Federal Agency Delayed Katrina Response, According To Internal Memo

Documents reveal FEMA first requested aid for battered area hours after the storm hit.

On Tuesday night, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi confronted President George W. Bush about Michael Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Pelosi called on Bush to dismiss Brown — the man appointed to take charge of swift responses to natural and man-made disasters. When asked for the president's response, Pelosi told the The Associated Press that he had "thanked me for my suggestion."

Later that evening, internal FEMA documents, obtained by the AP, revealed that Brown waited nearly five hours after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast before asking his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Mike Chertoff, for assistance — the nation's first attempt at a response to what is being called the worst natural disaster to strike the U.S. (see "Officials Worried About Disease As Thousands Refuse To Evacuate New Orleans").

According to the wire service, Katrina raged for five hours before Brown petitioned Chertoff with his first request for aid: 1,000 Homeland Security workers who'd be dispatched to the region two days later to lend their support to localized rescue efforts and "convey a positive image of disaster operations to government officials, community organizations and the general public." He also suggested that an additional 2,000 personnel be sent over the course of the following week.

Before Brown issued his request on August 29, FEMA had placed smaller rescue and communications teams across the area, the AP reports. In his memo to Chertoff, Brown characterized Katrina as a "near catastrophic event," though the correspondence failed to convey a more immediate or imperative need for government action. Many have said the federal response to the disaster was insufficient and far too late (see "T.I., David Banner Get Behind Kanye's Bush Comments").

According to Homeland Security spokesperson Russ Knocke, Brown's intention was to offer support to potential victims in the aftermath, rather than assist in the rescuing of victims or the recovery of bodies. "There will be plenty of time to assess what worked and what didn't work," Knocke told the AP. "Clearly there will be time for blame to be assigned and to learn from some of the successful efforts."

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Before his request to Chertoff, Brown discouraged local fire and rescue operations outside of the affected states — Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi — from sending trucks and emergency workers into the disaster zone unless a specific request for help was issued by state or local governments, The Associated Press reports.

"The people of the Gulf region were struck by two disasters. First was the hurricane and then, the failure of the federal government in time of great need," Pelosi told the press. "The buck stops at the president's desk. The president said he's going to lead the investigation into what went wrong. He needs to look only in the mirror."

Pelosi's call for Brown's dismissal was echoed by several senators Tuesday night. Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland, told reporters Brown should step down quietly.

Senator Trent Lott, a Republican from Mississippi, urged lawmakers to focus their efforts on recovery before launching inquisitions, saying, "There'll be a time for that. Let's fix the problems that we've got to deal with now."

Several Democratic senators expressed that an independent commission, much like the one assembled following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks (see "9-11 Commission: U.S. Defenses Were Unprepared For Attacks"), should be appointed to review the procedures followed and decisions made in Katrina's aftermath.

Meanwhile, CNN reports that Republican leaders have scrapped a House hearing to evaluate the response to Katrina, with plans to hold what was described by Majority Leader Tom DeLay as a "congressional review" by a joint House and Senate panel at a later date.

The impact of Katrina is also being felt strongly on the U.S. economy. The Congressional Budget Office has said the disaster could cost the country 400,000 jobs and knock 1 percent off the nation's economic growth in the second half of the year, CNN reports.

And cleaning up after Katrina's mess could cost the United States up to $200 billion, according to early estimates from The Wall Street Journal, topping the cost of the 9/11 attacks and making Hurricane Katrina the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

In order to alleviate the financial burdens of those evacuees who've lost virtually everything at the hands of the disaster, FEMA announced Wednesday it will be distributing $2,000 debit cards to displaced famlies that they can use for basic necessities like food, gas and transportation.

New Orleans police are still struggling to evacuate nearly 15,000 holdouts who refuse to leave the devastated city. Despite the order from the Mayor Ray Nagin to carry out forced evacuations, New Orleans Police Superintendent Eddie Compass said he wouldn't force out residents until all those who want to leave were out.

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[This story was originally published 10:08 a.m. EDT on 9.7.05]