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San Antonio Express-News September 3, 2005

Editorial: Officials, relief efforts stunningly inadequate

When Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, inundating about 80 percent of the community, the town was no longer along the Gulf of Mexico; it was part of the Gulf of Mexico.

Throughout the area, it was a similar story — vast areas flooded by the hurricane, with hundreds feared dead and thousands more turned into an army of homeless.

Yet, while the coast was gripped with terror, the federal government was seized by something equally disturbing — paralysis.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, frustrated by what he saw as a slow relief effort, said in a radio interview that federal officials needed to stop having "---damned press conferences" and get the recovery effort moving.

"Everyone is in need," Polly Boudreax, clerk of the St. Bernard Parish Council, told WAFB-TV in Baton Rouge. "Everyone is wiped out."

Boudreaux was not alone. Other officials expressed similar frustration, many of them appalled at the conditions inside what should have been a haven — the New Orleans Superdome. About 25,000 people fled to the facility, where they clamored for food and water.

"Some people there have not eaten or drunk water for three or four days, which is inexcusable," Joseph Matthews, director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness for the city, told the New York Times.

In an interview on CNN Friday morning, Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said he had not been aware of a similar crisis at the Ernest Morial Convention Center.

"I learned about it from the media," he said.

President Bush did not convene a federal task force until Wednesday, two days after the hurricane struck, the Times reported.

The National Guard expects about 30,000 soldiers and airmen to arrive in the region "soon," but Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said the area needs at least 40,000.

"Is the problem that they are only just now beginning to understand how serious the damage was?" John Pike, director of the national security policy group known as GlobalSecurity.org, said on his Web site. "Did they not have a contingency for a disaster of this magnitude?"

While the hurricane represents a natural disaster, the recovery effort has broader implications. Emergencies respect no boundaries, whether natural or man-made. If this had been a terrorist strike, critics contend, federal officials would have been equally unprepared.

The lack of preparedness is alarming, and the lessons from this event must be learned quickly. The complaints from state and local officials are understandable, but the lack of preparation carries plenty of blame, extending from the local to the federal level.

"We'll get on top of this situation," Bush said from the south lawn of the White House on Friday morning. "And we're going to help the people that need help."

Bush acknowledged that the recovery effort has been unacceptable. He pledged it would improve. What he did not say, however, is that he is part of the problem.

On Tuesday, one day after the hurricane struck, Bush delivered a speech on the 60th anniversary of V-J Day, determined to stick to his agenda. Nothing would interrupt his schedule. Not even a catastrophe.

It was a telling moment. When the country needed a president, it got a politician. There is a big difference. A politician provides rhetoric; a president provides comfort and reassurance.

Where was the man who performed so ably in the days following 9-11?

He was a president then, a leader who expressed both compassion and fortitude. This time around, his response was frustratingly slow.


Copyright 2005, San Antonio Express-News