FEMA Was Unprepared for Katrina Relief Effort, Insiders Say

ByABC News

Sept. 8, 2005 -- -- The Federal Emergency Management Agency has received much of the blame for the government's slow response to victims of Hurricane Katrina.

In a post-9/11 era, some say, the government let preparedness for natural disasters take a back seat to terrorism.

FEMA was an independent agency, answering directly to the president, until it was folded into the Department of Homeland Security two years ago.

However, the latest government figures show that 75 cents out of every $1 spent on emergency preparedness goes to anti-terrorism programs. Well before Katrina, FEMA insiders were sounding the alarm.

A timeline of events leading up to the hurricane illustrates what went wrong.

On Saturday, Aug. 27 at 8:30 p.m. -- about 35 hours before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast -- Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, was so concerned about the storm, he personally called the governors of Mississippi and Louisiana as well as the mayor of New Orleans to make sure they understood the severity of the situation.

"The thing I remember telling all three of them," Mayfield said, "is that when I walked out of the hurricane center that night, I wanted to be able to, you know, sleep at night, knowing that I'd done everything I could do."

The next day, President Bush listened in on a FEMA conference call during which Mayfield warned of a storm surge of more than 20 feet of water rolling over levees.

FEMA had 1,300 disaster assistance workers pre-positioned, and FEMA Director Michael Brown assured Bush they were ready for the storm.

"FEMA is not going to hesitate at all in this storm," Brown said. "We are not going to sit back and make this a bureaucratic process. We are going to move fast, we are going to move quickly and we are going to do whatever it takes to help disaster victims."

But inside FEMA, longtime emergency managers were convinced the agency was not ready for Katrina.

"All of us were just shaking our heads and saying, 'This isn't going to be enough, and the director has to know this isn't going to be enough.' But nothing more seemed to be happening," said Leo Bosner, president of the FEMA Headquarters Employees Union.

Bosner has been with FEMA since it began 26 years ago. He says the agency has been systematically dismantled since it became part of the massive Department of Homeland Security.

"One of the big differences I see," said Bosner, "besides taking away our staff and our budget and our training, is that Homeland Security now, in my view, slows down the process."

The union warned Congress in a detailed letter about FEMA's decline a year ago. State emergency managers also warned Capitol Hill and Homeland Security just weeks ago that DHS was too focused on one thing -- terrorism.

"We've had almost zero support for a natural disaster and an all-hazards approach," said Eric Holdeman, director of the King County Office of Emergency Management in Washington state. "It's been terrorism only."

The Department of Homeland Security insists FEMA has been enhanced by being part of a large department with vast resources, but critics say that was not evident in the response to this disaster.

ABC News' Lisa Stark filed this report for "World New Tonight."

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