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FEMA Official Says Agency Heads Ignored Warnings

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FEMA Official Says Agency Heads Ignored Warnings

Katrina & Beyond

FEMA Official Says Agency Heads Ignored Warnings

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

President Bush stood in New Orleans' French Quarter last night and spoke of days of sorrow and outrage. As the president addressed the nation, he acknowledged the government responded slowly to Hurricane Katrina.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: It was not a normal hurricane, and the normal disaster relief system was not equal to it.

INSKEEP: But days before Hurricane Katrina hit, there were dire warnings that this storm could be devastating. According to a FEMA official who spoke to NPR, these warnings were sent by e-mail to Michael Chertoff, the secretary of Homeland Security, and to Michael Brown, then director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and other top officials in those agencies. But despite the effort to alert his bosses, this official says he saw almost no response in FEMA's emergency operations center. NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.

LAURA SULLIVAN reporting:

At FEMA, it's Leo Bosner's job to let people know when something bad is about to happen. He's an emergency management specialist and he's been at it for a long time.

Mr. LEO BOSNER (Emergency Management Specialist): I've been with FEMA since the agency was started in 1979, so that's 26 years. I've worked on federal response planning, emergency medical planning, search and rescue and a few others.

SULLIVAN: But during a disaster, Bosner goes on a 12-hour shift through the night. He manages a unit that collects and coordinates reports coming in from the field. So when Bosner arrived at work Friday evening, three days before Hurricane Katrina hit, he and his team realized this could be the worst disaster FEMA had ever dealt with. Sitting in FEMA's National Emergency Operations Center in Washington, DC, Bosner and his team compiled as much information as they could about the storm. They took everything they knew and wrote it into a daily e-mail. Early Saturday morning, that e-mail was sent to top officials at FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security. Leo Bosner says that group included Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and FEMA Director Michael Brown.

Mr. BOSNER: In the one note that went out at 5:30 in the morning on Saturday, we put in there pretty clearly that this was an extremely serious situation. We used good, heavy black type. We said there's a storm going toward New Orleans and it's a Force--I think it was a Force 3, expected to strengthen into a Force 4 at that point. And we let them know this is a very serious situation. There were some resources being mobilized but really not quite enough for that kind of a scale. They get these things in person. They go to their office computer and to their BlackBerry.

SULLIVAN: The e-mail is a detailed report titled "The National Situation Update." It warns that Katrina is growing larger and headed for Louisiana. Then in bold type it states, `New Orleans is of particular concern because much of that city lies below sea level.' The report goes on to warn, `If hurricane winds blow from a certain direction, there are dire predictions of what may happen in the city.' Finally, there's this reminder, `The last time a hurricane of this magnitude hit Mississippi and Louisiana, 143 people died.' That was 1969. Leo Bosner felt he had done his job.

Mr. BOSNER: We sent the information up. We're the staff. We're not the president or the director of FEMA or something. We sent the information up and we'd expected that by the time we come in, everything would be swinging into action. We got there, and there was the sounds of silence.

SULLIVAN: NPR could not confirm whether Secretary Chertoff or Director Brown read the e-mail. Efforts to reach Michael Brown were unsuccessful. Secretary Michael Chertoff declined requests for an interview. But FEMA and Homeland Security officials say the situation reports are sent to all top department officials each morning. The contents of the e-mail are also included in Secretary Chertoff's daily briefing at 6 AM. And Chertoff's spokesman, Russ Knocke, stressed that top officials are always connected to the office.

Mr. RUSS KNOCKE (Spokesman, Homeland Security): In this modern day with BlackBerrys and cell phones and e-mail, I can assure you that we're all working 24/7. We're all connected 24/7.

SULLIVAN: Saturday morning, Leo Bosner went home to get a few hours sleep. FEMA officials says Michael Brown spent the day working on hurricane preparations in his office. Brown signed off on two declarations; one allowing federal money to be spent on precautions for Katrina, the other approving a similar request for money to battle a California wildfire. Russ Knocke, the Homeland Security spokesman, says the secretary was working from home monitoring the situation. When Leo Bosner returned to the Emergency Operations Center Saturday night, he says he and his colleagues were aghast.

