Tuesday, September 06, 2005

"Our Citizens Feel a Breach of Trust"

WWL-TV's Katrina blog has the latest from Jefferson Parish Emergency Preparedness Center director Walter Maestri (scan down for 8:40-8:44 A.M.):

Our citizens feel a breach of trust. It's almost like infidelity in a relationship. A lot of our people feel cheated.

There will be time to assess blame. When this is over and emotions are under more control, we'll assess what happened. We're all angry, including me, because promises made were not promises kept. We were told we would be on our own for 48 hours and then the calvary would arrive, but it didn't.

What is Maestri talking about? You might have no idea, unless you happened to catch this story from the Times-Picayune on Saturday, where Maestri said on Friday night that FEMA

reneged on a promise to begin relieving county emergency preparedness staffers 48 hours after Hurricane Katrina hit the New Orleans metropolitan area.

Maestri’s staff has been working almost around the clock since Katrina approached the Louisiana coastline on Sunday. Today, the staff is expected to finally switch to a 12 hours on/12 hours off schedule, he said, adding that they’re both tired and demoralized by the lack of assistance from federal officials.

“We had been told we would be on our own for 48 hours,” Maestri said. “Prepare to survive and in 48 hours the cavalry would arrive.

“Well, where are they?” he said.

Maestri said the agreement was signed by officials with the Southeastern Louisiana Emergency Preparedness Officials Association, the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency as part of this year’s Hurricane Pam tabletop exercise. That exercise began the process of writing a series of manuals explaining how to respond to a catastrophic disaster. Financed by FEMA, it included a variety of federal, state and local officials.

A FEMA spokesman late Friday said they couldn’t confirm or deny that the agency signed the agreement Maestri referred to.

"Couldn't confirm or deny" -- sounds like double talk to me.

But wait, it gets better:

FEMA Director Michael Brown also raised Maestri’s ire when he said in a television interview Friday that he waited so long to respond because he didn’t want to interfere with local aid attempts, and that local officials hadn’t asked FEMA to come in.

“My response is very simple,” Maestri said in an interview on a cell phone after repeated attempts to reach his office. “We didn’t have any communications. We still don’t have outside communications.”

He said FEMA officials have now informed him the first members of a liaison team might arrive at the Emergency Operations Center this morning [Saturday] or Sunday.

Think about that for a minute. In Jefferson Parish, the first responders were working round the clock since before Katrina made landfall. They believed FEMA was coming in to relieve them within 48 hours -- relief that would have not only let them rest, and put fresh people in place to continue rescue operations, but also freed them to check on their families and property.

But FEMA didn't come to relieve Jeff Parish for 48 hours -- or 72 hours -- or 96 hours -- no sooner than 120 hours after the storm passed was there even a sign of the "first members of a liaison team" riding to their rescue.

Some people are taking a blame the local officials approach. They certainly bear a good deal of responsibility for planning. However, in this case, it sounds like Jeff Parish thought it had done that job. And, moreover, keep in mind the apocalyptic destruction of Katrina: whole cities and parishes (counties) have been destroyed.

For these first responders and emergency workers, there was no backup, no one to relieve them, for days and days. In some cases, as the one Aaron Broussard mentioned on Meet the Press, this meant they had to do their job for days while family members they could have otherwise rescued died elsewhere.

FEMA was supposed to help within 48 hours -- they had signed a contract -- and they were nowhere to be seen.


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