FEMA's Decisions Have a Name
by Barbara Morrill (BarbinMD)
10 January 2006

Last month, an ePluribus Media investigation revealed the crippling effects on FEMA's ability to prepare for and respond to a disaster in the wake of the Department of Homeland Security's Second Stage Review (2SR). As the second attempt to restructure the department since 2001, 2SR was based on the recommendations in a study by The Heritage Foundation and the Center of Strategic and International Studies.

Yet, in the aftermath of the terrible loss of life, property, and a way of life for untold thousands, one must ask if the real disaster of Hurricane Katrina didn't strike months before, a thousand miles away, when Secretary Michael Chertoff announced the decision to implement 2SR. This story is an attempt to put a human face on people affected by this decision, and while doing so, remembering that the 2006 hurricane season begins in just five months. Will FEMA's mission be accomplished this year?

As it has for more than 20 years, FEMA’s mission remains: to lead America to prepare for, prevent, respond to and recover from disasters with a vision of “A Nation Prepared.”

A brief recap:

The recommendations adopted by Michael Chertoff and the DHS from The Heritage Foundation and CSIS study said that of 14 defined (ironically, by the DHS) critical infrastructure:

The current list of critical infrastructure is too expansive, including sectors that are not truly vital to the federal government’s functioning. The federal government has a vested interest in only the energy, finance, telecommunications, and transportation sectors.

We’re all familiar with the grim realities in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; over 1000 dead; more than 160,000 homes and businesses destroyed; major medical centers, schools and universities no longer operational; the majority of the population displaced…on and on. Now let’s put a human face on some of these once “critical” sectors that were suddenly, “not truly vital.” What was the cost in human suffering during Hurricane Katrina that reflects “virtually every issue and recommendation” of The Heritage Foundation/CSIS study?

Law Enforcement Services:

The overwhelming challenges that faced the New Orleans Police Department during and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are familiar to us all. The vast scale of the disaster, the loss of over 300 police cars in the flooding, their communication system destroyed and hundreds of policemen either abandoning their posts or simply not showing up. But what did it cost Lawrence Celestine?

For eight years, he had been a New Orleans cop, a “90 miles an hour, first on the scene” sort.

Five days after Katrina struck…five days of witnessing unbelievable horror and suffering, Celestine was told to take some time off. With his partner, he went to the roof of the building for better cell phone reception, and called his wife, Andrea, who had evacuated with their two young children.

”Aw, baby, I miss you so much,” he said to her. “Things are really bad here. Everything is destroyed. It’s getting too bad for us to even [be] here.”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “Just stay there and know that I’m coming.”

They hung up, and Celestine handed the phone to [his partner] Carter to make his own call. The view from the balcony was of broken trees and a school with pieces of the roof torn off.The hurricane had changed everything forever. Celestine may have intended to go to Andrea, but disconnected from her voice, perhaps he lost faith that he had anything more to offer her.

“Tell my family I love them,” he called out, and Carter, turning, saw his partner sitting with two guns to his head. Carter leapt but was too late. Celestine pulled the triggers.

Health Services:

A doctor who spent the days after Katrina struggling to save lives under unimaginable conditions, said this of Charity Hospital:

"We have served the underserved for generations, they were born here, they got all their health care here, they died here. They thought that in times of crisis, Charity Hospital was the place you go.”

But like many of the hospitals in New Orleans, Charity Hospital became a place of chaos and crisis rather than refuge during those terrible days. The conditions in which the doctors, nurses and patients struggled were unbelievably harsh: the temperature soaring, no electricity, failing generators, life-saving equipment useless, no food and no water. And what was the cost to Kirby Hawthorne?

“According to her parents, before Hurricane Katrina hit, Kirby was up,” said Leigha Menefee, Hawthorne’s friend and coworker at the University Art Museum. “She was talking. She was eating. And then the hurricane hit and she was without electricity. She was without a lot of her medications. She was without a lot of the treatments that were helping her, and by the time she was being evacuated, she was being shot at and stuck on a roof for a couple of hours.”

“We believe that had it not been for the loss of electricity and sitting in the hospital for four days without air conditioning and all the equipment she needed, her life would have been extended…They couldn’t always get to the drugs they needed. They couldn’t get to the water they needed. Their generators went out. From what I understand, the hospital was very good to her.”

