As the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency stepped down yesterday, government documents surfaced showing that vital resources, such as buses and environmental health specialists, weren't deployed to the Gulf region for several days, even after federal officials seized control of Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, the (paid-restricted) WALL STREET JOURNAL reports Tuesday. Excerpts follow.
Separately, internal documents and emails from FEMA and other government agencies dating back to Aug. 31 and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show the extent to which the federal government bungled its response to the hurricane. The documents highlight serious deficiencies in the Department of Homeland Security's National Response Plan, a post-Sept. 11 playbook on how to deal with catastrophic events. Mr. Chertoff activated the National Response Plan last Tuesday by declaring the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina an "Incident of National Significance."
In one instance, federal environmental health specialists, who were charged with protecting both rescue workers and evacuees, weren't called in by the Department of Homeland Security until Sunday -- 12 days after the Occupational Safety & Health Administration announced it had teams from various agencies standing by ready to assist. Even now, with mounting evidence of environmental problems, the deployment is being held up by continuing interagency wrangling, according to officials at the National Institutes of Health, which also is involved in the effort.
In addition, FEMA's official requests, known as tasking assignments and used by the agency to demand help from other government agencies, show that it first asked the Department of Transportation to look for buses to help evacuate the more than 20,000 people who had taken refuge at the Superdome in New Orleans at 1:45 a.m. on Aug. 31. At the time, it only asked for 455 buses and 300 ambulances for the enormous task. Almost 18 hours later, it canceled the request for the ambulances because it turned out, as one FEMA employee put it, "the DOT doesn't do ambulances."
FEMA ended up modifying the number of buses it thought it needed to get the job done, until it settled on a final request of 1,355 buses at 8:05 p.m. on Sept. 3. The buses, though, trickled into New Orleans, with only a dozen or so arriving on the first day.
The part of the plan that authorizes OSHA's role as coordinator and allows it to mobilize experts from other agencies such as NIH wasn't activated by FEMA until shortly before 5 p.m. Sunday. The delay came despite repeated efforts by the agencies to mobilize.
Attempts by officials at NIH to reach FEMA officials and send them briefing materials by email failed as the agency's server failed.
"I noticed that every email to a FEMA person bounced back this week. They need a better internet provider during disasters!!" one frustrated Department of Health official wrote to colleagues last Thursday.
RAW STORY has also learned that the Journal has adopted a legal policy in which they now assert they have "reviewed" internal documents rather than "obtaining" them to protect the paper from government litigation.
Originally published on Tuesday September 13, 2005.