E-mails show FEMA knew it was unprepared early on

WASHINGTON – FEMA officials trying to cope with the impact of Hurricane Katrina knew that their response was dangerously inadequate and expected rioting in Mississippi over the lack of such basic supplies as food and water, according to documents released Monday by a congressional committee.

A special House committee examining the government’s response to Katrina released internal e-mails from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in which senior officials described the most basic levels of their emergency response system as “broken” and said they had only minimal supplies to distribute in the hours after the storm had passed.

“Gulfport Ms only has enough commodities for roughly 3 hours distribution tomorrow,” wrote FEMA deputy chief of staff Scott Morris on Aug. 29, just hours after the storm had blown through.

The e-mails that followed indicate a growing sense of panic and anxiety about FEMA’s lack of preparation.

“If we get the quantities in your report tomorrow we will have serious riots,” FEMA regional official Roger Fenton wrote to officials in Washington on Sept. 1, warning that the amount of water and ice they were sending was seriously inadequate.

FEMA’s former top responder in Mississippi, William Carwile, wrote to Fenton about the report from headquarters on water and ice deliveries. “Turns out this report is true,” he e-mailed. “There seems to be no way we will get commodities in amounts beyond those indicated below. And it turns out these shortfalls were known much earlier in the day and we were not informed.”

Carwile indicated that he didn’t think supplies would last past the morning and that they might encounter unrest or hostility soon after. “Will need big time law enforcement reinforcements tomorrow,” he wrote Fenton. “All our good will here in MS will be very seriously impacted by noon tomorrow.”

The next day, Carwile wrote headquarters again about the food, water and ice deliveries, saying that the “system appears broken.”

At the time of Carwile’s e-mail, FEMA officials in Washington were fiercely defending their agency’s performance in the face of growing questions about the administration’s response. As the scope of the problems from the storm became clear, FEMA chief Michael Brown resigned.

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