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Chaotic coordination had government scrambling for body bags

NEW ORLEANS—In those terrible days after Hurricane Katrina struck, as bodies floated in flooded streets, government officials desperately searched for body bags.

When they couldn't find them immediately, state and federal officials went off in separate directions on a body bag buying binge. They cleaned out companies' supplies in uncoordinated spasms of haphazard purchases. They even bought body bags—flown in from South Carolina—that were too light and split under the weight of waterlogged bodies.

The trouble with the frantic search was this: Government warehouses were filled with the needed bags.

The Defense Department had close to 100,000 body bags on hand, including 20,398 freshly purchased ones stored in Pennsylvania and California. A thousand more—enough to cover the body count to date in Louisiana—sat stacked up even closer in the New Orleans Parish coroner's office.

Even with plenty of supplies in storage, the federal government's shopping spree continues.

The bungling of the body bags—one of the most predictable needs after a catastrophe—typifies the chaos, lack of planning and haphazard emergency buying that have plagued the government's response to Katrina, say experts in emergency supplies and government efficiency.

At other times, it's been temporary shelters, ice and ready-to-eat meals that weren't immediately available but then were purchased in uncoordinated spasms.

"This is contracting by chaos," said Keith Ashdown, the vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington fiscal watchdog group. "If I need to use garbage bags for leaves in my backyard, the first thing I do is look at what's in my shed."

If the federal government had looked in its storage sheds for body bags, it would have found them.

In the past two years, the Defense Department had purchased 114,748 body bags, and it sent nearly 25,000 to Iraq and Afghanistan in the past year, according to the Defense Logistics Agency. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had a long-standing arrangement to tap military supplies of body bags from depots in California and Pennsylvania when needed. Eventually, many of those bags were sent to Katrina-hit areas.

Seemingly unaware of the military's stockpiles and at odds with its past practices, FEMA and the states of Louisiana and Mississippi spent nearly $250,000 on body bags in the days after Katrina hit, cleaning out suppliers nationwide. Then they went hunting for more. Overall, they purchased more than 24,000 body bags, with 17,000 amassed in New Orleans at one point.

"There's no rhyme or reason about what they buy or what they do," said John Hassapakis, manager of Central Valley Professional Services, a company in Modesto, Calif., that sold bags to FEMA. "The problem wasn't supply. The problem was communication."

Don Kelly, spokesman for FEMA's disaster mortuary operations and response team, said, "It was a crazy time, and I'm sure there were some things done that under calmer times would have been done differently. I can only speak for us, though, and we were preparing for much bigger numbers of victims."

This has happened before. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, federal, state and local governments bought tens of thousands of extra body bags, failed to deliver many of them to New York City and then couldn't return the unused ones, experts said.

"In the lessons learned, hopefully there will be one about body bags," said Rick Bond, vice president of Safeware Inc., an emergency supplies firm that Mississippi hired for everything from baby food to body bags. "You'd think the government could do a better job coordinating a clearinghouse of certain commodities so the city of New York and the state of Mississippi don't end up with warehouses of body bags of their own."

Before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, federal officials bought body bags by the thousands, but they didn't get to the storm-hit area until several days after panic had set in.

Mississippi even sent a helicopter to West Columbia, S.C., to airlift 3,000 newly purchased bags. But many of those bags were lightweight and ripped open as emergency workers carried away waterlogged corpses.

Still, the government got cut rates—from $5 to $50 each—on body bags because companies said they didn't want to profit off of disasters. Safeware didn't charge Mississippi for the bags that broke.

A week into the disaster, with bodies still lying along the shoulder of Interstate 10 and draped over fence posts, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin made headlines by predicting that the death toll could top 10,000. So far, the count stands at 1,003.

Parts of the federal government reduced their body bag purchases last month after street searches revealed that fewer people than expected had died. But on Sept. 12, Louisiana signed a body-recovery contract that included $25,000 for body bags. The state called off its search for victims Tuesday, but it's bound through Nov. 15 by a contract with a Texas firm that's costing it as much as $118,000 a day.

Earlier this month, the Defense Department told its three suppliers that it needed 30,000 new bags to replenish supplies.

FEMA bought 18,000 body bags from Salam International of Laguna Hills, Calif. But after 8,000 were delivered, the federal disaster agency cancelled the final 10,000 bags as they were being loaded into a truck, company President Abdul Salam said.

State and federal officials stressed that more body bags have been needed than the number of victims because of the messiness of the victims. Emergency workers and morgue operators had to use as many as three bags per victim, said FEMA's Kelly.

Many bodies got multiple bags. Pets got body bags. Some already-buried bodies that resurfaced in the flood had to get new bags, too.

While former FEMA Director James Lee Witt said it seemed "like nobody knew what the left or right hand was doing," one body bag contractor defended the agency.

"I don't think they overbought because they had a hell of a situation," Knight Systems President Buddy Knight said. "The threat was there."


(Dwight Ott of the Philadelphia Inquirer contributed to this report. Davis reports for the San Jose Mercury News.)


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

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