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Leadership vacuum stymied aid offers

Doctor: Officials gave hospital staffers mops as people died

A doctor reported that sick people languished in the New Orleans airport while he mopped floors.


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Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
New Orleans (Louisiana)
Department of Homeland Security

(CNN) -- As violence, death and misery gripped New Orleans and the surrounding parishes in the days after Hurricane Katrina, a leadership vacuum, bureaucratic red tape and a defensive culture paralyzed volunteers' attempts to help.

Doctors eager to help sick and injured evacuees were handed mops by federal officials who expressed concern about legal liability. Even as violence and looting slowed rescues, police from other states were turned back while officials squabbled over who should take charge of restoring the peace.

Warehouses in New Orleans burned while firefighters were diverted to Atlanta for Federal Emergency Management Agency training sessions on community relations and sexual harassment. Water trucks languished for days at FEMA's staging area because the drivers lacked the proper paperwork.

Consider the stories of these frustrated volunteers:

  • Dr. Bong Mui and his staff, evacuated with 300 patients after three hellish days at Chalmette Medical Center, arrived at the New Orleans airport, and were amazed to see hundreds of sick people. They offered to help. But, the doctor told CNN, FEMA officials said they were worried about legal liability. "They told us that, you know, you could help us by mopping the floor." And so they mopped, while people died around them. "I started crying," he recalled. "We felt like we could help, and were not allowed to do anything." (Watch the video of hundreds languishing sick at the airport -- 4:16)
  • Steve Simpson, sheriff of Loudoun County, Virginia, sent 22 deputies equipped with food and water to last seven days. Their 14-car caravan, including four all-terrain vehicles, was on the road just three hours when they were told to turn back. The reason, Simpson told CNN: A Louisiana state police official told them not to come. " I said, "What if we just show up?' He says, 'You probably won't get in.' " Simpson said he later learned a dispute over whether state or federal authorities would command the law enforcement effort was being ironed out that night. But no one ever got back to him with the all-clear.
  • FEMA halted tractor trailers hauling water to a supply staging area in Alexandria, Louisiana, The New York Times quoted William Vines, former mayor of Fort Smith, Arkansas, as saying. "FEMA would not let the trucks unload," he told the newspaper. "The drivers were stuck for several days on the side of the road" because, he said, they did not have a "tasker number." He added, "What in the world is a tasker number? I have no idea. It's just paperwork and it's ridiculous."
  • Firefighters who answered a nationwide call for help were sent to Atlanta for FEMA training sessions on community relations and sexual harassment. "On the news every night you hear 'How come everybody forgot us?' " Pennsylvania firefighter Joseph Manning told The Dallas Morning News. "We didn't forget. We're stuck in Atlanta drinking beer."
  • The government's response to Hurricane Katrina has been sharply criticized. Elected officials -- chiefly President Bush, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin -- have acknowledged flaws in the response.

    Some take responsibility

    "To the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility," Bush said earlier this week. On Thursday, in a nationally televised address from New Orleans, he proposed a large aid package for the city and other areas that were hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. In the speech, he said the lessons from Katrina call for a new approach to responding to disasters. (Full story)

    "There were failures at every level of government -- state, federal and local," Blanco told Louisiana legislators Wednesday evening in Baton Rouge. "At the state level, we must take a careful look at what went wrong and make sure it never happens again," she said. "The buck stops here, and as your governor, I take full responsibility."

    Nagin, once angry and embattled, was also conciliatory.

    "I think now we are out of nuclear crisis mode, it seems as though myself, the governor and president have done some retrospection as far as what we could have done better, and ultimately we're all accountable at the level of local state and federal government," he told CNN. "And that's what leadership is all about. We should take responsibility and we should try and do better."

    While Blanco did not elaborate on her mistakes, Nagin said he mistakenly assumed that if New Orleans could hold out for a day or two, help would surely come.

    "I am not going to plan in the future for the cavalry to come in three days," he told CNN. "I'm going to buy high water vehicles, helicopters, whatever I can do to make sure that I am in total control ... of the total evacuation process."

    Vice Admiral Thad Allen, of the U.S. Coast Guard, is now heading the federal government's recovery effort. On Wednesday, he encouraged state and local officials to bring their issues to him.

    "Whether you're a person or an agency, whatever you're doing, if you have concerns and they're not stated where somebody can act on them, that's just going to fester," he said. "And I, as the principal federal official in this response, am encouraging any leader that wants to talk to me about real or perceived problems of what's going on out there to do that."

    Where was Chertoff?

    But the men in charge of the federal Department of Homeland Security and FEMA in the critical days immediately after the hurricane haven't shared the blame.

    Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security secretary, has offered no explanation as to why he waited three days after the National Hurricane Center predicted a catastrophic hurricane to declare Katrina an incident of "national significance."

    In a memo written the day after Katrina made landfall, Chertoff said the Department of Homeland Security will be part of the task force and will assist the [Bush] administration. But the National Response Plan, designed to guide disaster recovery and relief, dictates that the Homeland Security secretary leads the federal response. ( Watch video on Chertoff's delays -- 3:09)

    Chertoff appointed Michael Brown, then director of FEMA, as the federal official in charge in the Gulf states. Brown was relieved of his post late last week and resigned from FEMA Monday after taking the brunt of the criticism over the response.

    Ex-FEMA boss blames governor

    Speaking to The New York Times, his first public comments since he was relieved, Brown laid the blame on Blanco and Nagin. He told the newspaper he frantically called Chertoff and the White House in the hours after Katrina hit, telling them Blanco and her staff were disorganized and the situation was "out of control."

    "I am having a horrible time," Brown said he told his superiors. "I can't get a unified command established."

    Brown told the Times that he had such difficulty dealing with Blanco that he communicated with her husband instead.

    "I truly believed the White House was not at fault here," he told the Times.

    On August 30, the same day Chertoff wrote his memo, Brown said he asked the White House to take over the response from FEMA and state officials.

    A Senate panel launched the first formal inquiry into the response on Wednesday. But the Senate's Republican majority defeated a bid by Democrats to establish an independent commission to investigate the disaster response.

    Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, the panel's chairwoman, said the response to Katrina was plagued by confusion, communication failures and widespread lack of coordination despite the billions of dollars spent to improve disaster response since the terror attacks.

    'Sluggish' response

    "At this point, we would have expected a sharp, crisp response to this terrible tragedy," Collins said. "Instead, we witnessed what appeared to be a sluggish initial response."

    One of the issues the committee will examine is whether FEMA should stay under the Department of Homeland Security instead of operating as a separate agency as it had in the past.

    Sen. George Voinovich, a Republican from Ohio, said the committee would "get into the bowels" of Homeland Security as its members investigate how the federal government, specifically FEMA, planned for and responded to the disaster.

    Members of the former 9/11 commission blasted Congress and the Bush administration for inaction on some of its recommendations. Had they been in place, lives could have been saved, they said.

    "If Congress does not act, people will die. I cannot put it more simply than that," said former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, referring to what could happen in the next major disaster or terrorist attack.

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