FEMA Head Defends Katrina Relief Response

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
September 2, 2005
Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown on Thursday
defended his agency's response to the chaos caused when Hurricane
Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast four days ago.

Speaking at a news conference in Washington, D.C., Thursday afternoon, Brown said his agency and other federal agencies—including military units—are "doing every single thing they can" to provide aid to the stricken area.

"Everybody in the country needs to take a big, deep breath," Brown said.

Brown insisted that a massive response to the disaster has been mobilized and that conditions in the Gulf Coast are not as bad as the press is reporting.

But news reports continued about horrific conditions in New Orleans and communities elsewhere on the Gulf Coast that have yet to receive the minimal supplies refugees need to stay alive.

MSNBC reported on its Web site this morning that National Guard troops just returning from duty in Iraq had been sent to New Orleans to help restore order.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported on its Web site Thursday night that about a hundred people died in Saint Bernard Parish as they waited to be evacuated. Saint Bernard Parish, or county, is part of metropolitan New Orleans.

The deaths were reported by U.S. Representative Charles Melancon, the newspaper said.

The dead were among about 1,500 refugees waiting in Saint Bernard Parish to be bussed out of the devastated city.

"Desparate SOS"

At yesterday's news conference, Brown responded to harsh criticism from rescue workers and local officials on the Gulf Coast. He also addressed news reports of widespread disorder in New Orleans, especially around the Louisiana Superdome.

Thousands of refugees have been housed in the domed football stadium since the hurricane made landfall early Monday morning. Shortly before Brown's news conference, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin issued a "desperate SOS" for help for his city.

Brown said federal disaster relief workers were in place and ready to respond before the powerful hurricane came ashore early Monday morning. In some cases, their response was slowed because of the unprecedented flooding in New Orleans caused when levees broke, he said.

Brown said he understood why local disaster relief workers and emergency management officials are frustrated when the supplies they expect don't arrive. But the relief effort is moving more smoothly and efficiently than has been portrayed in news reports, he said.

The "full force" of the federal government is being used to provide help to victims, he said.

Troop Deployment

Brown lashed out at news reports of widespread disorder in New Orleans, noting that there were a few "really bad people out there" who were causing problems, and that whenever they caused a problem, someone was there to get it on film.

Lt. Gen. Russell Honore, a U.S. Army commander, said at the news conference that thousands of National Guard troops have been sent to Louisiana and Mississippi, the two states hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina. And more troops are arriving every day, Honore said.

Brown said the deployment of U.S. troops to Iraq has not affected the federal government's ability to cope with the hurricane disaster.

Brown also said conditions will steadily improve in New Orleans and elsewhere as more troops and supplies reach the area. "It will get better and better as the days go by," he said.

The Times-Picayune reported Thursday night that Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco demanded an apology from the U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert for a remark he made earlier about rebuilding New Orleans.

Hastert said it might not make sense to rebuild the city, which is below sea level and surrounded by water. Blanco said it was "unthinkable … that Hastert should kick us when we're down" and demanded "an immediate apology," the Times-Picayune reported.

Hurricane Katrina came ashore near the mouth of the Mississippi River in Louisiana with winds of 140 miles an hour (225 kilometers an hour) and a storm surge of at least 20 feet (6 meters). The storm made another landfall several hours later on the Mississippi coast, and caused heavy damage from Louisiana to Florida.

The reported death toll is approaching 200, but many more are thought to have died in the storm and its aftermath.

Willie Drye is the author of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic.

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