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Katrina's Aftermath

FEMA's Woes Were Merely the Beginning

The trouble at federal agencies extends beyond emergency response. Aid is abundant, but prompt and accurate delivery is a problem.

September 18, 2005|Nicole Gaouette, Alan Miller and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The federal government's efforts to help victims of Hurricane Katrina have been hobbled by inadequate planning and coordination, troubled computer systems and confusion over who will pay the costs.

Interviews with federal officials indicate that recovery difficulties have gone beyond the Federal Emergency Management Agency and span key agencies in Washington, where top officials are trying to respond to a huge reconstruction problem for which they had no policies or plans. Large contracts are pouring out of agencies, but the task ahead involves issues Washington hasn't thought seriously about since the 1960s.

Among the danger signals, cited by FEMA and other government officials in interviews:

* Months ago, the Small Business Administration created a data processing system that was meant to revolutionize its delivery of disaster loans. But the system has stumbled badly because there haven't been enough new computers or staff trained to use them, and the central computers have been strained by the workload.

* Officials at the Department of Education are only now beginning to address questions over who will pay what costs for educating tens of thousands of schoolchildren displaced by Katrina. Meanwhile, school districts inundated with evacuees have had to open shuttered schools and order portable classrooms.

* Federal officials responsible for programs designed to help the poor are tangled in questions about rules that vary from state to state. Families that received welfare in Louisiana, for instance, may not be entitled to payments in Texas, where they have been resettled. And almost everywhere, funds for programs such as Head Start were stretched thin before Katrina hit.

* FEMA has continued to stumble, leaving tractor-trailers packed with ice and water intended for evacuees sitting out of position for days or sending them to places that had no need. And the agency's rushed efforts to deliver evacuee housing points up a lack of foresight and planning that could have long-term ramifications.

"This is an extraordinary time in our history," said Mississippi State Supt. of Education Hank M. Bounds. "It will take an extraordinary effort from our leadership. I hope they will grasp the magnitude of the issue."

Frustration is evident in a message by a middle-level FEMA official, who sent a plaintive cry for help up the chain of command, along with this warning:

"We have now told the state of Texas (and thus all the states) that it may directly pay for evacuees in hotels. For how long? For how much? Does this include food?" his Sept. 7 memo asked. "What I heard was Texas being given carte blanche to run this new program as it sees fit solely on its statement 'We have controls.' Do we know what these controls are?

"We are going down the path here of no federal accountability for huge sums of money," the official warned.

$62.3 Billion to Divvy

About a week after Katrina's hammer blow to the Gulf Coast, Congress reacted with a $62.3-billion emergency spending bill. The bulk of the money went to FEMA to establish its Disaster Relief Fund, which is to pay for housing assistance; projects by other agencies; property clean-up; and work on roads, bridges and water facilities.

Although the lion's share is going to individuals and housing assistance, agencies including the Army Corps of Engineers and the departments of Defense, Transportation, and Health and Human Services have been allotted $11 billion.

About $23 billion is earmarked for housing and individual assistance, which is distributed by the Small Business Administration's Office of Disaster Assistance.

The agency's new Disaster Credit Management System was intended to revolutionize the handling of disaster relief loans covering uninsured losses and to cut loan processing times from weeks to days. Instead, the new computer system was quickly swamped. Managers scrambled to order new equipment for field inspectors and to reconfigure the central office computers.

"We've been pressed into action pretty hard," said project director Michael Sorrento, who acknowledged that processing Katrina loans may take longer than the agency had envisioned.

The Small Business Administration is expecting to receive more than 1 million applications for loans. There weren't nearly enough portable units for loan inspectors in the field, and fewer than 100 inspectors had been trained in the new system when Katrina hit.

The agency has had to order extra computers and hire nearly 500 more inspectors, some of whom don't yet have portable computers.

And those who have made it out into the field have discovered that they can't always link up from the disaster area to handle new loan applications and file reports on existing ones.

In the central office, near Washington, where staff doubled to 600 and could go as high as 900, training all the new employees strained the central computer system so much that another system had to be found for training.

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