Storm Of Criticism

Officials Look To What Went Wrong With Katrina Response

The blistering hot state capital of Louisiana has now swelled to twice its normal population with evacuees from Hurricane Katrina.

Officials in Baton Rouge are now directing the rescue effort that seems to finally be making a difference. But as 48 Hours correspondent Peter Van Sant reports, it's come only after days of national shame.

In startling images, the world has watched while American citizens -- the weakest and poorest among us -- have been left abandoned without food or water, dying in the streets.

Many are blaming the horror on a colossal failure of government, and as the death toll mounts, a discomforting question is being asked. In the end, what will have contributed to more deaths: Katrina itself or the government's incompetent sluggish response?

"This is bureaucracy at its worst and this bureaucracy at its worst has committed murder in the New Orleans area," says Aaron Broussard, who heads a local parish just outside New Orleans. "When the autopsies are finally done, they're gonna find, horribly, that many people died many days after Mother Nature had come and gone -- an atrociously high number of people who could have been saved if the time had been used wisely from the beginning."

Eight days after Hurricane Katrina struck, state and federal officials say they are finally beginning to work together. But no one is denying all the mistakes -- some of them fatal -- that have occurred.

"It is gonna be declared to be a folly and it's gonna be determined to be the greatest abandonment of Americans on American soil ever," says Broussard.

Hurricane Katrina should have taken no one by surprise. This was not a tsunami or an earthquake, but a natural disaster that the whole world could see coming.

A little more than a year ago, a government study predicted that a storm even weaker than Katrina could devastate New Orleans. Federal emergency managers assured local officials that help would arrive if they could just hang on for 48 hours.

"It was exactly this scenario, and everybody who went through that exercise and everyone who participated signed off," says Walter Maestri, a local emergency director.

But, says Maestri, when the big one hit, the promised help never showed up.

"Everything that I believed, everything that I committed to and I felt they committed to us in all the years of planning -- it didn't happen, it simply didn't happen," he says.

And the consequence of that?

"A lot of angry people," he says. "It allowed the civil unrest to take over, and in essence, the thug element to come in. How can you tell people who are starving that they can't loot?"

On Tuesday, President George W. Bush moved to get ahead of the storm of criticism.

"What I intend to do is lead an investigation into what went right and what went wrong," says Bush. "I'll tell you why. It's very important for us to understand the relationship between federal government, the state government and the local government when it comes to a major catastrophe."

That crucial relationship clearly fell apart here and we saw it fall apart from the moment New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered the evacuation.

New Orleans' poor, immobile population was left behind -- left to fend for themselves by city officials.

"There are no resources to get people out in that mass -- no local government of a half million or that many buses to pull people out," says Broussard. "That's what makes living in a bowl a risk. That's why we beg people to evacuate in any way they can."

The biggest shelter from the storm was the Superdome. At first it was a haven. It became a hellhole.

Louisiana Democratic Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco was herself singled out for criticism.

Published reports have said that during the crisis she seemed "uncertain and sluggish," "had to be convinced by President Bush to declare a mandatory evacuation," and she has said she felt "overwhelmed."

The levees were breached and President Bush cut short his vacation, signaling the seriousness of the federal government's response.

But the federal help was slow in coming and some say Michael Brown, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, seemed clueless.

"Someone has been promoted to the highest level of incompetentcy and in that incompetantcy they failed to understand the dynamics of what this storm could do to a community below sea level and that's hard for me to fathom," says Broussard.

New Orleans was sinking fast and it wasn't just the flood waters and the storm that was to blame. Tempers reached a boiling point -- Mayor Nagin called into a local radio show and simply lost it.

Suddenly, the situation along the Gulf Coast was so dire that politicians ventured outside the spin zone.

"If one person criticizes them [local law enforcement] or says one more [thing], including the president of the United States, they will hear from me. One more thing after this show airs, I most likely have to punch them," Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landreau said Sunday on ABC This Week.

Mississippi Republican Sen. Trent Lott couldn't help himself. He began attacking another Republican -- beleaguered FEMA director Michael Brown.

"If he doesn't solve a couple of problems that we've got right now, he ain't going to be able to hold a job because what I'm going to do to him, ain't going to be pretty," he says.

All the yelling finally got the attention of the federal government in a big way, and help arrived.

"It's not time for blame," says Maestri. "Now's the time to recover."

There will come a time when we have to assess who's responsible for this and that's the time that the piper will have to be paid."

"The past has got to be investigated to the same extent that 911 was explored publicly," says Broussard. "It all has to exposed and it's gonna be ugly, ugly, ugly!"

Washington politicians returned on Tuesday to Capitol Hill and signaled their determination to investigate the disaster along the Gulf coast. The major question: should FEMA continue to be a part of the Office of Homeland Security, which critics say is focused solely on terrorism?

Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine will chair the Senate investigation.

Some, like Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, were still not over their anger.

New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton urged the president to restore FEMA to full cabinet-level status.

There's no doubt in Broussard's mind what needs to be done now.

"FEMA is not positioned to do what its mission really is," he says. "This should be a cabinet-level post that is fully funded by Congress that has the maneuverability to get out of red tape and simply be a juggernaut. That is a cocked pistol that is ready to fire into an area and do its mission, which is to be a partnership between federal, state and local authorities instantaneously. It needs to be restructured. It should be done now and Katrina should be the excuse."

Has anyone learned a lesson here? Unfortunately, we'll only know for certain when disaster strikes again.

"My real fear right now is that if there were to be a series of coordinated attacks by terrorists on several American cities at the same time, what we can expect, what response would come. Look around you. This is what we have and it was a natural disaster and we knew that it was coming," says Maestri.
  • Michelle Singer

More From 48 Hours

Comments