The federal government's efforts to help victims of Hurricane Katrina have been hobbled by inadequate planning and coordination, troubled...

Share story

WASHINGTON — The federal government’s efforts to help victims of Hurricane Katrina have been hobbled by inadequate planning and coordination, troubled computer systems and confusion over who will pay the costs.

Interviews with federal officials indicate recovery difficulties have gone beyond the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and span key agencies in Washington, where top officials are trying to respond to a huge reconstruction problem for which they had no policies or plans.

Huge contracts are pouring out of agencies, but the task ahead involves some issues the federal government hasn’t thought seriously about since the 1960s.

Among the danger signals, cited in interviews with officials at FEMA and other government agencies:

• Months ago, the Small Business Administration (SBA) created a new data-processing system that was meant to revolutionize its delivery of disaster loans. But the system has stumbled badly because there weren’t enough new computers or staff trained to use them, and the central computers have been strained by the workload.

• Officials at the Education Department only now are beginning to address questions about who will pay what costs for educating tens of thousands of schoolchildren displaced by Katrina. Meanwhile, school districts inundated with evacuees have had to open shuttered schools and order portable classrooms.

• Federal officials responsible for programs to help the poor are tangled in questions about rules that vary from state to state. Families that received welfare support in Louisiana, for instance, may not be entitled to payments in Texas, where they have been resettled. And almost everywhere, money for programs such as Head Start was stretched thin before Katrina hit.

• FEMA has continued to stumble, leaving tractor-trailers packed with ice and water intended for evacuees sitting out of position for days or sending them to places that had no need. And the agency’s rushed efforts to deliver evacuee housing points up a lack of foresight and planning that could have long-term ramifications.

“This is an extraordinary time in our history,” said Hank Bounds, Mississippi’s superintendent of education. “It will take an extraordinary effort from our leadership. I hope they will grasp the magnitude of the issue.”

Frustration is evident in a message from a middle-level FEMA official, who sent a cry for help up the chain of command, along with this warning:

Unanswered questions

“We have now told the state of Texas [and thus all the states] that it may directly pay for evacuees in hotels. For how long? For how much? Does this include food?” his Sept. 7 message asked. “What I heard was Texas being given carte blanche to run this new program as it sees fit solely on its statement ‘We have controls.’ Do we know what these controls are?

“We are going down the path here of no federal accountability for huge sums of money,” the official warned.

Just more than a week after Hurricane Katrina’s hammer blow to the Gulf Coast, Congress reacted with a $62.3 billion emergency spending bill. The bulk of the money — $50 billion — went to FEMA to establish its Disaster Relief Fund, which is to pay for housing assistance, projects by other agencies, property clean-up and work on roads, bridges and water facilities, among other tasks.

While the lion’s share is going to individuals and housing assistance, agencies including the Army Corps of Engineers and the departments of Defense, Transportation and Health and Human Services have been allotted $11 billion.

Just more than $23 billion is allocated specifically for housing and individual assistance, which is distributed by the SBA’s Office of Disaster Assistance.

The SBA’s new Disaster Credit Management System was intended to revolutionize the handling of disaster-relief loans covering uninsured losses and to cut loan-processing times from weeks to days. Instead, the new computer system was quickly swamped.

Managers scrambled to order new equipment for field inspectors and to reconfigure the central office computers.

“We’ve been pressed into action pretty hard,” said project director Michael Sorrento, who acknowledged that processing Katrina loans may take longer than the agency had envisioned.

The SBA is expecting to receive upward of 1 million applications for loans. There weren’t nearly enough portable units for loan inspectors in the field, and fewer than 100 inspectors had been trained in the new system when Katrina hit.

The agency has had to order extra computers and hire nearly 500 inspectors, some of whom don’t yet have portable computers.

And those who have made it out into the field have discovered they can’t always link up from the disaster area to handle new loan applications and file reports on existing ones.

In the central office, near Washington, where staff doubled to 600 and could go as high as 900, training all the new employees strained the central computer system so much that another system had to be found for training.

“There has been some initial slowness in the access [to the system]” Sorrento conceded.

States decide

Assistance programs for the poor that existed before Katrina struck also have faltered. For those seeking welfare payments, administered through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, results depend on the state in which the evacuee is staying.

Some states, including Texas, are using a restrictive interpretation of the rules to deny welfare payments to families who received support in their home states, according to the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“It’s very troubling,” said Sharon Parrott, the center’s director of welfare reform. “If this problem doesn’t get cleared up very quickly, families will run through the $2,000 they are being furnished by FEMA and could be left with no source of income assistance. At the moment, it’s a state choice.”

Head Start and child-care programs also face problems. Texas already had 29,000 preschoolers on its Head Start waiting list, and applications now are pouring in from evacuees whose children participated in the program in Louisiana.

“How are they going to be able to take care of the evacuees when they can’t take care of their own people?” asked Helen Blank of the National Women’s Law Center.

The programs, which depend on annual appropriations from Congress, have received none in the supplemental budgets enacted so far.

Head Start was able to release $15 million from an emergency fund to temporarily take care of its most pressing needs. But that money will last only a month, and federal child-care support, which has seen no funding increase in four years, did not have even that.

“Child-care programs operate on the edge in the best of times,” Blank said.

Districts struggle

The hurricane dislodged at least 372,000 children from Gulf Coast schools, according to the Education Department, and while the hardest blow has fallen on Louisiana and Mississippi, school districts accepting evacuees also are struggling.

For example, Texas, which is taking in 60,000 students, estimates it must spend $7,500 per pupil for additional classroom space, desks, textbooks, teachers and supplies.

After repeatedly suggesting little or no federal money would be forthcoming, the Education Department announced Friday it will seek $1.9 billion to help meet such expenses.

The department also indicated it might relax provisions of the No Child Left Behind law, which mandates that states meet certain reading and math standards or risk losing federal money.

Mississippi’s Bounds, who now oversees 226 closed schools, 30 destroyed schools and more than 125,000 displaced children, requested those requirements be suspended for his state this year.

“Frankly, instruction is not the primary mission right now,” Bounds said. “… Right now we just have to take care of our children, and testing is a long way from my priority right now.”

In the three weeks since Katrina hit, FEMA has shifted into a higher gear, launching projects to provide devastated communities with electrical power, portable classrooms and support for reconstruction. But its critics persist, even pointing to the flurry of action as part of an ongoing problem.

On Sept. 8, officials in Congress estimated about 450,000 families would need long-term housing. That day, FEMA began contracting firms to help set up temporary housing across Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.

FEMA spokesman James McIntyre said many firms have received $100 million contracts to prepare sites and housing for an estimated 200,000 evacuees.

Joshua Schwartz, a professor at George Washington University who specializes in government procurement, sees the rushed bidding process as yet another sign of disarray and a lack of preparation.

FEMA routinely negotiates contracts — set up in advance, usually under competitive bidding and designed to be activated when an emergency hits — for goods it knows will be needed after an emergency. These include water, ice, tarps and medical supplies.

Schwartz said the fact FEMA needed to rush contracts for housing and site work suggests continued flat-footedness.

“I think a creative agency that was doing a good job would have had some arrangements in place, because we do have modular producers and we do have a mobile-home industry,” Schwartz said.

Los Angeles Times reporters Mark Mazzetti, Joel Havemann and Tony Perry contributed to this report.