Book Excerpt: 'Americans At Risk"

In a low-income housing project, children surrounded us and clamored for the bottled water and granola bars we had brought. I asked a mother if FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) or the Red Cross had been there. She said, "Not here. We have to send somebody out every day to find the closest Red Cross center, where we can get water for the community. It's usually a ten- or fifteen-minute drive from here. And we still don't have electricity or fresh water." When I asked if the children were going to school, she said, "Some days."

This visit and every subsequent one to the Gulf reinforced what we have now learned: the emergency response to the hurricane's damage in the Gulf was woefully, painfully insufficient. And as bad as things were in Mississippi, the situation was even worse in neighboring Louisiana, where, even six months after the storm, the news remained disheartening, an endless stream of unanticipated consequences and unresolved problems. Well beyond the acute emergency phase of the initial response, the services and relief efforts seem to be struggling as much as ever in New Orleans and throughout Louisiana. Information is faulty and incomplete. Issues that should have been thought about long before the disaster struck have become intractable barriers to meeting the needs of people who have been through a hellish combination of natural violence and bureaucratic blunders.

Gregory Kutz, the Government Accountability Office auditor who led an investigation into use of federal funds for relief, testified on February 14, 2006, before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that funds wasted in the Katrina aftermath will certainly amount to millions of dollars, and "it could be tens or hundreds of millions of dollars." And an audit by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), led by Inspector General Richard L. Skinner and released on April 14, 2006, reaffirmed the chaotic squandering of taxpayer funds. No example better typifies this waste than the FEMA-administered debit card program that gave evacuees cards with $2,000 balances intended to purchase emergency provisions. The debit cards came with no oversight and no guidelines. As a result, the cards were used to purchase frivolous items unrelated to evacuation needs including adult entertainment, gambling, a $450 tattoo, and a diamond engagement ring for $1,100. Moreover, qualification for the cards required very little verification. Consequently, 900,000 of the 2.5 million cards distributed went to people with fake addresses and duplicate or fake Social Security numbers. A total of $24 million worth of cards were given out, with little hope that the total will ever be accounted for.

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