- The Washington Times - Monday, February 13, 2006

More than 300 federal agents trained in disaster response were prepared to pre-position in New Orleans to provide security and rescue people in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but were grounded by top Department of Homeland Security officials, agents say.

Instead, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents — many of them veterans of the U.S. Customs Service who responded to Hurricanes Andrew in Florida in 1992 and Georges in the Florida Keys in 1998 — and their aircraft were not deployed for days.

“U.S. Customs has a long history and tradition of mobilizing for disasters, given our aviation assets, and could move essential people anywhere fast,” said a veteran customs agent now assigned to ICE.

“We are self-sufficient and could have been in New Orleans to assist almost immediately, but no one gave us the go-ahead.”

Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall on the Gulf Coast on the morning of Aug. 29, killed more than 1,300 people and caused massive damage in several states.

Michael J. Vanacore, ICE assistant director of the Office of Investigations, served as the agency’s lead representative on the ground to help coordinate federal, state and local law-enforcement activities and to act as liaison between field agents and ICE headquarters. He arrived in New Orleans on Sept. 4, six days after the hurricane had moved through the city.

In testimony last week before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Mr. Vanacore acknowledged that Katrina revealed problems in the nation’s national response capabilities and “demonstrated the need for more comprehensive federal, state and local planning for catastrophic events,” but said ICE agents who participated in the effort “worked round-the-clock in a very austere environment … and saved lives.”

ICE personnel were assigned to Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida prior to Katrina’s making landfall, and eventually 700 agents and support personnel were deployed to New Orleans.

ICE spokesman Dean Boyd yesterday said that immediately after Katrina made landfall, ICE worked closely with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to plan and mobilize for the deployment of personnel to the area. He said 30 officers from the agency’s Federal Protective Service had already been dispatched to New Orleans to assist.

“ICE and DHS sought to ensure that the additional ICE deployments would have the infrastructure in place to be self-sufficient and would not in any way be a drain on the fuel, food and medical supplies in the area that were so badly needed by rescuers already in place and by victims of the hurricane,” he said.

Mr. Boyd said that ICE deployed nearly 2,000 law-enforcement officers to the area during the Katrina operation and that the agents and officers completed thousands of law-enforcement and security assignments and rescued hundreds of people.

But several ICE agents familiar with the Katrina mobilization effort said that manpower from the agency could have been on scene sooner and that top Homeland Security officials were told that the agents were ready and able to respond almost immediately.

“I finally got the word on the next Saturday night that my team was being moved to New Orleans,” said another veteran customs agent. “We were finally headed to New Orleans to do what we do best, but we were almost a week late.”

Another agent noted that Homeland Security maintains a state-of-the-art command center, with CNN and Fox News running 24 hours a day, seven days a week and questioned “how it was possible” that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff “is claiming ignorance of the travesty we all watched on TV?”

In the wake of the disaster and mounting criticism in Congress, Mr. Chertoff yesterday announced sweeping changes at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, including the creation of a full-time response team of 1,500 employees.

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