TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Storm Exposed Disarray at the Top (Washington Post)

Storm Exposed Disarray at the Top (Washington Post)

Marcus Didius Falco (
Sun, 04 Sep 2005 23:07:34 -0400

This story doesn't say much about telecommunications issues. However,
there was a complete collapse of the telecommunications infrastructure
on the Gulf coast. Landline service is gone. Cellular service was very
spotty. Most towers were down, and backup power (battery and
generator) at those towers that had it lasted about 14 hours.

Moreover, scattered reports seem to indicate that there were problems
with police and fire communications. Again, this may have been because
of problems with towers or backup power: I have not, as yet, seen or
heard any analysis.

I have even heard there were problems with satellite phones. I suppose the
problem would have been overloading of circuits on the satellites that are
in range at any time. I don't know whether the problem was only with
Inmarsat (which is used by news organizations because it has the bandwidth
for television), or whether it also included Iridium and Globalstar.
(Thuraya does not cover the western hemisphere.)

Storm Exposed Disarray at the Top

By Susan B. Glasser and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 4, 2005; A01

The killer hurricane and flood that devastated the Gulf Coast last
week exposed fatal weaknesses in a federal disaster response system
retooled after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to handle
just such a cataclysmic event.

Despite four years and tens of billions of dollars spent preparing for
the worst, the federal government was not ready when it came at
daybreak on Monday, according to interviews with more than a dozen
current and former senior officials and outside experts.

Among the flaws they cited: Failure to take the storm seriously before
it hit and trigger the government's highest level of
response. Rebuffed offers of aid from the military, states and
cities. An unfinished new plan meant to guide disaster response. And a
slow bureaucracy that waited until late Tuesday to declare the
catastrophe "an incident of national significance," the new federal
term meant to set off the broadest possible relief effort.

Born out of the confused and uncertain response to 9/11, the massive
new Department of Homeland Security was charged with being ready the
next time, whether the disaster was wrought by nature or
terrorists. The department commanded huge resources as it prepared for
deadly scenarios from an airborne anthrax attack to a biological
attack with plague to a chlorine-tank explosion.

But Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said yesterday that
his department had failed to find an adequate model for addressing the
"ultra-catastrophe" that resulted when Hurricane Katrina's floodwater
breached New Orleans's levees and drowned the city, "as if an atomic
bomb had been dropped."

If Hurricane Katrina represented a real-life rehearsal of sorts, the
response suggested to many that the nation is not ready to handle a
terrorist attack of similar dimensions. "This is what the department
was supposed to be all about," said Clark Kent Ervin, DHS's former
inspector general. "Instead, it obviously raises very serious,
troubling questions about whether the government would be prepared if
this were a terrorist attack. It's a devastating indictment of this
department's performance four years after 9/11."

"We've had our first test, and we've failed miserably," said former
representative Timothy J. Roemer (D-Ind.), a member of the commission
that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks. "We have spent billions of
dollars in revenues to try to make our country safe, and we have not
made nearly enough progress." With Katrina, he noted that "we had some
time to prepare. When it's a nuclear, chemical or biological attack,"
there will be no warning.

Indeed, the warnings about New Orleans's vulnerability to
post-hurricane flooding repeatedly circulated at the upper levels of
the new bureaucracy, which had absorbed the old lead agency for
disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, among its two
dozen fiefdoms. "Beyond terrorism, this was the one event I was most
concerned with always," said Joe M. Allbaugh, the former Bush campaign
manager who served as his first FEMA head.

But several current and former senior officials charged that those
worries were never accorded top priority -- either by FEMA's
management or their superiors in DHS. Even when officials held a
practice run, as they did in an exercise dubbed "Hurricane Pam" last
year, they did not test for the worst-case scenario, rehearsing only
what they would do if a Category 3 storm hit New Orleans, not the
Category 4 power of Katrina. And after Pam, the planned follow-up
study was never completed, according to a FEMA=20 official involved.

"The whole department was stood up, it was started because of 9/11 and
that's the bottom line," said C. Suzanne Mencer, a former senior
homeland security official whose office took on some of the
preparedness functions that had once been FEMA's. "We didn't have an
appropriate response to 9/11, and that is why it was stood up and
where the funding has been directed. The message was ... we need to
be better prepared against terrorism."

