Leaders rap poor communication in disaster response

Incompatible communications and of a lack of information being shared with affected communities hindered rescue efforts.

Local officials from communities that took in thousands of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina told a Senate panel Wednesday that one of the biggest obstacles to effectively responding to such a disaster were problems communicating with state and federal officials.

At the same time, the officials reported receiving varying degrees of support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has come under intense criticism for its response to the disaster.

"At every step of our response efforts, a breakdown in communications hindered our abilities to respond more effectively and efficiently," Baton Rouge Mayor Melvin (Kip) Holden told the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee during a hearing about efforts to assist Hurricane Katrina victims.

His community received a major influx of refugees from New Orleans and other places, turning Baton Rouge into the state's largest city. Holden and others complained of the inability to communicate among agencies because of incompatible communications and of a lack of information being shared with affected communities.

"Without coordination with our state and federal governments, our effectiveness will be limited and the suffering of our friends, our neighbors and our families will be prolonged for no reason," said Fayetteville Mayor Dan Coody, whose Arkansas community also took in many hurricane victims.

Coody and other local officials also complained about the response they have had from FEMA. Holden said, as of this week, the agency had yet to set up a designated FEMA contact in Baton Rouge for individual assistance for hurricane victims -- a complaint echoed by Brookhaven, Miss., Mayor Robert Massengill, whose city was damaged by the hurricane and also took in evacuees from other communities. He said he was finally contacted by FEMA about setting up an assistance center after it was revealed that he would be testifying before the committee.

"Evacuees are terribly disappointed with FEMA," Massengill said.

It took two-and-a-half weeks, Coody said, before his city heard from FEMA. He noted that his community had many needed supplies on hand that could have been sent to other cities if there was better coordination. And Holden noted that while he has submitted a request for reimbursement of expenses the city has incurred in caring for hurricane victims, "we have not received a dollar" from FEMA.

However, the top official with Harris County, Texas, which is home to Houston, where thousands of evacuees were sent from Louisiana, said his contacts with local FEMA officials were much more positive. Harris County Judge Robert Eckels said given his county's experience with past hurricanes and emergency preparedness training, his community "knew what to expect" from FEMA. One issue he did highlight was problems in communicating with FEMA and state officials in Louisiana, which left Houston officials confused about when hurricane victims would arrive. Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said one issue that the committee has encountered is that "there is a lot of confusion about what FEMA can and cannot do. There are things you shouldn't turn to FEMA for."