President Bush and federal relief agencies drew sharp criticism yesterday for the speed and effectiveness of the national government’s response to Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans flood.
With New Orleans and its thousands of stranded residents sliding into anarchy — without food, water, or medical care — Terry Ebbert, chief of Homeland Security for New Orleans — complained that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was not offering enough help.
“This is a national emergency. This is a national disgrace,” he said. “FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control. We can send massive amounts of aid to tsunami victims, but we can’t bail out the city of New Orleans.”
In addition to city officials, rumbles of discontent are coming from surprising quarters, including conservative commentators and even one of Mr. Bush’s closest political associates.
Joseph Allbaugh, the president’s first FEMA director and a longtime Bush friend, says that FEMA workers are having a more difficult time than they should getting into the affected areas.
“A lot of decisions are being made that aren’t being coordinated very well,” he told Fox News.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who had planned to promote September as National Preparedness Month yesterday, had to answer questions about his agency’s own preparations for the hurricane.
“We totally understand what it’s like to be sitting on top of a roof or to be sitting in a shelter where it’s hot, where you’re worried about when you’re going to be picked up, where you’re thirsty, where you’re hungry, where you’re afraid for yourself and afraid for members of your family,” Mr. Chertoff said during a hastily called press conference.
“Before Hurricane Katrina had even made landfall, the president declared emergencies in these areas. And that allowed us to preposition and start to distribute resources in the affected areas,” Mr. Chertoff said.
“We prepositioned 18 disaster medical teams, medical supplies and equipment, urban search and rescue teams. All of these were prestaged, along with millions of Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), liters of water, tarpaulins and truckloads of ice. By prepositioning these resources, we were able to speed our ability to deliver these necessary supplies,” Mr. Chertoff said.
However, the prepositioned teams were not inside the hardest-hit area of New Orleans, where television cameras yesterday showed dead bodies on the streets and reporters told of widespread incidents of murders, rapes, robberies, sniper shootings and carjackings.
In the first response statement issued Tuesday afternoon by the Homeland Security Department, the department said 23 medical response teams were sent to staging areas in Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana and Alabama and that FEMA “is now moving them into impacted areas.”
Additionally, seven urban search-and-rescue teams and two incident support teams were prepositioned in Shreveport, La., and Jackson, Miss.
New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin yesterday issued a “desperate SOS,” saying the stadium area was “unsanitary and unsafe, and we are running out of supplies for 15,000 to 25,000 people.”
Despite pleas from two public hospital administrators that they were running out of food, FEMA administrator Mike Brown said there is no truth to reports food is scarce in New Orleans.
“The state has requested five trailer loads of MREs and water to be delivered today. Those are en route. There was plenty of food to feed last night in the Superdome. There was plenty of food to feed this morning. And there will be plenty of food to feed this evening,” Mr. Brown said. “So, any reports to the contrary are just incorrect.”
Mr. Brown also called the security situation in New Orleans “pretty darn good.”
Rampant lawlessness in the city that is still 80 percent under water prompted Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco to ask for up to 40,000 troops to help restore order, and other calls for help from police in other states.
Initially, 7,500 National Guardsmen were sent to “the four most heavily impacted states” to provide law-enforcement, medical and generator support, and as of yesterday there were 2,800 troops in New Orleans, Mr. Chertoff said.
“Now let me emphasize — from the very beginning and as we speak — rescue operations have continued and are continuing in full force,” Mr. Chertoff said.
Another 4,200 National Guardsman will be sent to New Orleans over the next three days, Mr. Chertoff announced yesterday. The Coast Guard started rescue missions after the hurricane passed, plucking more than 1,200 stranded victims from roofs and waters in the first 48 hours.
However the USNS Comfort, the Navy’s military sealift hospital based in Baltimore, was not activated until Wednesday, after Homeland Security declared the hurricane destruction an “incident of national significance” which sets the national response plan into action.
“We anticipate providing from the Department of Defense a 500-bed mobile hospital. That will be deployed in the New Orleans area,” Paul McHale, assistant Defense Department secretary, said during a news conference Wednesday.
The Comfort has 250 hospital beds and will not reach the Gulf until Thursday. Her sister ship, USNS Mercy, is berthed in San Diego and has not been ordered to activate.
But the pace of aid is becoming a political issue. The liberal New York Times said Mr. Bush came “a day later than he was needed” and gave “one of the worst speeches of his life” Wednesday at the Rose Garden, but some of the fiercest criticism is coming from the right.
The Manchester Union Leader’s editorial page accused Mr. Bush of “a diffident detachment” and said “a better leader would have flown straight to the disaster zone” immediately. The paper said “the cool, confident, intuitive leadership Bush exhibited … following Sept. 11, 2001, has vanished.”
Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News Channel that the president “is going to be hurt” by a photo of him receiving a guitar from singer Mark Wills on Tuesday, as the scope of the damage was becoming clear.
Mr. Bush will tour the carnage in person today.
In a rare live interview with ABC News yesterday, Mr. Bush said he “started organizing Tuesday when we realized the extent of the storm” and told Cabinet officials to “have a report on my desk … [and] tell me exactly what your departments are going to do to help alleviate the situation.’ ”