Lack of supplies at Convention Center at issue
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
By Bruce Alpert
WASHINGTON -- New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is expected to face
questioning from a Senate committee today on why he was
unable to get food and water to the Ernest N. Morial
Convention Center for 48 hours after he opened it to
Hurricane Katrina evacuees.
Documents released Tuesday night by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs show that the city opened the Convention Center a day after the hurricane slammed the city Aug. 29 and that the Superdome became more and more uncomfortable because of failing sanitation and no air conditioning. Thousands of people from flooded New Orleans neighborhoods and downtown hotels looking for shelter eventually made their way to the Convention Center.
A Sept. 1 memo from Nagin's communications director, Sally Forman, reported "numbers growing, no food or water" at the center.
But Forman told investigators that city officials thought they had no choice but to open the Convention Center for the thousands of people who had no other shelter.
"We had been stopped by large populations of people walking together who had been put out of hotels, where hotel staff had said 'leave, you can't stay anymore' and these were wandering people who didn't have anywhere to go and as the water filled up around the Dome they could not gain access to the Superdome. . . . At least the Convention Center provided a roof over their heads," Forman said, according to a transcript of a committee interview with her Jan. 10.
Forman said city officials also were getting reports that State Police and National Guard personnel who were supposed to help provide security at the Convention Center were leaving out of concern for their own safety.
Offers of help rejected
Communication and coordination breakdowns by government agencies are among the many problems the Senate committee has highlighted.
At the panel's hearing Tuesday, testimony was offered that Louisiana officials rejected an offer for federal help to evacuate patients from hospitals and nursing homes and separately that a state transportation official did little to complete an assignment to develop a state plan to evacuate the poor, sick and elderly.
Jimmy Guidry, medical director and state health officer with the state Department of Health and Hospitals, defended the decision by another state health official to pass up the offer for help in evacuating patients, saying officials knew only too well that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services didn't have transportation assets to move patients. He said that when the help was requested after the hurricane struck, the federal agency couldn't come up with the assistance the state needed to transport people from hospitals and nursing homes.
But Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the top Democrat on the committee, said he found the rejection of help, made two days before Katrina made landfall, inexcusable and one of many opportunities missed to ease the suffering in New Orleans.
The panel's chairwoman, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she could only conclude that the response to Katrina was marked by "government complacency and, at times, by utter dereliction of duty."
"The result was incomprehensible and unnecessary suffering, deprivation and death," Collins said. "It produced those appalling televised images that shocked the world."
State Transportation and Development Secretary Johnny Bradberry told the Senate committee that he had been assigned the task in April, a little more than four months before Katrina struck, of developing plans to evacuate people with no cars from New Orleans. He conceded that his agency had done nothing to complete the task.
"Although this new protocol was viewed by most in state government as a transitional plan that had not been fully vetted, discussed or implemented, I should have charged my people with ensuring that officials on the local and/or federal levels were performing that function if we were not prepared to fully execute that duty," Bradberry said.
Bradberry said he worked mostly in the months before Katrina on developing a traffic flow plan to help the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people in cars. That effort was mostly successful and saved thousands of lives, he said.
Walter Maestri, Jefferson Parish's emergency management director, said the inability to evacuate people without cars shouldn't have been a surprise to officials in state, federal and local governments because studies dating to 1994 had pointed that out.
Nursing home failures
Joseph Donchess, executive director of the Louisiana Nursing Home Association, said he never got the sense that evacuating nursing home patients was a priority during the rescue process, citing the state government's decision to cancel the association's access to Louisiana's E-team system of disseminating priority rescue requests four days into the rescue efforts. After that, he said, the agency had to secure the permission of top state health officials to use the system, which delayed the dissemination of important information about nursing home patients still needing rescue.
Lieberman said the nursing homes can't escape all responsibility, because too many did not evacuate before the hurricane despite warnings three days before Katrina struck that the "big storm" everyone had feared was heading toward Louisiana.
Terry Ebbert, New Orleans' homeland security director, told senators that the U.S. Defense Department is the only organization with the command-and-control capability, equipment and training to respond to a massive disaster such as Katrina and immediately should be utilized in future disasters.
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is looking into how to do exactly that and work around the current restrictions that bar the military from engaging in law enforcement functions.
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Bruce Alpert can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 383-7861.