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New Orleans paper rips federal response

Times-Picayune: Everybody at FEMA should be fired

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Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
New Orleans (Louisiana)

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- Louisiana's largest newspaper printed a blistering editorial in Sunday's edition under the headline "An Open Letter to the President," criticizing the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina.

The Times-Picayune -- which abandoned its New Orleans headquarters and temporarily ceased its print publication last week -- called on every Federal Emergency Management Agency official to be fired, "Director Michael Brown especially." (Read the editorial)

The editorial joined other voices criticizing the governmental response to the disaster, including New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. Criticism has come from people affected on the ground as well as from politicians of both parties. ( Watch Nagin declare his disgust with 'promises' -- 4:17)

"We have been abandoned by our own country," said Aaron Broussard, the president of Jefferson Parish in New Orleans.

He broke down in tears Sunday as he recounted how a colleague's mother drowned awaiting rescue from a nursing home.

"Everyday, she called and she said, 'Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?' " Broussard told NBC's "Meet the Press."

"And he said, 'Yeah, Mama, somebody's going to get you.

" 'Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday.

" 'Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday.

" 'Somebody's coming to get you on Thursday.

" 'Somebody's coming to get you on Friday,' and she drowned Friday night."

"Nobody's coming to get her. The secretary's promised, everybody's promised; they've had press conferences. I'm sick of the press conferences.

"For God's sake, shut up and send us somebody." (Hear Nagin blast the feds for delayed assistance -- 12:09 )

The secretary to whom Broussard referred, Michael Chertoff of the Department of Homeland Security, on Sunday rejected criticism of his agency's work.

"This was not just a hurricane; it was a hurricane that was followed by a flood," Chertoff told CNN's "Late Edition."

"It was unprecedented and, I think, that created a challenge that, frankly, overwhelmed a lot of people -- state and local folks. We had people on the ground who were pre-positioned," he said, citing 50 Coast Guard helicopters as an example.

Chertoff said federal authorities "moved as rapidly as we could," and added that he, too, was frustrated that the pace of the response was not quicker.

"The fact of the matter is: It's never enough when there are still people suffering," he said.

"But there's also a tremendous amount of credit to be given," he said, pointing to the Coast Guard, FEMA, state and local rescue workers, the National Guard and the military.

Democrat to submit FEMA bill

Also Sunday, the top Democrat on the House Department of Homeland Security Committee blasted the federal government for its response.

"It was too little, too late," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat. "We missed the mark."

Thompson said the blame can be traced to the merger of the Federal Emergency Management Agency with the Homeland Security Department, when domestic preparedness "took a back seat" to preparing for terrorist attacks.

Rep. John D. Dingell said he will introduce legislation Tuesday that would remove FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security and make it, instead, an independent agency headed by a Cabinet-level executive.

"I can clearly see that FEMA has lost its way," the Democrat from Michigan said in a written statement.

James Lee Witt, a former FEMA director who has been brought in as an advisor by Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, agreed that the agency "really needs to be put back as an independent agency."

"Since 9/11, FEMA has been basically dissected and taken apart," he told CNN.

FEMA, meanwhile, has refused to release 50 trucks carrying water and ice sitting at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree said.

"They're sitting down there right now because one person from FEMA won't make the call to say, 'Release those trucks,' " he said.

Two-thirds of the residents of the southern Mississippi city have no power, and that figure was 100 percent for three-and-a-half days, he added.

He said FEMA representatives did not arrive in Hattiesburg -- 95 miles from New Orleans -- until Saturday.

"People from all over America have come in to help us," he said. "But the people who get paid to do this haven't done what I think they should have done."

Rep. Bobby Jindal, a Louisiana Republican, added, "I think there's plenty of blame to go around at the state and federal levels."

But, he told CNN, "It's not the time to blame; it's time to make sure somebody's in charge."

Commander: 'This hurts to the heart'

The military commander in charge of the relief efforts, Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, said authorities moved as quickly as possible, although he wished they could have moved faster.

"This hurts to the heart," he told CNN. "If we could have done it faster ... it would have been done. This is America. This is why we have one of the best militaries in the world, but it took time to get there."

Chertoff came to the defense of Brown, the FEMA director.

"On Saturday [before the storm], he was on TV telling people in New Orleans they have to take it seriously," said Chertoff, who is Brown's boss.

The secretary said disaster planners have long had a problem getting people to evacuate. He did not address the fact that lack of money, lack of transportation and physical problems prevented many from following the order to flee.

But the time for self-criticism is not now, when life-saving work remains to be done, he said.

"We're going to go back and look at all of this after-action, when we have time, but I've got to emphasize something: We are still in the middle of an emergency," Chertoff said.

Asked about President Bush's comment Thursday to ABC News that, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees," Chertoff defended his boss.

"I think that did catch people by surprise," the secretary said. "I don't think anybody has seen that kind of massive breach -- in fact, multiple, massive breaches."

Scientists, federal officials and others had predicted for decades the potential for a Katrina-like disaster, with levees breaking and water swamping New Orleans, most of which sits below sea level.

Chertoff said FEMA is not equipped to send large numbers of people to help during a disaster.

Instead, he said, "FEMA basically plugs in to the existing state and local infrastructure. What happened here was, essentially, the demolishment of that state and local infrastructure and, I think, that really caused a cascading series of breakdowns."

The lessons from Katrina may result in a change in the way FEMA responds to such emergencies, moving from playing a supportive role to playing a more central role, he said.

"We're going to see a lot of things we put in place worked well," he said. "There are some things which did not work well."

Sen. Mary Landrieu told CBS's "Face the Nation" that she had no time to consider blame while rescue operations are ongoing.

"Quite frankly that discussion is getting in the way," the Louisiana Democrat said.

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