Saturday, October 29, 2005

Federal Emergency Maximization Agency

Americans expect the federal government to come to our aide when faced with an emergency. The agency tasked with that responsibility is FEMA -- the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Backed by the vast resources of the US government, surely Americans can rely on FEMA in time of need. At least that's what residents of the Gulf Coast thought this summer as hurrican Katrina was bearing down on them. Let's see how FEMA actually responded.

One would expect FEMA to be closely coordinated with the US military since they all fall under the administration of the executive branch of government. Therefore, Captain Nora Tyson weathered hurricane Katrina in the USS Bataan so it could follow the storm in immediately after making landfall and be a first responder. The Navy vessel had hospital facilities, including six operating rooms and beds for 600 patients, and landing craft staged just 40 miles from New Orleans. The captain was ready to allow many of the 1,200 sailors to go ashore to help with the relief effort. However, FEMA never requested the Bataan's assistance. Said Bill Fish, the commander of one of the 135-foot landing crafts, "It was a disappointment. I figured we would be a big help in New Orleans. We've got electricity, and the police could have charged up their radios. We've got water, toilets. We've got food."

Everyone knows the valuable role that the Red Cross plays in assistance and recovery after disasters. One would think that it would be the first NGO FEMA would reach out to, especially when faced with tens of thousands of hungry and thirsty American refugees at the New Orleans Convention Center. However, Renita Hosler, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross, said:
The Homeland Security Department has requested and continues to request that the American Red Cross not come back into New Orleans. Right now access is controlled by the National Guard and local authorities. We have been at the table every single day [asking for access]. We cannot get into New Orleans against their orders.
Perhaps these resources were not used by FEMA because they wanted people specifically trained in rescue to precede recovery efforts. So neighboring states sent firefighters and other local first responders to the Gulf Coast to lend aide. How were these highly-trained rescuers greeted? FEMA required them to take an eight-hour sexual harassment class, then go hand out flyers -- all this while thousands of New Orleans residents still needed to be rescued. After experiencing this cool reception, a discouraged Texas firefighter suggested to his superiors back home that they not send any more volunteers. He declined to give his name because FEMA warned them not to talk to reporters, but he did say, "They've got people here who are search-and-rescue certified, paramedics, haz-mat certified. We're sitting in here having a sexual-harassment class while there are still [victims] in Louisiana who haven't been contacted yet."

While turning away local and NGO resources that were made available in the Gulf Coast, the Bush administration had prioritized the use of federal resources in the recovery from hurricane Katrina. Shortly after the hurricane struck Mississippi, knocking out electricity and communication systems, the White House ordered power restored to a pipeline. The two Colonial Pipeline power substations in Collins that were restarted send fuel to the Northeast -- hundreds of miles away from the area destroyed by Katrina. Meanwhile, the vice president's order to restart them delayed efforts by at least 24 hours to restore power to two rural hospitals and a number of water systems in the Pine Belt of Mississippi.

Other countries' resources got no closer to the Gulf Coast. Germany sent a military cargo jet carrying fifteen tons of food to the United States. The contribution was intended to feed the hungry victims of hurricane Katrina. But the food supplies never made it. The Bush administration refused the jet permission to land. Forced to turn around, the plane headed back to Cologne still fully loaded. Food from other countries had also been banned.

Americans also wanted to contribute. According to Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard, Wal-Mart loaded three trucks with food and water. FEMA, which controlled access to New Orleans, turned them back. A Coast Guard ship invited local authorities to get 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel, but FEMA ordered it to turn down the offer. Volunteers from Lafayette, LA, with 500 boats, headed for New Orleans to aid in rescue efforts, but FEMA turned them back.

Acadian Ambulance Service was tasked with transporting refugees in need of medical care out of New Orleans. Unfortunately, FEMA's paperwork slowed the evacuation of patients from the airport, and Acadian's frustrated medics waited with empty helicopters. Since they couldn't get patients out fast enough, the company sent in outside doctors and nurses to the airport, where patients were dying and medical care was in short supply. Nonetheless, FEMA rejected the help because the doctors and nurses weren't certified members of a National Disaster Medical Team.

Marc Creswell, an Acadian medic, said:
At one point I had 10 helicopters on the ground waiting to go, but FEMA kept stonewalling us with paperwork. Meanwhile, every 30 or 40 minutes someone was dying ... When the doctors asked why they couldn't help these critically ill people lying there unattended, the FEMA people kept saying, 'You're not federalized.'
FEMA distributed so much money so quickly when hurricanes hit Florida last year that Floridians that did not qualify for emergency aide were receiving funds. However, just a scant year later in New Orleans, rather than managing the emergency, FEMA became the Federal Emergency Maximization Agency.

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