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Focus on terrorism delays FEMA response to Katrina

WASHINGTON—The chaotic government response to Hurricane Katrina, which even President Bush said was "not acceptable," was the inevitable result of federal policies emphasizing protection from terrorist attacks at the expense of preparing for far more common natural disasters, state emergency officials and other experts said Friday.

As hurricane survivors died along roadsides and at shelters where they were told to take refuge, or pleaded for food and water or a ride to an overcrowded shelter, members of Congress called for hearings to find out how the response to this disaster could have failed so badly when the nation has spent unprecedented billions of dollars in the name of homeland security.

But the answer may not be much of a mystery. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, once a powerful independent agency focused solely on responding to earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and other natural disasters that occur on average about four times a month, was placed within the huge Department of Homeland Security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The Department of Homeland Security sends $1.1 billion each year to states to combat terrorism, but just $180 million to help prepare for disasters such as Katrina. Much of the terrorism grant money is given under conditions that specifically exclude spending it on items or personnel that would be used in responding to hazards other than terrorism.

Since 1995, the federal government has declared 562 major disasters. All were natural disasters except two terrorist attacks: Oklahoma City in 1995 and the 9-11 attacks.

The hearings and investigations will likely show that the disaster response expertise of FEMA was badly eroded once it became part of the terrorism-fighting bureaucracy of Homeland Security, state officials and some former FEMA officials said.

"There are no emergency managers at any level in the Department of Homeland Security. It's all law enforcement," said George Haddow, former FEMA deputy chief of staff. "It doesn't look like anyone's in charge to me because the system has been deconstructed."

Clark Kent Ervin, the former Bush-appointed Homeland Security inspector general, said FEMA disaster officials frequently expressed concerns that not enough attention was being focused on natural disasters. Apparently, he said, nothing happened.

Ervin said the red flags raised by FEMA employees had the force of logic.

"It does make sense to say that it's more likely, thank God, to have a natural disaster than a terrorist one," Ervin said. "There's a question mark: Is that agency (FEMA) in a primarily terrorism-related department nimble enough" to handle a natural disaster?

State emergency management directors share this concern.

"We've really seen some degradation of capabilities in this country," said Trina Sheets, executive director of the National Emergency Management Association, which represents those state directors.

Homeland Security officials defended their agency's response to Katrina and its ability to combat terrorists and Mother Nature. Spokesman Marc Short said that while more state funding is restricted to fighting terrorism, the equipment and expertise gained by terrorism response exercises are often applicable in natural disasters.

But Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee that oversees homeland security, said he would hold hearings into the response to Katrina and expressed concerns about the nation's ability to respond to a terrorist attack.

"I am not at all confident, based on what we've seen, that we'd have the ability to handle that," he said.

The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee also announced it would investigate the inadequate response to Katrina. In a joint statement, Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., the committee chairwoman and ranking member, said, "It is increasingly clear that serious shortcomings in preparedness and response have hampered relief efforts at a critical time."

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., called on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee to conduct oversight hearings once the relief effort is completed. He specifically charged the committee with examining the response of the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA.

"Every state and community has warehouses of hazmat (hazardous materials) suits, personal protection equipment, bomb detectors, bomb diffusers, radiological detectors. And some of that really wonderful equipment is needed," Sheets said. "But we've also got local officials where their emergency operations center is an office somewhere with a phone and a fax machine."

Several members of Congress are questioning the wisdom of rolling FEMA into Homeland Security.

"FEMA should not be hindered by a top-heavy bureaucracy when they are needed to act swiftly to save lives," said Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla. He said he plans to introduce legislation when Congress reconvenes to pull FEMA out of Homeland Security.

Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said he voted to put FEMA under Homeland Security—and now questions that decision after watching all the chaos.

"What's happening is inexcusable," Pascrell said Friday. "God knows how many people we're going to find who have died because of starvation or died because they have not received proper medical help."

FEMA Director Michael Brown defended his agency's efforts against a barrage of criticisms and video reports showing slow response.

"I understand that there are pockets where people have not gotten the basics, and we're working with the Coast Guard to get those," Brown told CBS's "The Early Show." "But I'm telling you, we have those supplies."

As federal officials tried to get some control over the deteriorating situation in New Orleans, chaos was being replaced with bureaucratic rules that inhibited private relief organizations' efforts.

"We've tried desperately to rescue 250 people trapped in a Salvation Army facility. They've been trapped in there since the flood came in. Many are on dialysis machines," said Maj. George Hood, national communications secretary for the relief organization.

"Yesterday we rented big fan boats to pull them out and the National Guard would not let us enter the city," he said. The reason: a new plan to evacuate the embattled city grid by grid—and the Salvation Army's facility didn't fall in the right grid that day, Hood said in a telephone interview from Jackson, Miss.

"No, it doesn't make sense," he said.

The Salvation Army, along with the American Red Cross and other relief organizations, is supplying meals to refugees in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. But Hood said good supply lines to keep relief stations stocked with bottled water, food and gas still haven't been established.

"The problem is we're running out of food and supplies, and getting replacement food and supplies in here is a big problem," he said. "The infrastructure is clogged."

With much federal help only now beginning to arrive or still promised as being on the way, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., called on President Bush to appoint within the next 24 hours a Cabinet-level official to direct the national response to Hurricane Katrina.

"The American people have continued to look to FEMA to operate as it did in years past. There was a time when FEMA understood that the correct approach to a crisis was to deploy to the affected area as many resources as possible as fast as possible. Unfortunately, that no longer seems to be their approach," Landrieu said. "In order to resolve this dire situation, we must return to the successful tactics of the past. The suffering has gone on long enough. Now is the time for action."

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(Staff writer James Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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