Frustration and anger mounted in Southeast Texas on Monday over the response to Hurricane Rita by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.This all sounds terribly, terribly familiar:
With homes smashed, trees and power lines downed and a looming shortage of food and water, one official even threatened to take federal relief supplies by force, if necessary.
"If you have enough policemen to take it from them, take it," Jefferson County Judge Carl Griffith said Monday during a meeting of city and county officials.
We are very short on food and water, and the FEMA trucks that were supposed to be here just aren't here," Griffith said.How long before they blame local officials? While emergency management may begin at the local level, at what point does FEMA actually take responsibility? According to Michael Brown: never.
FEMA officials did not respond to requests for comment on the complaints. But Steve McCraw, Texas director of Homeland Security, said he spoke with Griffith, the official in charge of managing the disaster locally, and understood his anxiety.
"You know, when you ask for something, you want it right away. You want generators. You want food, and you want water right there," McCraw said. "He's going to get frustrated when he doesn't get things immediately, and we understand that."
But, McCraw said, "I have confidence that FEMA will get that to them."
Griffith was angry over an incident in which a FEMA truck was supposed to deliver fuel to a police facility but took the gasoline to a fire station. When the crew learned its error, it left, the county judge said, without providing the fuel to anyone.
If police had been available, Griffith said, they should have just taken the fuel.
Griffith also was outraged over FEMA portable generators that, he said, were sitting in a park and not being distributed.
"We can't help it if politicians come here and just want to be seen by the media," Griffith said.
"We hit the ground running with our own commodities and our own facilities, but we have no support."
Beaumont officials also cited a shortage of water pumps and generators. They complained that federal relief teams had failed to show up and that fuel deliveries had not been made as promised.
In nearby Port Arthur, Mayor Oscar Ortiz also expressed frustration with FEMA's response in his city, which was severely damaged but largely empty after at least 95 percent of its residents evacuated.
Rita left behind upended trees and snapped power lines on nearly every Port Arthur street. Virtually the only movement Monday came from emergency crews, a handful of military personnel and energy trucks repairing lines.
But Ortiz said he had seen only three FEMA officials on the ground as of Monday afternoon. "They are supposedly bringing us some diesel, but I haven't seen it yet," he said. "We are relying on some of the refineries in town to keep us on the road.
In his opening remarks Tuesday, Brown said he expected to be asked by investigators if he did all he could in response to the storm, which devastated the Gulf Coast and is blamed for more than 1,000 deaths.In other words, the only thing he did wrong, was not get other people to do
"The answer to that question is 'yes,' but I do believe there are specific mistakes that I made with Hurricane Katrina. I will mention two.
"First, I did not set up a system of media briefings which I should have done as that would have required less of my time than responding to all the requests for interviews.
"Second, I regret not being able to persuade Gov. Blanco and Mayor Nagin to sit down and coordinate their response."
"The reason that this primary responsibility, this first response is at the local level is that it is inherently impractical, totally impractical for the federal government to respond to every disaster of whatever size in every community across the country," Brown saidIn other words, Katrina was too big for the federal government to handle, so the state and city were on their own. Who else you gonna blame?
That said, I have to agree with Mayor Nagin: "I don't know what he's referring to," Nagin said, adding that "obviously, Mr. Brown is maybe under a lot of pressure. I feel sorry for him." At this point, I do, too.
But the question remains: why are people like this allowed a place in government at all? Why wasn't a Richard Clarke in charge, someone who would publicly apologize to the families for the failures on his watch? Answer: because the fish rots from the head.
Even without "Brownie," this is still apparently the best FEMA can do:
In the hard-hit refinery towns of Port Arthur and Beaumont, crews struggled to cross debris-clogged streets to deliver generators and water to people stranded by Rita. They predicted it could be a month before power is restored, and said water and sewer systems could not function until more generators arrived.And apparently, $60 billion is only enough for one storm. Maybe Gov. Goodhair wants to advise his former superior in Texas government on how the relationship between the federal and local governments is supposed to work:
Red tape was also blamed for the delays.
Port Arthur Mayor Oscar Ortiz, whose own home was destroyed by fire after the hurricane, said "we've had 101 promises" for aid, "but it's all bureaucracy." He and other officials gathered at a hotel-turned-command center, where a dirty American flag found among hurricane debris was hung on the wall.
John Owens, emergency management coordinator and deputy police chief in the town of 57,000, said pleas for state and federal relief were met with requests for paperwork.
"We have been living like cavemen, sleeping in cars, doing bodily functions outside," he said.
Gov. Rick Perry also put pressure on FEMA Monday to reimburse Texas for all costs associated with Hurricane Rita, as the federal agency did with Hurricane Katrina.My advice to Gov. Goodhair: don't stand by the mailbox waiting for the check. I think FEMA still has a ways to go before Mr. Brown gets his wish, and it is "reborn."
But Perry said FEMA, so far, has agreed to pay 100 percent of the cost of Hurricane Rita for only the first 72 hours after the storm. In a letter to President Bush, Perry said the two hurricanes should be considered as one disaster, because part of the state's Rita-related costs involved evacuating people from New Orleans from Texas cities.