WASHINGTON – Horrified by TV images that depict appalling conditions persisting in New Orleans day after harrowing day, Americans are attacking the federal government for the slowness of its response to Hurricane Katrina.

And no agency is coming under more scrutiny than the Federal Emergency Management Agency – which was designated lead coordinator for the federal disaster response to Katrina two days before the storm hit shore.

“I’m ashamed of America. I’m ashamed of our government,” said Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick, D-Mich. “I’m outraged by the lack of response by our federal government.”

Though disaster planners have long ranked a direct hurricane strike on New Orleans as one of the top three catastrophic scenarios facing the United States, authorities have lagged badly in evacuating the sick and vulnerable, passing out food and water, deploying military assets and quelling rampant lawlessness. And while the Superdome has long factored in disaster preparedness plans as the city’s main hurricane refuge, no supplies were stocked there before the storm hit Monday.

Dr. Michael Lindell, a senior scholar at Texas A&M’s Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center, said he cannot comprehend why federal officials had not deployed equipment and relief supplies before Katrina struck – or mobilized to relieve clearly outflanked state and local resources.

“If it’s a Category 5 hurricane, then frankly it doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out that it’s going to overwhelm local capacity and that they are going to be in a world of hurt,” he said, referring to the storm that fell to Category 4 by the time it hit shore. “You don’t have to wait until there are bodies floating around in the water to start activating the National Guard.”

Many disaster relief specialists blame FEMA’s stumble on its diminished standing within the government and a relentless focus on terrorism prevention by the agency’s new overseers.

In a post-Sept. 11 reorganization, FEMA joined 21 other agencies in a new Homeland Security Department, stripped of the Cabinet rank that had allowed it to report directly to the president. And, in a further department shuffle in July, FEMA lost its historic mission of working with state and local governments on preparedness plans before disaster strikes.

“It was a very powerful organization, with very, very seasoned people – and then 9/11 came,” said Bob Freitag, who spent 25 years at FEMA, rising to federal coordinating officer.

Freitag, who now teaches at the University of Washington, and other emergency management officials contend that with terrorism prevention identified as the top Homeland Security mission, natural disaster preparedness slipped in attention and resources.

Former FEMA Director James Lee Witt urged Congress last year to restore the agency’s independence, saying he was “extremely concerned that the ability of our nation to prepare for and to respond to disasters has been sharply eroded.”

Homeland Security “has taken away people, has taken away money, has taken away power and authority,” Freitag said.

The agency, which doled out hundreds of millions of dollars in preparedness grants to state and local responders, has lost that function to Homeland Security’s Office of Domestic Preparedness.

The Bush administration also canceled other FEMA programs, including a Clinton administration-era disaster mitigation effort known as Project Impact.

The upheavals haven’t come without cost, some say.

“I just don’t get why FEMA was not left alone,” said Robert Wheelersburg, a retired Army Reserve major who spent five years assigned to FEMA’s regional headquarters in Philadelphia. “There were a lot of resignations and retirements within FEMA because it really was demoralizing to say “Hey, you guys are a second-tier agency.”‘

Homeland Security and FEMA officials sought Friday to quell the P.R. storm, citing the vast scope of the damage and unprecedented difficulties caused by major flooding, infrastructure damage, communications breakdowns and criminal activity.

“We mobilized as never before in the federal family,” said Patrick Rhode, FEMA’s deputy director.

Congressional committees vowed to probe FEMA’s response.

Watching the New Orleans devastation, Freitag, who worked 50 disasters, said FEMA is not performing anywhere near the caliber of past disasters.

James Carafano, a homeland security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, disagreed, saying it is “beyond the ridiculous” to think that FEMA has been weakened since losing its independence. “This is the single largest national disaster the U.S. has had in memory,” he said. “Define for me what a good response looks like.”

Still, President Bush admitted before he set off Friday on a tour of the devastated Gulf Coast that “the results are not acceptable.”

Joe Myers, former head of emergency management for North Carolina and later Florida, said state and local authorities must shoulder blame, too.

“I think FEMA is getting pretty much of a bum deal,” he said of the criticism lobbed at the federal responders by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Louisiana emergency management officials and others.

FEMA “is there to support local response and state response,” he said.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.