Monday, September 05, 2005

FEMA is 'just getting in the way': A view from New Orleans

A friend in a neighboring town of New Orleans who has been communicating with me by Blackberry offers some compelling insights from what he has seen of the "first responders" on the ground. How authorities have behaved dealing with Hurricane Katrina, in his view, says much about how they would respond to a future attack with a weapon of mass destruction.

In his experience, private citizens and local authorities were the most responsive, and the US military and private volunteer organizations have been excellent. He sees the state and local governments as the most responsible for the failures, and views the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as just "getting in the way." He sees federal bureaucrats squabbling over legalisms and turf, at the mortal expense of the stricken people. Below are his words, with names redacted for confidentiality reasons:

Let me preface my observations below by saying that most - the overwhelming majority - of the failings regarding Katrina were state and local. Those failings occurred, in some cases, over a period of decades and in others in the days before, during and after the storm.

In addition, FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Homeland Security] seems to be a lightning rod in this disaster and I am sure that there are good, hard-working folks at FEMA. However, these tales from good, smart folks I know and respect tells me that there are severe problems at FEMA that have implications for a WMD scenario.

The first story comes from [a local medical doctor]. I first met [him] 22 years ago when he was a bouncer in a bar at LSU. [He] left school back then and joined the Army. He became a Special Forces Medic. He saw action in Panama and Desert Storm but left active duty as an E-7 as Clinton started to dismantle the military.

He went back to college, graduated on the Dean's list and was accepted to LSU Medical School, where he was class president.

[He] is also active in local politics, having been elected to the Republican Party Central Committee two years ago.

[He] is currently an Emergency Room Physician at a hospital in Baton Rouge.
He is also still in the Reserves in some capacity.

Local physician, a military reservist, heads local medical effort

After Katrina hit, [he] took it upon himself to head to the area. A refugee center of sorts was set up at the intersection of I-10 and Causeway Blvd., about 25 miles from my house and maybe 10 miles from Downtown New Orleans.

[He] gathered some Louisiana State Troopers, National Guard and Jefferson Parish Sherrif's Deputies and created a Battalion Aid Station at the site. He began triage with one medic with the NG [National Guard] who had been with the 82nd Airborne while on active duty.

Over the next 3 days, 7000 victims were taken to this point. [He] and the medic were the only medical personnel there and no transport was sent for the refugees. People were out in the elements for 3 days. The Jefferson Parish Sheriff's office had set up comm[ommunications] in the area and the NG had comm with Blackhawks that were bringing victims in.

FEMA tries to take over, with no command and control

FEMA came rolling in and what was supposed to be relief quickly turned into trouble. [He] said that FEMA "had no Command and Control." They came in with a few trucks with just a few supplies (the Army was by now already way ahead of FEMA and choppering in stuff). [He] said that they immediately wanted to start running things. Problem was, FEMA could not comm with the Army, the state police, the sherriff, or anyone else. But that did not stop them from ordering the [local] deputies to shut off their comm. The FEMA folks then got in their trucks and left-without telling anyone they were leaving or where they were going. That was the extent of the FEMA involvement as observed by one Green Beret.

Local police make FEMA back off

The next FEMA story was related to me by [a prominent community leader] of Mandeville, Louisiana. Parts of Mandeville were devastated by the storm surge and other parts by wind. Private donated supplies reached Mandeville ahead of FEMA. Mayor Price began distributing water, generators and other supplies to his citizenry at City Hall. The FEMA came in. They saw what was happening and ordered Price to cease what he was doing. He refused and they threatened to confiscate the supplies he was distributing. At that point local police and deputies stepped in on behalf of the mayor and FEMA backed off and left.

FEMA, arriving late, orders military to stand down; commanders countermand agency

FEMA was also late on the scene in New Orleans. The Army, Navy, Coast Guard and Marines were all on the scene already. There were 80 Blackhawks, Seahawks, Hueys, Super Stallions and Chinooks already on scene conducting SAR by the time FEMA arrived. But then FEMA tried to take over. They ordered all SAR ops to stand down and started holding briefings of aircrews while people were dying. Luckily, military commanders on scene recognized the folly of this and countermanded FEMA and restarted SAR immediately. This was related by [a local federal lawmaker].

[A retired Marine colonel] is the director of homeland security in New Orleans. He is a marine combat veteran and former commanding officer of the Basic School in Quantico. He called FEMA's response to this situation a national disgrace.

Everything I am hearing and seeing with my own eyes down here is that FEMA is unnecessary, ineffective and counterproductive.

Louisiana governor failed to act when she could have

Am just now hearing from a NG officer that Gov Blanco refused to federalize the NG when it was requested. That certainly could have caused the delays in the military response. Once the military got on scene, they were magnificent. It appears they may have been delayed by Blanco's turf battle.

FEMA is 'in the way'

Shameful. On the other hand, the military has all the resources, leadership and capability to handle these crises. FEMA is just in the way.

If we get a WMD attack and FEMA is the lead agency, it will be a goat screw.
Keep in mind that this was an anticipated event. FEMA had prior notice. In the event of an attack, what would happen?


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