The roots of last week's failures will be examined for weeks and
months to come, but early assessments point to a troubled Department
of Homeland Security that is still in the midst of a bureaucratic
transition, a "work in progress," as Mencer put it. Some current and
former officials argued that as it worked to focus on counterterrorism,
the department has diminished the government's ability to respond in a
nuts-and-bolts way to disasters in general, and failed to focus enough
on threats posed by hurricanes and other natural disasters in
particular. From an independent Cabinet-level agency, FEMA has become
an underfunded, isolated piece of the vast DHS, yet it is still
charged with leading the government's response to disaster.

"It's such an irony I hate to say it, but we have less capability
today than we did on September 11," said a veteran FEMA official
involved in the hurricane response. "We are so much less than what we
were in 2000," added another senior FEMA official. "We've lost a lot
of what we were able to do then."

The DHS experiment is so far-flung that the department's leadership
has focused much of its attention simply on the massive complications
that resulted from creating one entity out of agencies as varied as
the U.S. Coast Guard, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and
the Transportation Security Administration. When Chertoff took office
earlier this year, he made his top priority an entirely new
bureaucratic reorganization less than two years after the department's
creation, dubbed the "second-stage review." The review, still pending,
recommends taking away a key remaining function, preparedness
planning, from FEMA and giving it to "a strengthened department
preparedness directorate."

The procedures for what to do when the inevitable disaster hit were
also subjected to a bureaucratic overhaul, still unfinished, by the
department. Indeed, just last Tuesday, as New Orleans was drowning
and DHS officials were still hours away from invoking the department's
highest crisis status for the catastrophe, some department contractors
found an important e-mail in their inboxes.

Attached were two documents -- one more than 400 pages long -- that
spelled out in numbing, acronym-filled detail the planned "national
preparedness goal." The checklist, called a Universal Task List,
appeared to cover every eventuality in a disaster, from the need to
handle evacuations to speedy urban search and rescue to circulating
"prompt, accurate and useful" emergency information. Even animal
health and "fatality management" were= covered.

But the documents were not a menu for action in the devastated Gulf
Coast. They were drafts, not slated for approval and release until
October, more than four years after 9/11.

"Basically, this is the rules of engagement for national emergency
events, whether natural or manmade. It covers every element of what
you would have expected to already have been in place," said the
contractor who provided the e-mail to The Washington Post on the
condition of anonymity because he feared jeopardizing his firm's
work. "This is the federal government template to engage, and this is
being discussed in draft form."

FEMA Lost in the Shuffle.

Until 1979, the federal government had no one agency responsible for
dealing with disaster.

But that year, President Jimmy Carter created FEMA out of a patchwork
of smaller agencies. Born at the tail end of the Cold War, FEMA had a
mission largely defined as nuclear fallout shelters and other civil
defense measures, though in reality it dealt with "hurricane after
hurricane," as Jane Bullock, a 22-year agency veteran who was FEMA
chief of staff in President Bill Clinton's administration, noted.

After Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989 and Hurricane Andrew in 1992, federal
response was panned, and FEMA was due for an overhaul. It got it in
1993, when Clinton brought in James Lee Witt, a veteran emergency
manager and political ally, to take over, granted the agency
Cabinet-level status and gave it a highly visible role it had not
previously had. Its response to crises such as the 1995 Oklahoma City
bombing received high marks, though some Republicans complained that
it was used as a pot of money doled out to bolster Clinton's political

But after 9/11, FEMA lost out in the massive bureaucratic shuffle.

Not only did its Cabinet status disappear, but it became one of 22
government agencies to be consolidated into Homeland Security. For a
time, recalled Ervin, even its name was slated to vanish and become
simply the directorate of emergency preparedness and response until
then-DHS Secretary Tom Ridge relented.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers from hurricane-prone states fought a
rear-guard action against FEMA's absorption. "What we were afraid of,
and what is coming to pass, is that FEMA has basically been destroyed
as a coherent, fast-on-its-feet, independent agency," said Rep. David
E. Price (D-N.C.). In creating DHS, "people were thinking about the
possibility of terrorism," said Walter Gillis Peacock, director of the
Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University. "They
weren't thinking about the reality of a hurricane."

