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Pissing contest slowed hurricane relief

By
June 9, 2006


The government and Red Cross squabbled over chain of command issues during last year’s hurricanes, hampering relief efforts, a congressional investigation concludes.

As of two weeks ago, there still was confusion about how the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross would work together in the hurricane season that began June 1, according to the report Thursday.

During hurricanes Katrina and Rita, FEMA and the Red Cross “spent time negotiating operating procedures, rather than focusing solely on coordinating mass care services in the early days” of the response, the report said.

“This partnership cannot function efficiently in the aftermath of a disaster without improved working relationships,” the Government Accountability Office concluded.

FEMA and the Red Cross were among the front-line responders to Katrina, which hit Aug. 29, and Rita, which followed on Sept. 24. But the FEMA and the Red Cross were at odds over which FEMA official should coordinate housing, food, medical aid and other assistance, the report said.

Armond Mascelli, vice president of response operations for the Red Cross, said the disagreement largely was cleared up in a May 30 memo with FEMA. He said the Red Cross expected to work with the same official as it wanted to last year to get aid requests answered “in a prompt manner, and not have the hiccups that happened in the last hurricane season.”

“The issue we had in that particular area last year _ we’re not going to run into this year,” Mascelli said.

But FEMA said the nation’s disaster response plan directs the Red Cross to report to someone else at the agency.

“We are currently reviewing the report, and we look forward to continuing to work with other agencies as spelled out in the National Response Plan,” FEMA spokesman Aaron Walker said.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who requested the report, said the investigation “leaves the impression that when the next hurricane hits, leaving people hungry and homeless, FEMA and the Red Cross will be haggling over who’s supposed to provide food and shelter.”

He said FEMA and the Red Cross “need to resolve their working relationship and staffing issues now.”

Among the other problems highlighted were:

  • Red Cross staffers were rotated from their duties every two weeks to three weeks. That made it difficult for them to gain expertise, mobilize aid and collect victims data correctly. That has not yet been fixed, the report noted.
  • FEMA was unable to track Red Cross requests for assistance for water, food, cots and other relief for states and local governments. That resulted in more follow-up work for the Red Cross and, ultimately, slowed and sometimes scaled back delivery of aid.

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On the Net:

Government Accountability Office: http://www.gao.gov/

© 2006 The Associated Press