‘Where the Hell’s the Cavalry?’

A Bush administration FEMA expert who left the agency six months ago joined a chorus of People Who Know About These Things in criticizing the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina.


The federal government so far has bungled the job of quickly helping the multitudes of hungry, thirsty and desperate victims of Hurricane Katrina, former top federal, state and local disaster chiefs said Wednesday.

…the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)…was enveloped by the new Department of Homeland Security with a new mission aimed at responding to the attacks of al-Qaida.

“What you’re seeing is revealing weaknesses in the state, local and federal levels,” said Eric Tolbert, who until February was FEMA’s disaster response chief. “…They’ve been weakened by diversion into terrorism.”

Yes, the global struggle against violent extremism is sucking us dry.

Federal flood control spending for southeastern Louisiana has been chopped from $69 million in 2001 to $36.5 million in 2005, according to budget documents. Federal hurricane protection for the Lake Pontchartrain vicinity in the Army Corps of Engineers’ budget dropped from $14.25 million in 2002 to $5.7 million this year. Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu requested $27 million this year…

In 2004, the Corps essentially stopped major work on the now-breached levee system that had protected New Orleans from flooding. It was the first such stoppage in 37 years, the Times-Picayune reported.

“It appears that the money has been moved in the president’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that’s the price we pay,” Jefferson Parish emergency management chief Walter Maestri told the newspaper.

Just as Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff hailed supplies that seem to appear only in rumor form, others say the last time the government responded so ineptly was under Bush I.

The slow response to Katrina and poor federal leadership is a replay of 1992’s mishandling of Hurricane Andrew, said former FEMA chief of staff Jane Bullock, a 22-year veteran of the agency.

Bullock blamed inexperienced federal leadership. She noted that Chertoff and FEMA Director Michael Brown had no disaster experience before they were appointed to their jobs.

The slowness is all too familiar to Kate Hale. As Miami’s disaster chief during Hurricane Andrew, Hale asked: “Where the hell’s the cavalry?”

Officials blame the hurricane for their inability to supply basic needs.

Roads were washed out and relief trucks were stopped by state police trying to keep people out of hazardous areas, [FEMA spokesman James McIntyre] said.

That explanation didn’t satisfy Joe Myers, Florida’s former emergency management chief.

“I would think that yesterday they could have flown in,” said Myers. “Everyone was flying in. Put it this way, FOX and CNN are there. If they can get there …”

One resident summed up the feeling of many in the country, about more than Katrina.

“We’re lost,” said Steve Loper of Pascagoula, Miss. “We have no direction, no leadership. People are in bad trouble.”


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