Hurricanes were not totally absent from the calculations about the new
department, according to several former Bush administration
officials. Bush tapped his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., to
supervise DHS's creation; a decade earlier, Card had been personally
deputized by Bush's father to go to Florida and take charge of the
much-criticized response to Hurricane Andrew.

"We definitely did worry about it," recalled Richard A. Falkenrath,
who served as a White House homeland security adviser at the time DHS
was being formed. "We knew we should do no harm to the disaster
management side. The leadership of the White House knows the political
significance of disasters."

From the day it came into existence on March 1, 2003, the department
of 180,000 employees and a nearly $40 billion annual budget was tasked
by a presidential directive with developing a comprehensive new plan
for disasters. The National Response Plan was supposed to supersede
the confusing overlay of federal, state and local disaster plans, and
to designate a "principal officer in the event of an incident of
national significance." An accompanying new National Incident
Management System would integrate all the cascades of information.

"The problem was, who was in charge on 9/11? Who the hell knew? They
kept asking and asking. You needed some clarity," Falkenrath
recalled. "It was supposed to pull it all together. . . . But FEMA was
grousing about that; they thought it was taking things away from

Focus on Terrorism

In creating the department, President Bush made one of its central
missions "all-hazards preparedness," operating on the philosophy -- as
the government has for at least the past two decades -- that most
disaster preparation is the same, whether the crisis is natural or

Yet DHS in reality emphasized terrorism at the expense of other
threats, said several current and former senior department officials
and experts who have closely monitored its creation, cutting funding
for natural disaster programs and downgrading the responsibilities and
capabilities of the previously well-regarded FEMA. In theory, spending
resources on response to terrorism should result in improved response
to any disaster, but FEMA's supporters argue that the money was being
spent outside the framework of the agency actually equipped to

"The federal system that was perfected in the '90s has been
deconstructed," said Bullock. Citing a study that found that the
United States now spends $180 million a year to fend off natural
hazards vs. $20 billion annually against terrorism, Bullock said,
"FEMA has been marginalized. ... There is one focus and the focus is
on terrorism."

The White House's Homeland Security Council developed 15 scenarios for
the department to concern itself about -- everything from a terrorist
dirty-bomb attack to a Baghdad-style improvised explosive device. Only
three were not terrorism scenarios: a pandemic flu, a major earthquake
and a major hurricane.

By this year, almost three of every four grant dollars appropriated to
DHS for first responders went to programs explicitly focused on
terrorism, the Government Accountability Office noted in a July
report. Out of $3.4 billion in proposed spending for homeland security
preparedness grants in the upcoming fiscal year, GAO found, $2.6
billion would be on terrorism-focused programs. At the same time, the
budget for much of what remained of FEMA has been cut every year; for
the current fiscal year, funding for the core FEMA functions went down
to $444 million from $664 million.

New leaders such as Allbaugh were critical of FEMA's natural disaster
focus and lectured senior managers about the need to adjust to the
post-9/11 fear of terrorism. So did his friend Michael D. Brown, a
lawyer with no previous disaster management experience whom Allbaugh
brought in as his deputy and who now has the top FEMA post.
"Allbaugh's quote was 'You don't get it,' " recalled the senior FEMA
official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"If you brought up natural disasters, you were accused of being a
pre-9/11 thinker." The result, the official said, was that "FEMA was
being taxed by the department, having money and slots taken. Because
we didn't conform with the mission of the agency."

"I'm guilty of saying, 'you don't get it,' " Allbaugh said.
"Absolutely." The former FEMA chief said he had encountered
bureaucratic resistance to thinking about a "monumental" disaster,
such as Katrina or 9/11, rather than the more standard diet of
"tornadoes and rising waters."

But experts in emergency response inside and outside the government
sounded warnings about the changes at FEMA. Peacock said FEMA's
traditional emphasis on emergency response "all went up in smoke"
after 9/11, creating a "blind spot" as a result of a "police-action,
militaristic view" of homeland security. When it came to natural
disasters, "It was not only forgetting about it, it was not funding

Jack Harrald, director of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster, and Risk
Management at George Washington University, said FEMA's natural
disaster focus was nearly liquidated. "We ended up spending a lot of
money on infrastructure protection and not the resiliency of the
actual infrastructure," Harrald said. "The people who came in from the
military and terrorist world thought we had the natural disaster thing

Rebuffed Offers of Aid.

