FEMA denied request for rubber boats
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
By Bill Walsh
WASHINGTON -- A day before Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries fired off an urgent request for 300 rubber rafts to rescue people from what was expected to be high water in New Orleans.
priority, the plea went to the Federal Emergency
Management Agency headquarters in Denton, Texas, where a
team of disaster experts considered it. As Katrina
lashed southeast Louisiana and ruptured New Orleans'
levees Aug. 29, FEMA gave its answer: "Request denied."
The episode, which came to light Monday at a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, is just the latest in a growing collection of planning miscues that, despite years of warnings, left the region woefully unprepared for the storm.
The hearing also laid bare evidence of infighting and back-biting among state, local and federal emergency responders once the levees broke and plunged 80 percent of New Orleans underwater. Countless acts of bravery were intermingled with squabbling over scarce rescue equipment as first responders operated in a virtual communications blackout.
"What strikes me is the utter lack of coordination in the search and rescue," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told a panel of four front-line officials involved in the Katrina response. "Don't you all talk to one another?"
The hearing was the 12th the committee has held looking at the government's actions before, during and after Katrina. Several more are scheduled this week and next week as the committee prepares to wrap up its work and issue a report in mid-March. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is slated to testify Wednesday and Gov. Blanco is expected Thursday.
'We were not prepared'
The most stunning revelation from Monday's hearing was the urgent missive for rubber rafts as Katrina remained on course to swamp the New Orleans area. At that point, the National Hurricane Center was warning of potential breaches in New Orleans' levees and high water throughout much of the city.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries wanted to use the rafts to carry those stranded by the expected floodwaters to higher ground. As predictions about the storm's ferocity grew more dire Aug. 28, the request was increased to 1,000 rafts.
"We could have used them to tow additional evacuees, and in lower water the rescuers could have used them to load people who were sick and handicapped," said Lt. Col. Keith LaCaze of Wildlife and Fisheries, which was instrumental in the search and rescue effort in New Orleans.
But William Lokey, chief of FEMA's operations branch, told the Senate committee that the request was denied because "the boats would not be effective." He said rubber boats would not have performed well bobbing alongside the debris that the storm was expected to churn up.
It's not that FEMA didn't have resources at its disposal. The committee released documents showing that the U.S. Department of the Interior offered 300 boats, 400 trained rescue workers and 11 airplanes to FEMA in the crucial days after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.
"I was not aware of that offer at the time," Lokey said. "That shows we have a lot more work to do at the federal level."
Lokey later conceded bluntly: "We were not prepared for this."
FEMA wasn't the only agency that had difficulty managing its resources when storm victims needed them most. Collins questioned Louisiana National Guard Brig. Gen. Brod Veillon about why boats and high-water vehicles requested before the storm by the New Orleans Police Department weren't made available.
Instead, many of the National Guard's boats and vehicles were left at Jackson Barracks, one of the lowest points in the city, where they were covered by floodwaters when the levees broke.
"We have always placed them there," Veillon said. "We were aware of the danger but believed it was the right place to put the equipment."
Layers of bureaucracy
Capt. Tim Bayard, commander of the New Orleans Police Department's vice and narcotics section, said he was turned down by Wildlife and Fisheries for boats. Bayard had set up a command post at Harrah's New Orleans Casino, where he and another captain dispatched search and rescue teams using five boats they managed to rustle up on their own, two of which were commandeered.
Bayard said that two days after the levees broke, one of his men spotted on high ground near City Hall a line of 20 flat-bottomed boats on trailers under the command of the state Wildlife and Fisheries Department.
Bayard said he asked to use the boats for search and rescue missions but was turned down. It wasn't the first instance of friction between state and local agencies scrambling to mount their rescue efforts with little or no coordination.
"In an effort to coordinate, several contacts were made with the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries. Each contact was met with a great deal of resistance," Bayard said in written testimony. "I often wonder how many stranded citizens we could have rescued with those boats!"
LaCaze said five of the boats were lent to the New Orleans Police Department. He said his agency refused to give up the rest because they were being used to save patients stranded at Tulane Medical Center.
The plan, LaCaze said, was to ferry the patients out of the hospital to higher ground to be transported to waiting buses. After hearing that the National Guard had five buses parked nearby on Interstate 10, LaCaze got permission from the state Office of Emergency Preparedness in Baton Rouge to use them.
He told the committee that he dispatched a firefighter to tell the National Guardsmen guarding the buses to turn them over.
"He came back to me and said they needed to know who made the request and could we put it in writing," LaCaze said. "The fireman took the message over. A few minutes later, he came back and said, 'They want to talk to you.' I went over, and the senior sergeant said he didn't have the authorization and couldn't release the buses. I said, 'What are the buses for?' He said, 'Special needs people.' "
LaCaze said the patients ultimately were loaded into pickup trucks and driven out of the flood zone.
"That sounds like bureaucracy at its worst," Collins said.
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Bill Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 383-7817.