Officials Spar Over Katrina Body Recovery
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
One of the contracts FEMA did not have prior to Katrina was a contract to collect the dead. FEMA says that task is normally handled by state and local governments, and documents obtained by NPR News show that that confusion over who should do what crippled the government's response. NPR's Kathleen Schalch has the story.
KATHLEEN SCHALCH reporting:
William Jefferson, a Democratic congressman from Louisiana, spoke for many Americans when he put this complaint to former FEMA head Michael Brown.
Representative WILLIAM JEFFERSON (Democrat, Louisiana): There were dozens of dead bodies that remained outside on city streets, decomposing for two or three weeks after the hurricane, which, you know, in this country is unthinkable.
SCHALCH: Brown admitted that FEMA had no contingency contract for the recovery of dead bodies and that it was a mistake. FEMA did know someone to call, a Texas-based company called Kenyon International Emergency Services, which helps governments and companies handle mass casualties. Kenyon CEO Robert Jensen had prepared a proposal for dealing with the dead.
Mr. ROBERT JENSEN (CEO, Kenyon International Emergency Services): In Kenyon, we've been in business 76 years and have responded to over 300 incidents. So what we did is we looked at what are the problems we would anticipate, given our knowledge of what was happening.
SCHALCH: In the document, Jensen warns about the challenges that bodies would be numerous, vital records would be destroyed and families dispersed. But he insists that the situation can be managed and says, quote, "There is no justification for not initiating immediate action to recover the dead."
Mr. JENSEN: If you're doing searches from door to door or other areas, that doesn't mean that you do that and then say, `OK, now let's take care of the deceased.' They are concurrent because the resources that we should have, as a nation, should allow us to be able to do that.
SCHALCH: It didn't happen. Kenyon set up a temporary mortuary and waited, but, as FEMA spokesperson Marty Bahamonde explains, FEMA's not in charge of collecting bodies.
Mr. MARTY BAHAMONDE (Spokesperson, FEMA): That is a local medical examiner and state issue. They're the ones that oversee that project.
SCHALCH: And they were overwhelmed. Finally, late September 6th, FEMA asked Kenyon to help collect bodies. Kenyon still didn't have a contract, but it began the next day. Things did not go well. September 11th, Kenyon's CEO Robert Jensen wrote to Vice Admiral Thad Allen saying it was no longer interested in a FEMA contract. The letter laments what it calls `numerous roadblocks, hindrances and interferences.' Kenyon employees and others were given conflicting orders over what to do and whom to report to. And at one point, the letter complains, Kenyon teams were tasked with retrieving bodies and bringing them to temporary mortuary facilities, only to discover when they returned that the mortuaries had been moved to some unknown location. Again, Robert Jensen.
Mr. JENSEN: I think with the document, it's pretty clear that for a private company to reach a level of frustration to basically say they don't want a--you know, what is potentially a multimillion-dollar contract, probably speaks volumes.
SCHALCH: Kenyon immediately signed a different contract with the state of Louisiana. FEMA's Marty Bahamonde says that's what this was really about.
Mr. BAHAMONDE: I think what they looked at is they looked at what FEMA's contract was and then they talked to the state and said, `What contract are you willing to offer?' and they took what, in a business decision, would be a better contract for them.
SCHALCH: He says FEMA can't be faulted for bureaucratic problems Kenyon may have accounted or for Kenyon's not getting started sooner.
Mr. BAHAMONDE: We take the lead from the state that's affected. We meet their requests. We take what they want and try to provide those services to them. And in this case, there wasn't that request prior to the hurricane.
SCHALCH: Robert Jensen says that's what needs to change. He says companies like his should be brought into the planning process before the next disaster occurs.
Mr. JENSEN: The risk is if we don't do it the right way, we're going to cause a lot of harm to people whose lives have already changed so horribly to begin with.
SCHALCH: As for the contract problem with FEMA, Jensen says his company had to walk away because the situation was simply unacceptable. Kathleen Schalch, NPR News, Washington.
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