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Red Tape Snarls Katrina Volunteers

From all corners of this country, hundreds of would-be rescuers are wending their way to the beleaguered Gulf Coast in buses, vans and trailers. But government red tape has hampered many who ache to help Katrina's victims.

Louisiana's Jefferson Parish is desperate for relief, but parish President Aaron Broussard says officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency turned back three trailer trucks of water, ordered the Coast Guard not to provide emergency diesel fuel and cut emergency power lines.

Why? FEMA has not explained. But the outraged Broussard said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the agency needs to bring in all its "force immediately, without red tape, without bureaucracy, act immediately with common sense and leadership, and save lives."

The government says it is doing the best it can in the face of a massive and complicated disaster.

"Even as progress is being made, we know that victims are still out there and we are working tirelessly to bring them the help they need," said Michael Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Some of the delays can be explained by the need to control a volatile situation. Long lines of volunteers are being stopped on freeways on their way into New Orleans.

"Anyone who self-responded was not being put to work. The military was worried about having more people in the city. They want to limit it to the professionals," said Kevin Southerland, a captain with Orange Fire Department in Orange County, Calif., a member of one of eight 14-member water rescue teams sent to New Orleans at FEMA's request.

Even skilled volunteers with the best intentions can be more trouble than help if they arrive needing food, shelter or fuel, some say.

"Our biggest problem has been trying not to put more stress on the community, particularly with regards to gasoline. We want to make sure we've got enough gas for chain saws and transportation," said Larry Guengerich of the Mennonite Disaster Service, a Pennsylvania-based relief organization that has three small crews currently working along the Gulf Coast, cutting and clearing downed limbs and covering damaged roofs.

There are, at this point, several federal emergency command centers, as well as state and local command centers where coordinators are working to match nonstop requests with the appropriate nonstop offers of help.

From the first hours of the disaster, FEMA has been using the National Incident Management System, a command structure to get millions of dollars worth of government resources and thousands of workers ranging from firefighters to public health teams to places in need. FEMA also has teams designed to support smaller communities.

FEMA is urging individuals and corporations to contact nonprofit organizations if they want to volunteer or donate.

It was FEMA's management system that brought in members of the Nebraska Air National Guard to deliver 66,000 MRE meals and extra fuel to hard-hit areas, and rescuers from Hamilton County, Ohio to search the rubble of Gulfport, Miss. for survivors.

And it was that system that dispatched a nine-member Disaster Medical Assistance Team from Hawaii to the New Orleans Airport where they triaged people evacuated from hospitals, nursing homes, the Convention Center and the Superdome.

The federal government actually wrote a "How To" book for national catastrophes after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. The 426-page document, called the National Response Plan, was released in December, 2004.

Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, said Hurricane Katrina is the first real test of the plan, and has exposed its strengths and weaknesses.

"Quite honestly, at the federal level, the coordination was quite robust," he said. "It's just the interface between federal, state and local where clearly we need to look to ways to improve the process."

But others were more critical. Beth Sharer, CEO of Washington County Memorial Hospital in Salem, Ind., said she was frustrated by a federal plan to create 40 new emergency medical centers with 250 beds each.

"It's not any one person's fault, but the system failed," she said.

Hospitals around the country were standing by with empty beds, staff, triage centers and air transportation to fetch patients, she said. But they couldn't launch the rescue flights without requests for help, and those requests never came.

"These victims could have been here a week ago, and now they're spending a lot of time and money making triage centers? In situations like this every minute counts, not every day counts. Why not get them to these open beds?" she said.

Frank Russo of the Chicago Ambulance Alliance said his organization was ready to send help immediately. But the request didn't come until Thursday, three days after the hurricane struck.

"We didn't want to just up and go like everyone did after 9-11. We learned from that. After 9-11 everybody just went to New York and then they just sat there, they had no where to go."

Early Saturday, ten Chicago ambulances and their medical staff finally headed south with orders to report to a command center set up outside of New Orleans. By Sunday the Chicago ambulances were delivering patients from the New Orleans airport to regional hospitals.

"It makes sense to go through the government and have things set up," said Russo.

Others were still waiting for the official request. In New Jersey, for example, Gov. Richard Codey said he had a task force of 105 police officers and 55 vehicles and a medical task force of 55 physicians and 43 nurses standing by.

But other rescuers simply couldn't, or wouldn't, wait.

Early Sunday morning, for example, a convoy of more than 35 fire, police, transportation and public works vehicles left Baltimore for an 1,100-mile drive to Gretna, La.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley decided to send the help, including 40 firefighters and 28 police officers, without consulting FEMA "as a direct response to a direct request from the mayor of Gretna," said O'Malley's spokesman.

On Friday, Gary Maclaughlin of Santa Cruz, Calif., flew to Nashville, Tenn., where he bought a diesel-powered 1990 yellow school bus for $2,000. He charged $1,500 worth of water, diapers, granola bars and peanut butter crackers on his credit card and headed straight for the shelters.

By Sunday evening he was driving loads of evacuees from the New Orleans Airport to a rescue shelter in Covington, La.