Food:

Even four months after Hurricane Katrina, the images from the Superdome and Convention Center are still vivid. A horrified nation watched as thousands of Americans were trapped for days in unspeakable conditions, lacking even the most basic human need: food and water. And while thousands waited, FEMA was turning away relief efforts from The American Red Cross and The Salvation Army. And the cost to Leon Doby and his two young daughters?

Leon Doby, 26, had gotten daughters Leah, 1, and Khaylin, 3, out of their home, put them in a crate, tied the crate with rope to his waist, then began swimming. He hustled his way, finally, onto a motorboat. It sped off to the Superdome, all aboard exhausted.

At the Superdome, they were rebuffed, and pointed in the direction of the convention center, 10 blocks away.

By the time Doby -- with the crate and the two daughters -- arrived Tuesday, he found himself gazing into thousands of bewildered faces.

Doby would spend four days at the center. All he had for himself and two girls during that time was a sandwich and two bottles of water that a stranger had given him.

“That was hell,” Doby said of the New Orleans Convention Center. “They sent us to the grave.”

Fire Services:

It is said that Nero fiddled as Rome burned. And while New Orleans burned, FEMA fiddled with its own bureaucracy, and the President fiddled with photo-ops. Who can forget that while there were still storm victims in Louisiana who hadn’t been reached, FEMA had volunteer firefighters from around the country taking sexual harassment seminars in Atlanta…and then planned to use them to hand out FEMA fliers in devastated neighborhoods? Or the 50 highly trained firefighters whose first assignment was to serve as a backdrop for a Bush visit?

And the New Orleans Fire Department itself? Not only were more than half of the department’s stations damaged in the storm, their entire communications system was destroyed. And the cost to New Orleans firefighter, Bruce Martin, who says he keeps, “waiting to see the light at the end of the tunnel?” After evacuating from the rising floodwaters approaching his station house, he spent two days and nights with 125 civilians and other firefighters at a local community college:

…we had nothing we could do with them: no way to feed them, no way to clothe them, no way to house them."

And when it was all over and Martin was safely reunited with his family?

"Then I didn't know what to do…I went to work at the shelter because I felt so God-damned useless."

Chemicals, water quality and higher education are three other infrastructure deemed “not truly vital” in the newly adopted 2SR. And while the human consequences from Hurricane Katrina aren’t immediately clear, we do know this:

In Chalmette, at C.F. Rowley Middle School’s playground, for example, analysis found benzo(a)pyrene, a toxic petroleum-based product, in levels 33 times higher than the EPA recommendation for a residential area. […]

… people exposed to such toxins may have respiratory illness and allergic reactions, among other health problems. Those exposed for long periods increase their risk of cancer and birth defects...

New Orleans’ flooded neighborhoods are awash with dangerous levels of bacteria and lead, and with lower, but still potentially harmful, amounts of mercury, pesticides and other chemicals.

One site sampled…had lead 56 times higher than the amount that would be allowed in drinking water.

And we will never know the cost of what might have been for future generations because of the research lost in Hurricane Katrina:

Important work on heart disease, cancer, AIDS and a host of other ailments may be lost forever to scientists at Tulane and Louisiana State universities’ medical schools in New Orleans.

About 300 federally funded projects at New Orleans colleges and universities…were affected in some way, according to an initial survey by the National Institutes of Health.

The cost of Hurricane Katrina is truly incalculable. The loss of life, property, security and a way of life cannot be measured. Just as what Vera Smith lost can never be measured:

Neighbors buried Vera Smith on top of the concrete sidewalk at the edge of the Garden District on Saturday in a crude grave they made of soil and bricks they had unearthed from a little park nearby.

Smith had been dead for four days. […]

…the humid New Orleans heat had rendered her body so unrecognizable that strangers could not tell whether she was a man or a woman, black or white, said John Lee, one of the neighbors who helped bury her.

"I saw a bloodied corpse weeping body fluids onto the street," said Lee, who had not known her when she was alive.

The police, too overwhelmed by the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe in the city, refused the neighbors' pleas to collect her body. Instead, they spray-painted "29" -- the police complaint code number signifying death in Louisiana -- on the sidewalk near where she lay, along with an arrow pointing at her body.

For Vera Smith, the cost was her dignity in death. A fundamental concept in any humane society, but apparently not critical nor truly vital, according to FEMA standards.


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Contributors: WanderIndiana, HeyThereItsEric, Kfred, Luaptifer, SawcieLackey, Susie Dow, JeninRI, Standingup, Nancelot, XicanoPwr, lilnubber and NCYellowDog

Photograph: AP Photo/Dave Martin