On the Friday before Katrina hit, when it was already a Category 2
hurricane rapidly gathering force in the Gulf, a veteran FEMA employee
arrived at the newly activated Washington headquarters for the storm.
Inside, there was surprisingly little action. "It was like nobody's
turning the key to start the engine," the official recalled.

Brown, the agency's director, told reporters Saturday in Louisiana that he
did not have a sense of what was coming last weekend.

"I was here on Saturday and Sunday, it was my belief, I'm trying to
think of a better word than typical -- that minimizes, any hurricane
is bad -- but we had the standard hurricane coming in here, that we
could move in immediately on Monday and start doing our kind of
response-recovery effort," he said. "Then the levees broke, and the
levees went, you've seen it by the television coverage. That hampered
our ability, made it even more complex."

But other officials said they warned well before Monday about what
could happen. For years, said another senior FEMA official, he had sat
at meetings where plans were discussed to send evacuees to the
Superdome. "We used to stare at each other and say, 'This is the plan?
Are you really using the Superdome?' People used to say, what if there
is water around it? They didn't have an alternative," he recalled.

In the run-up to the current crisis, Allbaugh said he knew "for a
fact" that officials at FEMA and other federal agencies had requested
that New Orleans issue a mandatory evacuation order earlier than
Sunday morning.

But DHS did not ask the U.S. military to assist in pre-hurricane
evacuation efforts, despite well-known estimates that a major
hurricane would cause levees in New Orleans to fail. In an interview,
the general charged with operations for the military's Northern
Command said such a request to help with the evacuation "did not come
our way."

"At the point that we were all watching the evacuation and the clogged
Interstate 10 going to the west on Sunday, we were watching the storm very
carefully," Maj. Gen. Richard Rowe said. "At that time, it was a Category 5
storm and we knew that it would be among the worst storms to ever hit the
United States. ... I knew there was an excellent chance of flooding."

Others who went out of their way to offer help were turned down, such
as Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who told reporters his city had
offered emergency, medical and technical help as early as last Sunday
to FEMA but was turned down. Only a single tank truck was requested,
Daley said. Red tape kept the American Ambulance Association from
sending 300 emergency vehicles from Florida to the flood zone,
according to former senator John Breaux (D-La.) They were told to get
permission from the General Services Administration. "GSA said they
had to have FEMA ask for it," Breaux told CNN. "As a result they
weren't sent."

Federal authorities say there is blame enough to go around. In a news
conference yesterday, Chertoff cautioned against "finger-pointing" and
said no one had been equipped to handle what amounted to two
simultaneous disasters -- the hurricane and subsequent levee break.

Other federal and state officials pointed to Louisiana's failure to
measure up to national disaster response standards, noting that the
federal plan advises state and local emergency managers not to expect
federal aid for 72 to 96 hours, and base their own preparedness
efforts on the need to be self-sufficient for at least that
period. "Fundamentally the first breakdown occurred at the local
level," said one state official who works with FEMA. "Did the city
have the situational awareness of what was going on within its
borders? The answer was no."

But many outraged politicians in both parties have concluded that the
federal government failed to meet the commitments it made after
Sept. 11, 2001. Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the ranking Democrat on
the House Homeland Security Committee, said DHS had failed. "We've
been told time and time again that we are prepared for any emergency
that comes, that we're ready," he said. "We're obviously not."

Thompson said, for example, that oil pipelines in the Southeast have
been identified by DHS as critical national infrastructure to be
protected against terrorist attack. In the wake of the hurricane, they
have been= crippled by floods." We have to review all our systems,"
Thompson said. "If a byproduct of what happened in New Orleans is we
have this gas crisis all over the country, it doesn't matter whether a
terrorist hits it or a hurricane hits it. You have the same effect."

Staff writers Peter Baker, Bradley Graham, Spencer S. Hsu, Dafna Linzer and
Michael Powell and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

Copyright 2005 The Washington Post Company

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