Tuesday, September 27


The "Houston Chronicle" pulls no punches this morning in naming FEMA as the bogeyman for all that has been deemed lacking thus far in the emergency response to Hurricane Rita devastation in southeast Texas.

Reporters Minaya, Ratcliffe, and Khanna write:

Frustration and anger mounted in Southeast Texas on Monday over the response to Hurricane Rita by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

With homes smashed, trees and power lines downed and a looming shortage of food and water, one official even threatened to take federal relief supplies by force, if necessary.

"If you have enough policemen to take it from them, take it," Jefferson County Judge Carl Griffith said Monday during a meeting of city and county officials.

They continue:

FEMA has been under fire for weeks for its response to Hurricane Katrina, after thousands of people were left stranded in New Orleans for days without food or water.

The magnitude of Rita's damage appears to be less than Katrina's, and FEMA officials on Monday set up 16 stations in nine East Texas counties. The stations will distribute water, ice and food.

'Short on food and water'

Still, Southeast Texas officials charged that the federal agency's response to Rita was inadequate.

"We are very short on food and water, and the FEMA trucks that were supposed to be here just aren't here," Griffith said.

FEMA officials did not respond to requests for comment on the complaints. But Steve McCraw, Texas director of Homeland Security, said he spoke with Griffith, the official in charge of managing the disaster locally, and understood his anxiety.

"You know, when you ask for something, you want it right away. You want generators. You want food, and you want water right there," McCraw said. "He's going to get frustrated when he doesn't get things immediately, and we understand that."

But, McCraw said, "I have confidence that FEMA will get that to them."

Rita left behind upended trees and snapped power lines on nearly every Port Arthur street. Virtually the only movement Monday came from emergency crews, a handful of military personnel and energy trucks repairing lines.

But Ortiz said he had seen only three FEMA officials on the ground as of Monday afternoon. "They are supposedly bringing us some diesel, but I haven't seen it yet," he said. "We are relying on some of the refineries in town to keep us on the road.

"The (FEMA) director is a very nice person," Ortiz added, "but that is not what we need now. We need someone who is going to do what they say they are going to do."

The mayor said there were not enough supplies for residents who remained in the city during the storm and the few who had slipped back in since it passed.

I followed the 24/7 Hurricane Rita coverage on television rather extensively and the oft-repeated comments by local Houston officials, at the time the threat from Rita was aimed at Galveston-Houston, was for residents who remained behind to expect FEMA to roll 48 hours after the storm had passed through the area.

That makes the carping I'm reading in the Chronicle this morning appear a little quick on the draw. Why the mayor of Port Arthur has his knickers in a twist over FEMA failing to supply people who did not evacuate as instructed and people who have returned when they were specifically told not to by the Governor of Texas is beyond me.

Mayor Bill White of Houston, who along with Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, held regular press conferences during week-long preparations last week in anticipation of Rita's landfall, complimented the cooperation and participation of FEMA officials any number of times and there was specific talk of FEMA's pre-landfall staging of assets and supplies. But it was repeatedly emphasized that local and state governments were the designated emergency first-responders, not FEMA, and that FEMA would hit the ground 48 hours after the hurricane had passed.

Could it be that the lion's share, if not all of FEMA's assets and supplies were staged in or near Houston and that the principal problem now is one of getting it all up the coast to hurricane-ravaged areas along the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast border? The Chronicle report isn't clear on this other than offering the following:

Andre Wimer, city manager of Nederland said he was tired of getting the run-around from federal officials.

"We spend the day faxing and talking, and we don't get any feedback," Wimer said.

"I realize that there is a significant logistics issue, and I appreciate that. But there is a significant amount of equipment and manpower sitting at (local FEMA headquarters), and for whatever reason, it has not been released," Wimer said.

Regardless, looks as though President Bush will be taking it on the chin again. Some things never seem to change. He's already on the hook for the levees breaking again in New Orleans.

FOLLOW-UP: I think it's fair to say that the Bush Administration hasn't been treated objectively by the Associated Press. I find it interesting, therefore, that in this AP story FEMA isn't taken to task anywhere near as hard as in the Houston Chroncile piece. Readers' "Comments" would be appreciated in evaluating the thrust of the two MSM articles and how FEMA fares in each.