FEMA officials: Military delayed Superdome evacuation
Agency official in New Orleans said he constantly had to "rein in" Defense officials who wanted to take control of relief operations.
Military officials delayed an evacuation of Hurricane Katrina victims from the Superdome in New Orleans late last summer, prolonging their stay in squalid conditions for another 24 hours, a Federal Emergency Management Agency official told Congress Thursday.
The FEMA official, Philip Parr, who was working out of the Superdome, said he had devised a plan to use helicopters to evacuate victims to dry land and later bus them to adequate shelters in less than 30 hours on Wednesday, Aug. 31 -- two days after the storm hit the city and massive flooding ensued.
Parr said National Guard officials told him that Army Lt. Gen. Russell Honore had taken over evacuation operations and Parr's plan was on hold. On Thursday, Sept. 1, FEMA and state officials sent buses to begin evacuating victims, a process that took until Saturday, Sept. 3, to complete.
"The result of that delay ... was that thousands of people in the Superdome had to spend another unpleasant, hot and dangerous night," said Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Parr, along with two other veteran FEMA officials, said the event portrays the problem that can result when the military takes the lead in a domestic disaster response. "We need to have a command role," said Scott Wells, a FEMA coordinating officer, instead of its current one as a coordinating agency.
FEMA officials explained that they hand out mission assignments to other federal agencies, which are immediately approved by agency officials on the ground.
The military "takes issue with the term 'mission assignments' " and must seek approval through its chain of command in Washington, said William Carwile, who ran FEMA operations in Mississippi.
Parr said he constantly had to "rein in" military officials who sought to take over recovery efforts from state and local officials. "Having DoD is like someone giving you an 800-pound gorilla. ... In the end, that gorilla is gonna do what it wants," Wells said.
To run disaster relief efforts, the FEMA officials said their agency needs to be bolstered, because it now lacks training, equipment, staff and expertise to respond adequately to catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina. Wells said Congress must tweak the Stafford Act that governs federal disaster relief assistance to handle catastrophic disasters.
"It's like bringing a donkey to the Kentucky Derby," he said about the law.
The officials testified that Congress and the Bush administration have not provided enough funding to train and equip FEMA response teams in recent years. They also defended the agency against recent criticism from Louisiana officials about their efforts, saying state and city officials lacked an understanding of the agency's role.
Wells said requests from New Orleans officials for golf carts, major weapons and ammunition, as well as air conditioners at the height of the crisis demonstrated this point. Parr added that Louisiana had not adequately prepared for the hurricane, failing to designate satisfactory shelters and sanitation facilities, as well as stocking food and medical supplies.
"That's the job of state and local governments," Parr said.