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Survivors Wait as Disaster Builds

Times Staff Writers

When disaster strikes in the United States, Americans expect a full-throttle response from the government, with whatever it takes to help to the victims -- food, water, rescue teams, emergency medical supplies, helicopters, and National Guard soldiers to protect property and life. And the response is expected to be fast and efficient.

That’s not how it worked out this time.

Three days after Hurricane Katrina struck Monday, rescue workers still had not reached numerous storm victims on rooftops and highway overpasses whose unanswered pleas for help were captured by news crews. Gunfire kept some rescue workers from devastated sections of the city, and police said they could not guarantee the workers’ safety.

News reports showed a crowd of refugees, including children, stranded without adequate food, water or medical attention at New Orleans’ downtown convention center, even though it had been designated a shelter after the Superdome filled up. When Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was asked on National Public Radio why no help had been sent, he said he was unaware of the problem.

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And the Federal Emergency Management Agency was using trucks and buses -- not airplanes -- to transport many of its highly trained units to the New Orleans area, although California had responded immediately to a federal request for urban search-and-rescue teams, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said Thursday.

FEMA told her staff that this was “standard operation procedure,” Boxer said in a letter to the agency, but “standard operating procedure is not what we should be following during this time of crisis.”

How could such problems bedevil an area long identified as a disaster waiting to happen? Why were federal, state and local officials surprised by the flooding when experts had repeatedly pinpointed issues? How could the federal agencies that are charged with preparing for such emergencies -- and have often reacted effectively in the past -- have apparently stumbled so badly?

The questions were all the more serious as it became clear that most of the suffering was not in the storied precincts of Bourbon Street, the Latin Quarter or the Garden District, but in predominantly black, working-poor neighborhoods that New Orleans tourists seldom see.

It’s not as though no one expected the disaster. For years, federal and other studies had zeroed in on New Orleans as one of the nation’s most vulnerable areas to a natural disaster -- a major city lying below sea level, sandwiched between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, in the heart of hurricane country. As recently as November, one expert laid out a disaster scenario that read like a script for Katrina.

“Should the response have been much better organized? Absolutely,” said Richard Stuart Olson, who has been researching disasters for 30 years and is chairman of the political science department at Florida International University in Miami. “None of this can be a surprise.”

He said growing public frustration in the New Orleans area reminded him of the anger at FEMA’s halting response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992, but he said, “This is a much larger version of ‘Where the hell’s the cavalry?’ ”

President Bush and other federal officials insisted the government was responding quickly, first to rescue stranded residents, then to help recovery efforts and stop the flooding of New Orleans as high waters keep spilling from Lake Pontchartrain.

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At times, the president and his chief spokesman struck a defensive tone in the face of criticism that the relief efforts had been too slow and that federal funds had been cut back for New Orleans flood control in recent years. Bush and White House spokesman Scott McClellan said it was not the time to engage in “politics” or “finger-pointing.”

McClellan said 50 medical disaster teams were in the region, along with about 30 search-and-rescue units. He said the Department of Transportation had dispatched a thousand trucks carrying 7 million meals and millions of gallons of water. About 15,000 tarps were brought to the Gulf Coast to provide temporary shelters, plus 10,000 rolls of plastic sheeting and 3.4 million pounds of ice, he said.

Secretary Chertoff said that rescue operations were continuing “in full force” but that relief workers were challenged by the dual nature of the disaster: Hurricane Katrina’s devastating landfall, followed a day later by the flooding of Louisiana’s largest city.

“We are continuing to search 24/7,” Chertoff said to criticism that relief efforts had lagged. “We search at day. We search at night.”

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In Louisiana’s capital, Baton Rouge, the head of FEMA, Michael D. Brown said power outages, rising waters and violence by looters and others shooting at rescuers had complicated relief efforts. But he denied that the government was slow in responding.

He called the situation unsettled, however, and urged patience. “We can make this work,” he said.

Critics in Washington and Louisiana said that even though Katrina had been closely tracked on its way to the Gulf Coast, the administration had not used the time to prepare adequately. They also complained that the Bush White House had repeatedly slashed congressional efforts to boost funding for levee work and other flood control upgrades.

As recently as January, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) had warned on the House floor that if Hurricane Ivan last year had veered westward and hit New Orleans, thousands would have died and infrastructure would have sustained $100 billion in damage. “The city has always been at risk,” he said then.

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Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.) told her colleagues on the Senate floor a year ago that it was crucial to spend more government money to shore up the levees at New Orleans. “I hate to say it,” she said. “It’s going to take a loss of hundreds of thousands of lives on the Gulf Coast to make this country wake up and realize what we are underinvesting in.”

Critics also noted that late last summer, in the midst of a hard-fought presidential campaign in which Florida was pivotal, FEMA received glowing marks from Florida officials for responding quickly to hurricanes there.

Some wondered why the New Orleans response was earning no such praise.

White House spokesman McClellan sought to dismiss such criticism as politics. “The last thing that the people who have been displaced or the people who have been affected need is people seeking partisan gain in Washington,” he said.

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Yet sharp criticism of the government’s response to Katrina was not confined to politicians. Many experts in hurricanes, flooding and emergency management were more pointed.

The measures that Chertoff and other administration officials are putting together now should have been “in motion three to four days before the storm hit,” Florida disaster researcher Olson said, especially in light of the fact that the New Orleans’ vulnerability to a hurricane and a consequent flood had been carefully studied.

In November, for instance, a periodical published by the University of Colorado Natural Hazards Center examined the potential impact of a Category 4 or 5 hurricane on New Orleans. In a column, the director of the University of New Orleans’ Center for Hazards Assessment Response and Technology, sociologist Shirley Laska, estimated that the damage would include storm surges, flooding and the breakdown of the levee system.

“They did anticipate breaching of the levees, that the pumps wouldn’t work,” said Natural Hazards Center Director Kathleen Tierney. Louisiana and New Orleans “couldn’t get the federal assistance they needed. They knew they were living on a time bomb.”

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Disaster experts said the chaos after Katrina also should have been anticipated, particularly considering the absence of a local or state government plan to completely evacuate the city.

“There was no plan to get the poor out. They issued an evacuation order, fine. But 20% of New Orleans lives below the poverty line,” said Vincent T. Gawronski, who studies the politics of disasters and is an assistant political science professor at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama. “Do they all have cars? Did they give them buses to get out? No, they gave them the Superdome.”

The Superdome was pressed into use as a shelter last year during Hurricane Ivan, but that storm did not hit the city with full force. Gawronski noted that Katrina damaged the huge structure when it hit as a Category 4 hurricane. “What would have happened to those people if it had hit as a Category 5, as it could have?” he asked.

Tierney said that some cities, including Los Angeles, designated schools as shelters for the Red Cross to run. “Nothing of the sort was planned for a major hurricane in New Orleans,” she said.

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“The plan was simply to get some people out and the rest to the Superdome,” Tierney said. “A network of shelters was never part of the plan, even though it was recognized that the city is a bowl and would be filled with water, that there would be no electricity.”


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