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Post-Katrina deployment faulted

Reports say FEMA didn't issue orders, halted searches

WASHINGTON -- Hundreds of available trucks, boats, planes, and federal officers were unused in search and rescue efforts immediately after Hurricane Katrina hit the New Orleans region last August because the Federal Emergency Management Agency did not give them missions, documents have reported.

Additionally, FEMA called off its search and rescue operations in Louisiana three days after the storm on Aug. 29 because of security issues, according to an internal FEMA e-mail message that was given to Senate investigators.

The documents, released by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, show lapses in FEMA's response to Katrina.

The documents also report breakdowns in carrying out the National Response Plan, issued a year ago to coordinate response to disasters.

A spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, which includes FEMA, did not dispute the documents.

Katrina ''pushed our capabilities and resources to the limit -- and then some," said a spokesman, Russ Knocke.

Responding to a questionnaire from investigators, an Interior Department assistant secretary, P. Lynn Scarlett, said her agency offered to supply FEMA with 300 dump trucks and other vehicles, 300 boats, 11 aircraft, and 400 law enforcement officers to help rescue efforts.

''Although the department possesses significant resources that could have improved initial and ongoing response, many of these resources were not effectively incorporated into the federal response to Hurricane Katrina," Scarlett wrote in the response, which was dated Nov. 7.

Scarlett's letter said that FEMA had asked US Fish and Wildlife Services to help with search and rescue efforts in New Orleans, in St. Bernard Parish, and in St. Tammany Parish but that the rescuers had ''never received task assignments."

The agency, which is a branch of the Interior Department, apparently went ahead anyway, according to the letter, which said that Fish and Wildlife staff members helped rescue 4,500 people in the first week after Katrina.

Other Interior Department resources that were offered, but unused, included flat-bottom boats for shallow-water rescues. ''Clearly these assets and skills were precisely relevant in the post-Katrina environment," Scarlett wrote.

Knocke, the Homeland Security spokesman, said that as many as 60,000 federal employees were sent to the Gulf Coast to response to Katrina.

However, ''experience has shown that FEMA was not equipped with 21st-century capabilities, and that is what [Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff] has committed as one of our top priorities," he said.

Senator Susan M. Collins, Republican of Maine and head of the Senate committee that released the documents, called them ''the most candid assessment that we've received from any federal agency." Her panel, which is investigating the government's response to Katrina, plans to question a FEMA official today at a hearing focusing on search and rescue efforts.

''Here we have another federal department offering skilled personnel and the exact kinds of assets that were so desperately needed . . . and there was no response that we can discern from FEMA," Collins said in an interview yesterday.

Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the panel, said the Interior documents underscore ''an outrage on top of an outrage."

Lieberman and Collins both said they also were dismayed by an internal FEMA e-mail message, dated Sept. 1, calling a halt to task force efforts in Louisiana.

''All assets have ceased operation until National Guard can assist [task forces] with security," said the e-mail, which was sent from FEMA headquarters.

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