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Federal officials pressed to explain pace of response

NEW ORLEANS—Hungry and desperate people trapped in a destroyed city. A police department in what one official called "survival mode." Dead bodies on the streets, blankets flung over them—sometimes.

Capt. Michael Pfeiffer of the New Orleans Police Department said the department's communication system failed during the storm and police districts now were working their areas often unaware of what was happening elsewhere in the city. Pfeiffer still has a handheld radio, but he's almost out of battery power and needs to keep it off most of the time.

"We're in survival mode here," Pfeiffer said.

With New Orleans degenerating toward anarchy and other areas hit by Hurricane Katrina still awaiting assistance, federal, state and local officials are under mounting pressure to explain why they haven't moved faster to get aid to people and places devastated by the storm.

Terry Ebbert, the head of New Orleans' emergency operations, called the federal government's response "a national disgrace."

Citing the complexities of trying to assist people in a 90,000-square mile area, much of it still flooded, officials in Washington on Thursday offered little more than empathy, pledges that the pace would pick up and pleas not to engage in finger-pointing.

"We certainly understand frustration coming from people on the ground who are in need of help, and we will continue working to get them the assistance that they need," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

There was evidence Thursday that Americans believed what they saw on television more than what they heard from government officials.

A Survey USA poll of 1,200 adults nationwide found that 59 percent of Americans thought the federal government wasn't doing enough to help victims of the hurricane and its aftermath, up from 50 percent the previous day. Fifty-five percent of the whites and 75 percent of the African-Americans polled said the federal response had been inadequate.

In Mississippi, three days after Katrina, officials opened 20 sites in Harrison County to deliver water and ice to frustrated residents. While people had been reduced to searching through garbage for food, authorities didn't expect to be able to distribute any food until Friday. There's still no timetable for making temporary shelter available to those without homes.

Col. Joe Spraggins, the director of the Harrison County Emergency Management Agency, said debris had hampered local authorities' ability to get supply trucks to distribution sites. He said 18 trucks with water and ice had been in a staging area before the storm, but the hurricane destroyed it all.

Spraggins said Mississippi and federal authorities were under stress from the demands of a storm whose impact stretched across three states, including most of Mississippi.

"FEMA is scattered all over the place," Spraggins said, noting that the situation was more "critical" in New Orleans than in Mississippi. "That's not their fault."

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who oversees FEMA, said "flooding ... has dramatically impeded our ability to get supplies into New Orleans."

Even in Houston, which had begun to receive thousands of refugees from New Orleans, plans seemed uncertain Thursday.

Only about 2,000 cots had been put on the floor of the Astrodome, leaving many without places to lie down. Harris County Judge Robert Eckels said the plan was never to house all 25,000 refugees at one time. Officials still didn't know when all of them would arrive in Houston.

"There's very little communication from New Orleans," Eckels said. "It's very frustrating."

Critics charged that the delays and confusion were a product of the Bush administration's misplaced priorities.

William Waugh, a disaster-management specialist and public-administration professor at Georgia State University, said the federal government appeared slow to pre-position medical and other disaster supplies in the Gulf region, and slow to get federal troops and other disaster workers into places that Katrina had pummeled.

Frannie Edwards, the director of emergency preparedness for the city of San Jose, Calif., charged that the Department of Homeland Security overreacted to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks four years ago by bleeding money out of conventional emergency-response programs.

"Our natural disasters in the United States are seasonal, not preventable, and we know they're definitely going to happen," Edwards said. "Money for mitigation of them has been siphoned off to deal with terrorism activity, which we don't know is going to happen and which can sometimes be prevented. The federal government's change in emphasis away from all-hazards emergency management and to a very strong focus on terrorism has lessened the resources to respond to events like Katrina."

Asked whether more could have been done to prepare for the disaster, McClellan said: "This is a time when the whole country needs to come together to help those in the region. And that's where our focus is. This is not a time to get into any finger-pointing or politics or anything of that nature."


(Stearns, a Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star, reported from Washington. Canon, also of the Star, reported from Kansas City and Adams reported from New Orleans. Gary Fineout of The Miami Herald contributed to this report from Gulfport, Miss.; David Wethe of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram contributed from Houston and Seth Borenstein contributed from Washington.)


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

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