacuees and local officials also complain that FEMA's request for them to register on line or via phone is unrealistic, given that as of Wednesday 310,000 households in Louisiana were still without telephone service and 283,231 were still awaiting power, or nearly 30 percent of the state's households. And the phone lines are almost always jammed anyway. As such, those with cars drive miles to operating help centers in other counties, where the lines are sprawling. Confusion is rampant.

"FEMA don't communicate with you very well," said Tommy Nelson, as he cleaned out the home of his girlfriend's mother in Waveland, a Gulf Coast town now more of a memory than a place. "You got to learn things second-hand. We just happened to be in a post office line and we just happened to learn you got to register down here for a trailer. I was talking to a FEMA representative about trailers yesterday and she didn't have a clue." The best way to reach FEMA is about 2 a.m., various evacuees said.

Meanwhile, truck drivers carrying tens of thousands of tons of ice and driving water have been sent on a cross-country tour, from city to city, only then to be told to wait for up to a week in a parking lot in Memphis, with their engines, as well as their tabs as drivers running.

"It is a sad experience," said Frank Link,, who was sent from to Missouri, then to Mississippi, then to Alabama and then to Tennessee - all with the same load of 41,580 pounds of ice that he had loaded in Chicago. "I went down there to help. All I did was get the runaround from FEMA."

But the disaster has also exposed several serious flaws that hampered FEMA's response. Communication systems, especially in rural areas, were crippled and have still failed to return, making it impossible for residents as well as local officials to reach the federal government.

Further, many of the residents affected had few resources and limited power to begin with. Isolation proved to be a liability. Those who had leaders with access to television cameras and a little political influence have begun to make out better than those without.

Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, assailed the federal government on national television the first days after the storm. Today he boasts that FEMA has moved "at lightning speed" to get his parish housing, paychecks for workers, and carries in his tote bag a personal letter from the president.

Admiral Allen, whose jurisdiction spreads across the Gulf Coast region, said he recognized that he had a brief window in which to turn things around for the hundreds of thousands of affected residents. "There should be a low tolerance for a learning curve on my part," Admiral Allen said. "It is not weeks. It is days. And if it is not days, it is hours."