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The disaster response: 'Magnificent' or 'embarrassment'?

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A helicopter drops sandbags during efforts to repair a broken levee Thursday in New Orleans.

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NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- When it comes to assessing the effectiveness of the emergency response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, two divergent -- and incongruous -- views have emerged over more than three long days of misery.

In the hurricane-ravaged city, where people are thirsty and hungry, living in squalid conditions and in fear of armed bands of marauding looters, the response is seen as confused, ineffective and puzzlingly slow.

"Why is no one in charge?" asked one frustrated evacuee at the Ernest Morial Convention Center, where thousands have waited days for help. "I find it hard to believe."

Yet, 80 miles away at the Federal Emergency Management Agency command post in Baton Rouge, FEMA Director Michael Brown told CNN's Wolf Blitzer Thursday evening that "considering the dire circumstances that we have in New Orleans, virtually a city that has been destroyed, things are going relatively well."

His view was not shared by some of the local officials trying to cope at the scene of the disaster.

Terry Ebbert, New Orleans' homeland security chief, told WWL-TV that he thinks FEMA's response to the disaster has been an "embarrassment." Walter Maestri, the emergency management director in suburban Jefferson Parish, said FEMA and other federal agencies are not delivering help nearly as fast as it is needed.

Yet, back in Washington, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told CNN Thursday that he believes he thinks FEMA and other federal agencies have done a "magnificent job" under difficult circumstances to deal with the unprecedented disaster, citing their "courage" and "ingenuity."

Insisting that aid is coming as fast as possible, Chertoff said, "You can't fly helicopters in a hurricane. You can't drive trucks in a hurricane."

Such explanations likely would have been of cold comfort to the crowd of hot, thirsty, bedraggled people outside the convention center, even if they could have heard them.

"We want help, we want help," they chanted for the television cameras, an impromptu SOS to the outside world.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin took the extraordinary step Thursday of sending a message through the media -- which he termed a "desperate SOS" -- advising the crowd at the convention center to march over the Crescent City Connection bridge to the west bank of the Mississippi River to find relief in neighboring Jefferson Parish.

"The convention center is unsanitary and unsafe, and we are running out of supplies for the 15- to 20,000 people," he said.

Later in a radio interview, Nagin was even more direct. "I keep hearing that it's coming. This is coming. That is coming. My answer to that is B.S. Where is the beef?"

"God is looking down on all this and if they are not doing everything in their power to save people they are going to pay the price," Nagin said.

Yet, Brown told CNN's "Paula Zahn Now" Thursday evening that federal officials only found out about the unfolding humanitarian crisis at the convention center earlier in the day -- despite the fact that city officials had been telling people for days to take shelter there.

"We just learned about that today, and so I have directed that we have all available resources to get that convention center to make sure that they have the food and water, the medical care that they need," he said.

At a news conference in Baton Rouge Thursday, Brown bristled when reporters asked him about the criticism of FEMA's effort in general, and the criticism by Ebbert and Maestri in particular. He insisted his agency was "meeting the needs as they are communicated to us."

"I think everyone in the country needs to take a big, collective, deep breath and recognize that there are a lot of people in this state, in Mississippi and Alabama who are living under conditions that, quite frankly, I doubt any reporter in this room is living under -- no food, no water, it's hot, it's sticky, their homes have been destroyed, they don't know where they're going to go next."

But there was perhaps no clearer illustration of the disconnect between how emergency officials view the situation at a distance, and how it is viewed by those actually living it on the ground, than Brown's comments to CNN's Wolf Blitzer Thursday evening about the evacuation of hospitals in the city.

"I've just learned today that we ... are in the process of completing the evacuations of the hospitals, that those are going very well," he said.

Shortly after he made those comments, Dr. Michael Bellew, a resident at Charity Hospital, where more than 200 patients were still waiting to be evacuated, described desperate conditions. The hospital had no power, no water, food was running out and nurses were bagging patients by hand because ventilators didn't work.

Earlier in the day, the evacuation from Charity had to be suspended for a time after a sniper opened fire on rescuers.

At another local hospital, Memorial Medical Center, a small fleet of helicopters was brought in to evacuate patients and staff after hospital officials were told "by officials on the ground to take the matter into our own hands," said Trevor Fetter, president of Tenet HealthCare Corp., the hospital's owner.

Perhaps the biggest complaint about the federal response stems from the brazen lawlessness and looting in the city, punctuated with gunfire.

Chertoff said Thursday that 4,200 trained National Guard military police would be deployed in the city over the next three days, quadrupling the law enforcement presence in New Orleans.

"Fourteen hundred military police trained soldiers will be arriving every day --- 1,400 today, 1,400 tomorrow and 1,400 the next day," he said.

"Frankly, what we're doing is we are putting probably more than we need in order to send an unambiguous message that we will not tolerate lawlessness or violence or interference with the evacuation."

Yet, the first contingent of those promised military police were not scheduled to arrive until late Thursday night -- and only 100 Guard members would be in that first wave, according to Pentagon officials. Pressed about the other 1,300 promised troops, officials would only say that they were on the way.

New Orleans police officers told CNN that they needed the manpower earlier in the week to prevent the looting and violence now prevalent in the city. The situation is now much worse because among the first items taken from stores, according to the officers, were guns -- turning unarmed thieves into armed gangsters.

Police were reduced to looting ammunition from stores themselves, to keep it off the streets.

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