Senators Question Katrina Search-and-Rescue Efforts

An official from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) admitted to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that just one day before Hurricane Katrina struck, he denied a request for 300 rubber rafts to assist in search-and-rescue operations.

Committee Chairman Susan Collins and Ranking Member Joseph Lieberman held a hearing to explore the search and rescue operations in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. The hearing, "Hurricane Katrina: Urban Search and Rescue in a Catastrophe," was the 12th hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs into the preparations for and response to Hurricane Katrina.

Committee members heard testimony from William M. Lokey, operations branch chief of the Response Division of FEMA, as well as Brigadier General Brod Veillon, the assistant adjutant general of the Louisiana National Guard; Lt. Colonel Keith Lacaze, assistant law enforcement division administrator, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries; and Capt. Tim Bayard, commander, Vice Crimes and Narcotics Section, New Orleans Police Department.

During the hearing, Collins and Lieberman questioned the witnesses about breakdowns in the systems and structures in place that were intended to assist in search-and-rescue operations. In one example that came up during the senators' questioning, William Lokey admitted that FEMA denied a request from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries for 300 rubber rafts just 1 day before the Hurricane struck.

"No one has ever doubted the courage and commitment of America's emergency responders – again and again throughout our history they have performed magnificently when disaster strikes," said Collins. "Hurricane Katrina added a new chapter to this outstanding record, but it also revealed flaws in planning, preparation, and coordination that made their jobs more difficult, put them in needless danger, and delayed the rescue of victims. We owe it to them, as well as to future victims, to do better."

Lieberman pointed out that more than 60,000 people were rescued by a handful of agencies. "More than 60,000 people rescued by relative handful of heroes," he added. "Nevertheless, although the fictional Hurricane Pam exercise was a clear warning for everyone that the search-and-rescue efforts in New Orleans would require boats, helicopters and buses - and assumed a decimated force of local rescuers - these alerts drew no effective response."

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