FEMA feared riots in Mississippi

Facing a growing body count and shortages of food, water and ice, federal emergency officials braced for riots in Mississippi in the days following Hurricane Katrina, new documents reveal.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials knew their response system had been shattered by the Aug. 29 storm and were unable to provide fast help _ even when the needs were obvious.

“This is unlike what we have seen before,” William Carwile, FEMA’s former top responder in Mississippi, said in a Sept. 1 e-mail to officials at the agency’s headquarters. He was describing difficulties in getting body bags and refrigerated trucks to Hancock County, Miss., which was badly damaged by the storm.

Carwile wrote that he personally authorized Hancock County to buy refrigeration trucks because “the coroner was going to have to start putting bodies out in the parking lot.”

The next day, in another e-mail to headquarters about substandard levels of food, water and ice being distributed in Mississippi, Carwile reported, “System appears broken.”

In a Sept. 1 exchange, FEMA regional response official Robert Fenton warned headquarters that the expected levels of water and ice being sent were far below what was needed.

“If we get the quantities in your report tomorrow we will have serious riots,” Fenton wrote.

Responding, Carwile wrote: “Turns out this report is true. … There seems to be no way we will get commodities in amounts beyond those indicated below. And it turns out these shortfalls were known much earlier in the day and we were not informed.

“Will need big time law enforcement reinforcements tomorrow,” Carwile’s e-mail continued. “All our good will here in MS will be very seriously impacted by noon tomorrow. Have been holding it together as it is.”

The eight pages of correspondence among FEMA officials, provided Monday by a special House committee investigating the government response to the storm, followed the release last week by Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco of more than 100,000 documents. Taken together, the details from both states provide evidence of a system in disarray.

The House Government Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., is reviewing hundreds of thousands of documents from local, state and federal officials who were involved in the disaster relief effort.

The committee is holding a hearing Tuesday to examine whether race and class issues affected the government’s sluggish response. The hearing was requested by Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., one of the few Democrats to participate in the investigation after their party leaders decided to boycott the inquiry, which they believe should be done by an independent commission.

The Louisiana documents released Friday revealed delays and state claims that requests for federal help weren’t received, and reflected partisan battling between the Republican Bush administration and Blanco, a Democrat.

The Mississippi documents, though only a handful were released, showed no political tensions between local officials and Washington. But FEMA officials in the state were among the first to admit that needs weren’t being met.

“Gulfport Ms only has enough commodities for roughly 3 hours distribution tomorrow,” FEMA deputy chief of staff Scott Morris wrote in an e-mail sent at 11:46 p.m. Aug. 29 _ just hours after the storm roared ashore. “Apparently, the local law enforcement officials have allowed evacuees back into city.”

Replying to Carwile’s e-mail about body bag shortages, Scott wrote: “Let me know how I can help. 24/7 whatever you need.”

The House committee will hold another hearing Wednesday focusing on the response in Mississippi. Carwile and Republican Gov. Haley Barbour are scheduled to testify.

“These exchanges point once again to problems of coordination and communication _ unfortunately, a recurring theme throughout our investigation,” said committee spokesman Robert White.

FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews said the agency is undergoing an internal review for changes as ordered by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

“One of the things we have learned is that our logistic resources weren’t up to the task, and the technology that we were using wasn’t up to the task.” Andrews said. Chertoff “has said that one of his priorities is retooling FEMA and, as part of that, making it a 21st century agency.”


On the Net:

Federal Emergency Management Agency: http://www.fema.gov/

House Government Reform Committee: http://reform.house.gov

© 2005 The Associated Press