Mr. BOSNER: We'd been expecting that, given our reports and so on, that there'd be some extraordinary measures taking place. So when we come in Saturday night and nothing much had happened--you know, we had a few medical teams, a few search teams were in place, but there was no massive effort that we could see. There was no massive effort to organize the city of New Orleans in an organized way that clearly had to be done. There was no massive mobilization of national resources other than the few that were out there. And I think most of us--I can't speak for everyone, but I know that I and a number of my colleagues just--we felt sort of shocked.

SULLIVAN: Bosner expected to see a hub of activity. He expected to see multi-agency teams putting together a nationwide system of relief supplies and staging those supplies in the region. Instead, Bosner says only a few FEMA teams were on the ground, as if they were preparing for a small or Category 1 hurricane, not for the devastating storm that was about to hit.

Mr. BOSNER: You assume that if there's a fire, you're gonna pull that lever and--someone will pull the lever, and you assume if you pull the lever that in no time these trucks and sirens are gonna come roaring up to your building and people will jump out and will have hoses and fire extinguishers and rescue equipment and things will be taken care of. Well, you sort of imagine now if your building catches fire and you pull that lever and nothing happens, the lever comes off in your hand, there's nothing there; that's, I think, how we felt.

SULLIVAN: Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke says officials at the agency were doing everything they could to prepare for Katrina.

Mr. KNOCKE: Without question, there was a significant amount of recognition and appreciation for the magnitude of this storm. We pleaded and informed state and local officials of the severity of this and encouraged everyone to take it seriously.

SULLIVAN: But on Sunday morning, inside FEMA's National Emergency Operations Center, Leo Bosner says none of the things that were supposed to be happening at the national level were happening. Nobody was mobilizing extra National Guard troops or organizing buses to help evacuate New Orleans. At one point, he looked around and counted 12 people in the office.

Mr. BOSNER: We were sitting around and somebody said, you know, `Where are the buses? Where are the resources to get these people out of here?' And I think we all just felt pretty despondent, let down, kind of numb about the whole thing.

SULLIVAN: On Sunday morning, Michael Brown appeared on CNN and painted a different picture of FEMA's preparations.

Mr. MICHAEL BROWN (Director, FEMA): We're gonna do whatever it takes to help victims. That's why we've already declared an emergency. We're gonna lean forward as far as possible and do everything we can to help those folks in Louisiana or Alabama or Mississippi.

SULLIVAN: By nightfall, Michael Brown visited the FEMA headquarters in Baton Rouge. And hundreds of thousands of people heeded the warnings and evacuated the New Orleans area on their own. But as Hurricane Katrina hit early Monday morning, Leo Bosner said he and his colleagues could only watch in horror.

Mr. BOSNER: We could all see that this was just gonna go downhill, but there was nothing we could do.

SULLIVAN: By Tuesday morning, New Orleans was filling up with water. People were stranded on roofs and struggling to make it into overcrowded shelters. Now when Leo Bosner showed up for work, there were suddenly 70 people in the Emergency Center. They were trying to scrounge up buses, troops and relief supplies. Bosner says they were two days behind where they should have been. And it's been a struggle for the agency ever since.

Mr. BOSNER: All of this has been playing catch-up after the fact because of the mistake that was made in the beginning, that people weren't evacuated out. The massive rescue effort wasn't begun early enough. And it's just a lot harder to fix things after the fact than it would have been to take care of things beforehand.

SULLIVAN: That's exactly what Leo Bosner is trying to do now. He's still working 12-hour shifts organizing aid and providing supplies he wishes had been there weeks ago. Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: You can read the national situation updates that top officials at Homeland Security and FEMA received in the days before Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the Gulf by going to our Web site, npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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