Katrina Timeline: Misdirected Aid As the extent of Hurricane Katrina's threat to New Orleans became evident, trucks with water and ice were not positioned as planned. And when they were finally told to move, they were sent hundreds of miles away from most of the people in need.
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Katrina Timeline: Misdirected Aid

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Katrina Timeline: Misdirected Aid

Katrina Timeline: Misdirected Aid

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

More than 40 emergency agencies--local, state and federal--were meeting almost every two hours in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. They were planning for a storm that could devastate the region. But as soon as Katrina hit, those plans started to unravel. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling and Laura Sullivan pick up our story.


As the sun comes up Tuesday morning, rescuers are overwhelmed by thousands of people calling out to them for help, trapped inside their attics, running out of air. That morning, at a press conference, William Lokey, chief coordinator for FEMA from Washington, doesn't seem to realize that two failed levees are flooding the city. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The speaker at the press conference was actually Senator DAVID VITTER of Louisiana.]

Senator DAVID VITTER (Republican, Louisiana): I don't want to alarm everybody that, you know, New Orleans is filling up like a bowl. That's just not happening.

SULLIVAN: But that's exactly what is happening. For the next 12 hours, across the below-sea-level city, the water keeps rising.


That same morning, Walter Maestri follows the disaster plan to rush help to Jefferson Parish. He gets on his shortwave radio, and he calls the emergency command center in Baton Rouge. He talks with FEMA and the National Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Mr. WALTER MAESTRI (Emergency Management Center, Jefferson Parish): We made the request Tuesday morning. We went through the state Office of Emergency Preparedness. I am requesting the water and ice, the meals, the demax(ph)...

ZWERDLING: The medical--the Mobile Medical Unit?

Mr. MAESTRI: The medical--the Mobile Medical, the DMORT, the mobile morgue and so forth. They said they would place the orders and that they should be here within 12 to 36 hours. That's Tuesday morning.

ZWERDLING: And Mayor Nagin says he's confident that help is about to pour into New Orleans. He says an official at FEMA has just briefed him.

Mayor RAY NAGIN (New Orleans): We have the highest levels of government in the United States, including the president of the United States, focused on this issue and ready to send resources. They have told us to put together your wish lists.

SULLIVAN: National Guard troops in states across the country start calling to offer help. Remember, the New Mexico troops have been packed and ready since Sunday and are eager to get moving. Again, Paul Shipley, spokesman for New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.

Mr. PAUL SHIPLEY (Spokesperson for New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson): We were ready to go. We had offered our help. But because of all the red tape and because of the communications issues, we didn't actually get the official go-ahead, the green light to send the troops, until Thursday, and the troops were sent on Friday.

SULLIVAN: According to Shipley, officials from the emergency operations center in Louisiana and National Guard headquarters in Washington tell the New Mexico Guard they have to wait until there's an official plan and a chain of command established.

On Wednesday, the evacuation site of last resort, the Superdome, is packed with 25,000 evacuees. It's hot. There's no food, water or toilets. Thousands more are gathered 10 blocks away at the city's convention center. There are reports of suicides, gunfire. One man attacks a National Guardsman and shoots him in the leg. Dead bodies bake in the sun. State trooper Lawrence McLeary describes a situation so much worse than anyone planned for.

Lieutenant LAWRENCE McLEARY (Louisiana State Police): We started hearing some horror stories about the conditions that were inside and some of the people that were preying on others in there. And it is a helpless feeling, and you try to figure out, `What can we do? How can we get help in?'

ZWERDLING: Local officials have been pleading with the state's National Guard to send troops all across the region. But on Wednesday, most of those soldiers are trying to keep order at the Superdome. Other parts of the city seem lawless. NPR's Greg Allen files this report.

(Soundbite of NPR broadcast)

GREG ALLEN reporting:

Throughout New Orleans, the scene is one of almost total chaos. There's no power. Trees, debris....

ZWERDLING: Now it's Wednesday afternoon. Local officials like Walter Maestri say they haven't seen the food or water or medical supplies that state and federal officials promised.

Mr. MAESTRI: You know, we're hearing all kinds of excuses. We're hearing all kinds of rationales that `We don't step in until the locals ask.' Well, you know, the asking was going on.

SULLIVAN: While Maestri is waiting for supplies, FEMA contractors like Dan Wessel are trying to send them. Wessel owns Cool Express of Wisconsin, one of the main companies under contract by FEMA to bring ice and water to the area. First, he says, his fleet waits two days for FEMA to give the go-ahead. Then, he says, FEMA sends the deliveries to the wrong place.

Mr. DAN WESSEL (Owner, Cool Express): Our first trucks got staged in Montgomery, Alabama. The second trucks, second wave, got staged in Dallas, Texas.

SULLIVAN: When they are finally redirected to Louisiana and other areas that actually need supplies, there is no one around to greet the trucks or distribute the ice and water.

Mr. WESSEL: We are told to go to a certain location. We get there. There's nobody there. We don't know what to do. So it was my driver fending for himself. But pretty well what they did is they opened up the doors and let people take the water and ice.

ZWERDLING: By Thursday, there seems to be a total disconnect between what's going on on the ground and what officials in Washington say is happening on the ground. That morning, Mayor Nagin goes on local radio.

(Soundbite of local radio broadcast)

Mayor NAGIN: I need reinforcements. I need troops, man. Get every doggone Greyhound bus line in the country, and get that (censored) moving to New Orleans.

ZWERDLING: Meanwhile, top officials in the Bush administration are painting a different picture. In fact, the secretary of Homeland Security sounds like he doesn't know what's been going on at the convention center in New Orleans for the past two days. Here's Michael Chertoff on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

(Soundbite of previous broadcast)

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Department of Homeland Security): I have not heard a report of thousands of people in the convention center who don't have food and water.

SULLIVAN: It's Friday, four days since Katrina hit. Everybody in the region is clamoring for the government to send in troops. On this day, President Bush makes his first visit to New Orleans. He calls Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco to a meeting aboard Air Force One on the tarmac at Louis Armstrong Airport. According to city, state and federal officials, the president tells the governor he will send the troops, but only if they and the National Guard answer to the White House. Governor Blanco says she needs 24 hours to think about it.

ZWERDLING: Meanwhile, inside the airport terminal, hundreds of sick and elderly evacuees are lying on cots in baggage claim. Before he returns to the White House, President Bush holds a press conference with top officials. He singles out the head of FEMA, Michael Brown.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: And, Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job. The FEMA director's working 24...

(Soundbite of applause)

SULLIVAN: Over the weekend, President Bush sends in the 82nd Airborne, and relief begins to arrive. But problems persist. Dan Wessel still can't deliver his truckloads of ice and water. He's the one who has a contract with FEMA. This past Monday, he reads an e-mail he gets from one of his drivers waiting outside the Superdome.

Mr. WESSEL: There are no unloading crews around. There's two pallets of ice sitting on the dock. It's about 90 degrees down there, and they don't have room for the two pallets. Still sitting. Doesn't know what to do. Wants somebody to call.

SULLIVAN: That feeling of frustration is one a lot of people share, from the residents across the region searching for friends and family, to politicians calling for investigations, and to all those emergency planners now trying to figure out how to prepare for the next disaster. I'm Laura Sullivan.

ZWERDLING: And I'm Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News, Washington.

BLOCK: You can read NPR's Weblog which tracks developments on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. You'll find it at our Web site, npr.org.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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