- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 11, 2003

CHESAPEAKE, Va. — State and federal bureaucratic bungling delayed Hurricane Isabel relief efforts last month, forcing localities to abandon their emergency requests and find water, food, ice, fuel and generators on their own, local officials said Friday.

Despite unprecedented stockpiling of water and essentials before the Sept. 18 storm, days passed after localities requested emergency aid before the goods arrived, often far short of their needs when they did, witnesses told a federal congressional panel.

At two field hearings, city and county officials told the U.S. House Government Reform Committee about requests mired in a Richmond paperwork shuffle. State agencies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) coordinated the disaster response from Virginia’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in the state’s capital.

Chesapeake Fire Chief Steve Best said it took his city three days to receive a reliable source of water. He also said it took twice that long to obtain ice, and then only after the city purchased it privately for $55,000.

“We were initially told to expect our first shipment of ice from FEMA on Sunday the 21st,” Chief Best told the panel of four U.S. congressmen representing Virginia. “On Tuesday morning, we were notified we would not receive ice until Wednesday because Chesapeake’s ice had been diverted to another jurisdiction on the Peninsula. At that point, we were so frustrated … we too resorted to acquiring our own ice, and found a contractor in Florida. Our first shipment arrived within 16 hours — from the state of Florida.”

In Suffolk, city officials desperate to power sewage pumping stations and prevent waste from overflowing into streets and streams pleaded with the state EOC as early as Thursday afternoon, as the brunt of Isabel approached. By Friday night, neither the state nor FEMA could even verify that Suffolk’s request had been received, said City Manager R. Steven Herbert.

The city scrambled and found 16 generators. A private company delivered them on Monday. But it wasn’t until Tuesday that Suffolk officials learned that FEMA had rejected their request for generators to power water well systems.

“You have the law of unintended consequences, where everybody means well,” said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, the committee chairman, whose district includes Washington suburbs in Northern Virginia.

Rep. Robert C. Scott, who represents portions of the Peninsula and Hampton Roads, said he was disappointed that FEMA’s regional response director, Eric Tolbert, never acknowledged room for improvement at the federal level.

Nowhere was frustration with FEMA more evident than when Chief Best described how Chesapeake’s engineers sent FEMA a detailed technical request for generators.

“But that wasn’t good enough for FEMA,” Chief Best said. “They had to send a cadre of federal employees into our city to certify that what we were requesting was what we needed, and that created another 24-hour delay.”

He said the generators arrived 10 days after the request. The next day, a federal official contacted the city to request the generators be returned. The city’s response, Chief Best said, was that they “would not be available” until power was restored.

Rep. J. Randy Forbes, whose district includes Chesapeake and parts of Virginia’s hard-hit Tidewater and Southside areas, questioned the state’s timeliness in filing paperwork FEMA needed to begin distributing storm relief supplies.

Mr. Tolbert told the panel his first request from the state came on Monday, four days after the hurricane struck.

Virginia Public Safety Secretary John Marshall, however, said he had records that prove Virginia sent FEMA at least seven written requests by Saturday, the first filed at 5:39 a.m. on Friday.

Mr. Tolbert also contrasted Virginia’s often-chaotic response to the hurricane with North Carolina’s swift and smooth response.

“North Carolina, which frequently deals with hurricanes far more severe than Isabel, has permanent warehouses of emergency relief supplies constantly stocked and ready in strategic areas of that state,” he said.

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