After Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in August 2005 the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) purchased more than $85M worth of basic supplies for storm victims. For more than two years, until last month FEMA let the supplies sit in warehouses at a cost of $1M/year.
During that two year period local government officials and non-profit relief organizations in Louisiana and Mississippi made repeated public pleas for donations of the exact sort of items FEMA had already purchased and were even stored locally.
That these supplies people have needed for years just sat in warehouses until mid-June of this year is bad enough, but FEMA was able to find a way to make this story even more sad and depressing the way only George Bush's administration can.
The supplies (GSA now says it is only $18.5M—we can't count) called Living Kits included towels, shirts, pants, shoes, coffee makers, pillowcases, dinnerware, blankets, pots and pans, buckets, and cleaning supplies. You know the stuff people need to live when they have lost everything and are living in trailers.
So FEMA kept all its stuff under lock and key because as a spokesperson told CNN:
We were not notified that there was a great need for this particular property.
Really, no great need! You have got to be fucking joking. I guess somebody needed to put together a Bush-style post-Katrina DVD for our national emergency agency so they were aware close to 250,000 folks are still living in FEMA provided trailers and housing.
So in June of this year with a single stroke of a pen, FEMA officials declared all the goods purchased for Katrina victims surplus and developed a plan to distribute them to other federal and state government agencies (including prisons).
But before they shipped off all the supplies (121 truckloads) they of course sent a representative out to state and local agencies, non-profit aid organizations, and churches just to double check that there wasn't a need.
Well not really, I just made that up! That would be logical. Not only didn't they sent anybody out for a face-to-face meeting, they didn't even place one phone call or send a single e-mail on this topic.
Just for a little context.
This is a FEMA warehouse less than two months ago with the said supplies.
This is a warehouse, sorry abandoned church used by UNITY of Greater New Orleans as we speak. Yeah, no need here at all.
When the Congressional delegations from Louisiana and Mississippi found out this shocking information from a CNN investigative story they went ballistic (video of the story here). Of course FEMA officials expressed, as you might expect, outrage, cause after nearly three years of rank incompetence and untold billions in waste and fraud how could something like this happen on their watch?
And since the Bush Administration officials have fake outrage down to an art form they of course promised a full investigation, meaning they will wait until the scandal disappears from the headlines before throwing some low-level bureaucrat under the bus.
But that was not enough for Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Bennie Thompson (D-MS), the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. They requested FEMA:
Come and tell the committee how such a debacle could occur, and in the process, what are they going to do to assure Congress and the taxpaying public that it will never happen again.
Last Thursday in a pretty rare joint congressional hearing of the House and Senate Homeland Security committees officials from FEMA and the General Services Administration (GSA) got it from both sides of the aisle (some of the audio is here).
During the hearing Eric Smith, FEMA's assistant administrator for logistics management kept to the same tired talking points when pressed on why the supplies were not distributed to folks that needed them:
They were returned to us after they were not used from different areas—Mississippi, Louisiana.
Landrieu said to Smith:
FEMA never told state officials or relief agencies involved in recovery efforts that the Living Kits meant to resettle hurricane survivors were still available. How can people ask for something they don't know exists?
Smith's response was mind-numbing:
They have to have a need. If they have bona fide need, it's their responsibility to pass that need on.
Where have we heard this before? Maybe on Monday, August 29th 2005 when Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco called Bush, as more than 1,100 Americans were literally starting to drown and said:
Mr. President, we need your help. We need everything you’ve got!
But days, weeks, and even months later she'd be blamed by the White House cause she didn't say exactly what she wanted/needed. I guess in almost three years we still have not got this not so little problem figured out.
You see Mr. Smith when you have pictures like the above, and there are hundreds more like it, even one where a family wrote in duct tape on their roof:
We are Americans, please help, some can't swim.
When you endure something like what happened as the lead agency that is supposed to ensure it doesn't in fact happen, more fucking lame excuses almost three years after the fact just don't cut it.
But thankfully Landrieu also would have none of his BS:
It's like if a house was on fire. If the fire department operated the same way FEMA does, we would have to call the fire department and specifically request the hose, the pressurized water, the truck, the firefighters and the ladder, all before FEMA would acknowledge that they should send this equipment to help.
After the Congressional hearing a CNN reporter caught up with Smith and asked what mistakes were made? His response:
We did not really make any mistakes. Could things have been done better? Yes of course, but we followed our procedures.
To date only a couple truck loads of the supplies have been returned to Louisiana. None to Mississippi. But rest assured, FEMA told the committee they are still cataloguing what supplies it has left and they'll report back to the committee. But they do admit at least 90,000 of the Living Kits have already been distributed (they don't like to say, "given away").
I've already used enough words and I just don't really know what else to say other than I am ashamed as an America this has all happened as I was a taxpaying adult. What have we become?
I just want to end with a little quote from a BBC show I love called Top Gear. I've been watching it since 2005 and I can't ever recall them ever making a single political statement. They just drive the fastest cars in the world really, really fast.
They've only been to the US for one show. A challenge to drive from Miami to New Orleans. They got off the road right before they hit New Orleans in 2006 and had this to say (extended video here):
Finally though we made it. And my word were we in for a shock. We'd seen on the news what Hurricane Katrina had done. But seeing the devastation for real was truly astonishing.
Every house, I've been driving now for what 15 miles, and there isn't a pavement there isn't a building there isn't anything that isn't smashed. It is such a vast scale of destruction.
It had been a year since Katrina had blown through and we sort of assumed that the wealthiest nation on earth would have fixed it.
But we were wrong.
How can the rest of America sleep at night knowing this is here?
Some nights I don't sleep well. I just wonder what they'd say today almost three years later!