WASHINGTON — It was conceived as the solution to confusion and bureaucratic logjams that hampered responses to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- a 426-page master plan to coordinate government agencies in a disaster.
When it was unveiled amid fanfare in January, the Department of Homeland Security's National Response Plan promised "vastly improved coordination among federal, state, local and tribal organizations to help save lives" from storms, floods, earthquakes or terrorist assaults.
Hurricane Katrina turned out to be its first real-world test -- but the plan broke down soon after the monster winds blew in.
Its failures raise unsettling questions about the federal government's readiness to deal with future crippling disasters. An examination of how the plan was administered during the crucial early hours of this natural disaster reveal more confusion than coordination and repeated failures of leadership.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 04, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 118 words Type of Material: Correction
Hurricane response -- An article in the Sept. 11 Section A about Hurricane Katrina and how officials reacted to the disaster, quoting a White House official, reported that President Bush and White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. had telephoned Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco on Aug. 31 and urged her to invite the federal government to take command of the Louisiana National Guard's response to Katrina. A spokesman for Blanco says that the telephone calls were placed by the governor, not by the White House, and that Card and Bush did not press the governor to accept federal control. The article should have reflected the governor's version of events as well as the White House's.
The plan on paper was not always apparent on the ground. Cooperation among government agencies faltered at almost every level, right up to the White House.
* The Federal Emergency Management Agency, responsible for supervising relief and rescue operations, failed to position adequate equipment to carry out the dual assignments. FEMA was especially short of helicopters from the outset. It was forced to concentrate on rescue missions and gave short shrift to ferrying supplies to trapped evacuees.
* Coordination with private relief agencies broke down and led to maddening delays. Water, food, clothing and medical supplies backed up in distant warehouses.
More than 50 civilian aircraft responding to separate requests for evacuations from hospitals and other agencies swarmed to the area a day after Katrina hit, but FEMA blocked their efforts. Aircraft operators complained that FEMA waved off a number of evacuation attempts, saying the rescuers were not authorized. "Many planes and helicopters simply sat idle," said Thomas Judge, president of the Assn. of Air Medical Services.
* Military cooperation was stymied. In advance of the storm, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson offered the governor of Louisiana hundreds of National Guard troops. They were poised to fly into Louisiana on Monday, Aug. 29, just as the levees were about to give way. Instead, red tape and paperwork at National Guard headquarters in Washington delayed their arrival until Friday. Deployment orders had not been not properly filled out, the New Mexico National Guard was told.
* Telephones and radios failed everywhere, complicating efforts to monitor field conditions and coordinate response. FEMA officials were caught by surprise. Better communications was supposed to be a highlight of the plan, but it took up to six days to get working telephones to some FEMA employees on the ground.
In the face of rising criticism, FEMA officials pointed to bright spots. "There's the perception that we didn't do anything. But we had a life-saving mission, which we met, and we had a life-sustaining mission, which we met," said Marty Bahamonde, who helped coordinate a FEMA emergency response team.
Before the Storm
In the calm before the storm, preparations got off to a promising start. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff convened interagency meetings, created an operations center in Baton Rouge, La., and dispatched FEMA Director Michael D. Brown as his representative on the ground.
Food, water, blankets and personnel were pre-positioned on the fringes of the expected severe-impact zone.
President Bush activated the National Response Plan on Saturday, Aug. 27, two days before the hurricane struck, when he declared a federal emergency in Louisiana. Under the plan, this made the Department of Homeland Security "responsible for coordinating federal resources utilized in response to major disasters."
Then, on Monday, 140-mph winds slammed into New Orleans, a storm so fierce that no amount of planning was likely to prevent flooding, deaths and substantial destruction.
That day, Bush declared the region a federal disaster area, releasing more federal funds and resources.
And on Tuesday, more than 24 hours after surging waters breeched levees in New Orleans, Chertoff declared Katrina the nation's first "incident of national significance" as outlined in the response plan. This committed the federal government to a major and long-term relief effort.
Survivors were already waving for help from rooftops and increasingly restless residents displaced without food or water were demanding help outside the Superdome, where they had sought safety before Katrina struck. As the emergency response floundered on television screens around the world, some White House aides suggested state and local officials were to blame. By then, however, it had become a federal problem.