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| Friday, September 30, 2005

Wall Street Journal Story On Katrina Misinformation

STORMS IN THE GULF

Misinformation Slowed
Federal Response to Katrina

By CHRISTOPHER COOPER
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
September 30, 2005; Page A4

WASHINGTON -- One of the mysteries of the fumbling federal response to Hurricane Katrina has been why the military, which was standing by, and federal disaster agencies, which had pre-positioned supplies in the area, didn't move in more quickly and with greater force.

        Senior government officials now say that one major reason for the delay was that they believed they had to plan for a far more complicated military operation, rather than a straight-ahead relief effort.

        Accounts from local officials of widespread looting and unspeakable violence — which now appear to have been significantly overstated — raised the specter at the time that soldiers might be forced to confront or even kill American citizens.  The prospect of such a scenario added political and tactical complications to the job of filling the city with troops and set back relief efforts by days.

        The misinformation raises the question of why the federal government had so much trouble gathering its own intelligence that could have provided a more accurate picture.

        "The devastation was so complete, so comprehensive . . . that we couldn't figure out how bad it was," said Adm. Timothy Keating, chief of the U.S. military's Northern Command, which oversaw the Pentagon's Katrina effort.  "On Tim Keating's list of things we need to work and to analyze very carefully, communications is at the top of that list," the admiral told reporters yesterday.

        Washington's experience in Louisiana has prompted the White House to seek ways to shoulder locals out of the way if another similar disaster crops up in the future.  President Bush has asked Congress to consider mechanisms that would allow him to quickly place the Pentagon in charge of such disasters, making it easier to use assets such as the 82nd Airborne Division, highly trained, regular Army soldiers who specialize in moving to an area quickly and securing it.  As it was, cumbersome federal regulations generally prevent Mr. Bush from sending regular Army troops to enforce order in American cities unless they are expressly invited by a state's governor.

        For the Federal Emergency Management Agency, rumors of lawlessness simply delayed on-the-ground relief efforts and turned even routine errands into a cumbersome exercise.  One official, who was posted at the Superdome, said federal rescuers and doctors were required to secure armed escorts even for short trips across the street.

        To be sure, the situation in New Orleans did appear dire at times and looting was common, gunshots rang out in the city and bands of dazed survivors did spill out in the streets looking for food and shelter.  A handful of people died at the Convention Center and the Superdome and at least one or two of those deaths appear to have been murders.

        But some of the most spectacular looting — the sacking of the Wal-Mart in the lower Garden District and the summary emptying of the Office Depot Uptown, appear to have been initiated not by organized bands of thieves but police and City Hall bureaucrats intent on securing supplies.

        Moreover, while confusion reigned in many areas of the city, some places were more tranquil.  New Orleans Coroner Frank Minyard, whose forensic team has conducted scores of autopsies on the 650 or so bodies recovered from New Orleans says he has run across only seven gunshot victims.  "Seven gunshots isn't even a good Saturday night in New Orleans," Dr. Minyard says.

        White House spokesman Scott McClellan says: "Now that the fog of war is clearing, we're starting to see that a lot of things we were told were happening in fact did not happen.

        Federal officials have long said that they traditionally rely on locals to provide first response for disasters, which includes making security assessments and providing safe transport for emergency workers.  They have suggested that New Orleans and Louisiana were ill-prepared for the task.  Former FEMA director Michael Brown said in congressional testimony this week that his biggest mistake was not realizing early that Louisiana was incapable of assisting in the relief efforts.  For their part, locals have dished right back.  "They don't have a clue what's going on down there," Mayor Ray Nagin told a local radio station four days after the storm hit.

        While Mr. Brown faulted "a hysteric media" for passing on such stories, many of the wilder tales were presented by Mayor Nagin and Eddie Compass, the police chief who has since resigned.  Mr. Compass couldn't be reached for comment.  Mr. Nagin and Mr. Compass's successor yesterday declined further comment.

        Both Mr. Nagin and Mr. Compass have said they merely related stories they thought to be true at the time.  But they may also have been trying to spark a quick federal response by overstating the dire nature of the crisis.

        In New Orleans, D-Day came on Sept. 2, four days after Hurricane Katrina passed.  After massing troops outside the city and hammering out an invasion strategy, Louisiana National Guard Maj. Gen. Bennett Landreneau briefed President Bush on the plan.  Shortly after noon, a 1,000-man force that had taken several days to assemble, moved into the heart of the city to battle the insurgents holding the Convention Center downtown.

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