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Published: Saturday, 9/17/2005

Jury still out on FEMA

SOMETIMES a bum gets a bum rap.

The hapless Michael Brown has resigned as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a move which reinforced the view of his many critics that the federal response to Katrina was unconscionably slow.

In a column last week, I described the relief operation after Katrina as the most monumental and successful disaster relief operation in history. Everything I have seen in the week subsequent reinforces that view.

Last week I noted how 32,000 people had been rescued; that shelter, food and medical care had been provided to 180,000 displaced persons; that the Corps of Engineers had repaired the breach in the most important levee protecting New Orleans.

Since then, electric power has been restored in most of Mississippi; and in New Orleans, the seaport has reopened, the airport has reopened, and oil is again being pumped from platforms in the Gulf.

Some chiefly those irate because I did not call for George Bush s head on a platter assume I was praising FEMA in general, and Mr. Brown in particular. This is not so.

I have few tears to shed for Mr. Brown, who was not qualified to have the job in the first place. President Bush is rightly taken to task for having appointed him.

If I were handing out interim grades, there would be A s for the Coast Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers, the military, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and the other private charitable groups that actually provide the help. I would also include the mayor of Houston, the governor of Texas, and the people of that great state and the American people, who have donated more than $700 million to help out their distressed neighbors.

I d give FEMA an incomplete, because we just don t know enough yet about the extent to which FEMA coordination aided, or impeded, or was irrelevant to the activities of the organizations mentioned above.

FEMA s role in disaster relief largely has been misrepresented in the media. FEMA has Urban Search and Rescue Teams and Disaster Assistance Medical Teams, many of which were pre-deployed to the region and went into action within hours of the hurricane abating.

But FEMA s primary role is to coordinate the activities of the local, state, and federal agencies and private charitable groups that provide the relief supplies and the bulk of the manpower.

There have been reports of FEMA bureaucrats impeding the provision of aid to distressed communities. A thorough investigation should be made of these complaints.

But pending that investigation, we should bear in mind that the tempers and time horizons of people in distressed areas are short; that they are in a poor position to see a larger picture (needs may be greater and more urgent elsewhere); and that some complainers have powerful reasons for directing anger away from themselves.

FEMA has been lambasted most for the plight of people who sought shelter in the Louisiana Superdome. But this was a local, not a federal, failure.

There would have been fewer people to care for in the Superdome had the city utilized its municipal and school buses to evacuate people who had no cars.

I have no objection to the use of the Superdome as a place of refuge, but it is hard to understand why local authorities made inadequate provision for food or water, or adequate security or for porta-johns.

Officials of both the Red Cross and the Salvation Army said they tried to bring provisions to the Superdome, but were turned away by Louisiana authorities. This has received little attention from the news media, perhaps because it would be hard to pin the blame for that decision on President Bush.

I ve been critical of the coverage of Katrina, and I m going to close with criticism of one journalist in particular. There were three errors of fact in my column last week.

I wrote The levee broke Tuesday morning, referring to the 17th Street Levee, which was what was being reported at the time I wrote the column. In fact, the break occurred mid-morning Monday. And the Industrial Canal was breached on Monday morning as well.

I took the figure 2,000 for the buses available to Mayor Ray Nagin from a column written by another journalist without checking it myself. The actual figure is closer to 600.

Finally, I knew Hurricane Andrew struck in 1992, but inexplicably wrote 2002. I regret the errors.



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