Offers to help Katrina victims went unused, documents show
WASHINGTON – Hundreds of available trucks, boats, planes and federal officers were unused in search and rescue efforts immediately after Hurricane Katrina hit because FEMA failed to give them missions, new documents show.Additionally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency called off its search and rescue operations in Louisiana three days after the Aug. 29 storm because of security issues, according to an internal FEMA e-mail given to Senate investigators.The documents, released by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, are further evidence of lapses in FEMA’s response to Katrina. They also detail breakdowns in carrying out the National Response Plan, which was issued a year ago specifically to coordinate response efforts during disasters.A spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, which includes FEMA, did not dispute the documents. Katrina “pushed our capabilities and resources to the limit – and then some,” said spokesman Russ Knocke.Responding to a questionnaire posed by investigators, Interior Department Assistant Secretary P. Lynn Scarlett said her agency offered to supply FEMA with 300 dump trucks and other vehicles, 300 boats, 11 aircraft and 400 law enforcement officers to help search and rescue efforts.”Although the department possesses significant resources that could have improved initial and ongoing response, many of these resources were not effectively incorporated into the federal response to Hurricane Katrina,” Scarlett wrote in the response, dated Nov. 7.Scarlett added: “Although we attempted to provide these assets through the process established by the NRP, we were unable to efficiently integrate and deploy those resources.”At one point, Scarlett’s letter said, FEMA asked U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services to help with search and rescue in New Orleans, St. Bernard Parish and St. Tammany Parish but that the rescuers “never received task assignments.” The agency, a branch of the Interior Department, apparently went ahead anyway, according to the letter, which said that Fish and Wildlife helped rescue 4,500 people in the first week after Katrina.Other Interior Department resources that were offered, but unused, included flat-bottom boats for shallow-water rescues. “Clearly these assets and skills were precisely relevant in the post-Katrina environment,” Scarlett wrote.Knocke, the Homeland Security spokesman, said up to 60,000 federal employees were sent to the Gulf Coast to response to Katrina. However, “experience has shown that FEMA was not equipped with 21st century capabilities, and that is what (Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff) has committed as one of our top priorities going forward,” he said.Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, head of the Senate committee that released the documents, called them “the most candid assessment that we’ve received from any federal agency.” Her panel, which is investigating the government’s response to Katrina, is scheduled to question a FEMA operations official Monday at a hearing focusing on search and rescue efforts.”Here we have another federal department offering skilled personnel and the exact kinds of assets that were so desperately needed in the Gulf region in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and there was no response that we can discern from FEMA,” Collins said in an interview Sunday. “That is incredible to me.”Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the panel, said the Interior documents underscore “an outrage on top of an outrage.”Lieberman and Collins both said they also were dismayed by an internal FEMA e-mail, dated Sept. 1, calling a halt to search and rescue task force efforts in Louisiana.”All assets have ceased operation until National Guard can assist TFs (task forces) with security,” said the e-mail, sent from FEMA headquarters.Knocke said the halt was likely the result of looting, rioting and other security concerns in New Orleans in the days after Katrina hit. It could not be determined Sunday whether FEMA suspended its search and rescue missions indefinitely or just temporarily on Sept. 1.Knocke said he did not know and that the answer would be determined in the department’s own review of the response.But Lieberman said the e-mail suggests FEMA “left early,” noting that personnel from the Coast Guard, and other federal, state and local agencies continued looking for storm victims for days after.”This is shocking and without explanation,” he said.The documents were among 800,000 pages of memos, e-mails, plans and other papers gathered by investigators for the Senate committee, which plans to issue a report of its findings in March.Lieberman charged last week that the White House was hindering the inquiry by barring some staffers from answering investigators’ questions.White House counselor Dan Bartlett maintained Sunday that the Bush administration would not give up specific internal documents or information from top presidential advisers.”We’re making sure that they have all the information necessary while we also protect the separation of government,” Bartlett said on CNN’s “Late Edition.” “That’s something that everybody recognizes and I think everybody at the end of the day can be satisfied.”Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that the federal government will spend “well over $100 billion” to help rebuild the still-reeling Gulf Coast. The government has so far committed about $85 billion, including $67 billion in direct spending approved by Congress.