July 21, 2008

New Variations on the Katrina Debacle

While victims of recent flooding throughout the Midwest had high praise for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the extent of that organization's failure to address the decimation visited on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina continues to be disclosed in new and unexpected ways. As the Crescent City persists in its struggle to rebuild, CNN revealed in an investigative report that tens of millions of dollars of donated Katrina relief supplies had been sitting in a warehouse for two years, and then given away to sixteen states rather than distributed to their intended recipients:

FEMA gave away about $85 million in household goods meant for Hurricane Katrina victims, a CNN investigation has found.

The material, from basic kitchen goods to sleeping necessities, sat in warehouses for two years before the Federal Emergency Management Agency's giveaway to federal and state agencies this year.

James McIntyre, FEMA's acting press secretary, said that FEMA was spending more than $1 million a year to store the material and that another agency wanted the warehouses torn down, so "we needed to vacate them."

"Upon review of our assets and our need to continue to store them, we determined that they were excess to FEMA's needs; therefore, they are being excessed from FEMA's inventory," McIntyre wrote in an eMail.

He declined a request for an on-camera interview, telling CNN the giveaway was "not news."

Photos from one of the facilities in Fort Worth, Texas, show pallet after pallet of cots, cleansers, first-aid kits, coffee makers, camp stoves and other items stacked to the ceiling.

FEMA said some of the items were donations from companies after Katrina, but most were purchased in the field as "starter kits" for people living in trailers provided by the agency. And even though the stocks were offered to state agencies after FEMA decided to get rid of them, one of the states that passed was Louisiana.

Martha Kegel, the head of a New Orleans nonprofit agency that helps find homes for those still displaced by the storm, said she was shocked to learn about the existence of the goods and the government giveaway.

"These are exactly the items that we are desperately seeking donations of right now: basic kitchen household supplies," said Kegel, executive director of Unity of Greater New Orleans. "These are the very things that we are seeking right now. FEMA, in fact, refers homeless clients to us to house them. How can we house them if we don't have basic supplies?"

Some of the state and federal agencies that received the Katrina-targeted supplies have begun to return the inventory for distribution in New Orleans, but Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu and Mississippi Representative Bennie Thompson have promised joint hearings on the matter. While it is tempting to lay all of this at the feet of the justly-maligned FEMA, it is important to note that Louisiana had a role in this failure as well:
John Medica, director of the Louisiana Federal Property Assistance Agency in Baton Rouge, said he was unaware that Katrina victims still had a need for the household supplies.
This should suprise no one who has followed the coordinated campaign by agencies of the federal government and monied interests in Louisiana to push the poor out of New Orleans, and if possible, the state. Low income housing is not being rebuilt, while existing units are being shuttered, and the trailers provided by the federal government as temporaray housing to the displaced were tainted with toxic levels of formaldehyde, a fact which was known, but suppressed. Given the focus on political gain over functional expertise by the Bush Administration, as well as the strong performance by FEMA in the Midwest, claims of electoral payback - if not outright racism - are increasingly hard to dismiss.

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