ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
There are new complaints today about how the government responded to Hurricane Katrina. The Senate Homeland Security Committee heard testimony about inadequate emergency supplies and chaotic search and rescue efforts. The committee also released documents showing that some offers of boats and other equipment never got to the right people. NPR's Pam Fessler has the story.
PAM FESSLER reporting:
The good news, according to witnesses, was that some 60,000 people were rescued in the New Orleans area in the days following the hurricane; but Captain Tim Bayard of the New Orleans Police Department said he found himself and several other officers basically on their own as they tried to save desperate residents.
Captain TIM BAYARD (New Orleans Police Department): Our efforts were not coordinated with other agencies, our communication system was inoperable, we had no aerial views to ascertain water levels necessary to prioritize our rescue operations.
FESSLER: He said officers had to use their own boats and commandeer others. And even though he was in charge of the police search and rescue operation, it was three weeks before he was able to coordinate with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Other state and federal officials admitted that rescue efforts were marred by miscommunications and poor planning. Maine Senator Susan Collins, who chairs the Homeland Security committee, said documents show that on August 28th the State of Louisiana asked the Federal Government for hundreds of rubber rafts.
Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): It asks that these rubber rafts be delivered to New Orleans the next day, the day of landfall, to be used in rescue missions. The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has told our investigators that FEMA turned down that request. And indeed you can see written on that document, request denied.
FESSLER: FEMA's top coordinator in the state, William Lokey, told the committee that in fact he didn't know about the request. He said he later learned that it was sent to a group of other federal officials in Texas.
Mr. WILLIAM LOKEY (Federal Coordinating Officer, FEMA): I'm informed that a meeting took place there with the search and rescue people, the DOD, Corps of Engineers, and the Coast Guard, where the decision was made that these rubber boats, in the environment working in, would not be useful, with the debris and things like that.
FESSLER: But Keith LaCaze (ph) of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries said in fact the boats would have been very useful.
Mr. KEITH LACAZE (Supervisor, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries): Officers, rescuers could have actually taken the rafts and walked alongside and pulled them into shallow water areas, up on the porches for example, or very near, or up into the doorways of homes where we could have loaded mobility impaired people, or sick people could have been placed in those rafts.
FESSLER: Leaving a frustrated Senator Collins to respond.
Senator COLLINS: Don't you all talk to one another? I mean, wouldn't this be a case if you thought that the state didn't really need this equipment, that you would have a conversation and try to figure out what assets are needed?
FESSLER: Lokey admitted that the government wasn't prepared for the storm. He also said neither he nor anyone on his staff was aware of an offer by the Department of Interior to help the rescue effort by providing hundreds of boats and personnel. The committee released a letter from the department detailing the assistance, which Lokey said he certainly would have used if he'd known it was available.
Mr. LOKEY: Minimal, that shows that we have a lot more work to do at the federal level.
FESSLER: One thing the administration has promised to do is to make sure FEMA has a better way to track and distribute emergency supplies before the next hurricane season.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
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