Katrina FOIA Delay Saga: "Expedited" Takes on New Meaning at FEMA

January 30, 2008

Suppose there were a catastrophe and you needed information fast. Would you call FEMA?

If FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency)'s performance under Freedom of Information Act is any measure, the journalists and the public could have zero confidence in getting timely warnings. Asking FEMA for information, it seems, is still the equivalent of calling for a lead life preserver.

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans in Sept. 2005, triple-Pulitzer-winning reporter Mark Schleifstein of the New Orleans Times-Picayune filed a FOIA request with FEMA asking for specific records about how FEMA had responded to the disaster. The original request was filed Oct. 5, 2005.

Now, some 884 days later, Schleifstein is still waiting for the information.

Schleifstein had asked for records on the activation of "Rapid Needs Assessment Teams" for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the reports from those teams about populations and areas affected and their recommendations of help needed, and records of resulting actions.

And he had asked for "expedited" handling of his request.

Schleifstein told FEMA a response was needed quickly because the situation was "life-threatening." Without adequate levee protection, New Orleans and other Gulf areas were vulnerable to a Katrina repeat - and they urgently needed to know what kind of preparedness and response to expect from FEMA.

FEMA put Schleifstein on hold.

A year later, they wrote him to see if he was still interested in getting the information he had asked for. Schleifstein wrote back, saying "YES" (in capitals).

Another year went by, and FEMA wrote him again, asking if he still wanted the information. Schleifstein answered "YES" again in a Jan. 29, 2008, letter, adding:

"It is now 884 days since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, flooding 80 percent of my community, killing more than 1,500 people. Last week, New Orleans Homeland Security Director Terry Ebbert, in an address to the American Meteorological Society, said he still has grave concerns about the ability of this nation's emergency preparedness preparations and their potential to respond to a Katrina repeat in New Orleans."

"My readers are still waiting for a detailed explanation of why things went so wrong in the aftermath of Katrina, an explanation that is still not possible in part because of your agency's failure to respond to this request."

Giving information to Schleifstein is a good way to inform New Orleans about the risks it faces and what is being done to address them. Schleifstein co-authored (with John McQuaid) a 2002 Times-Picayune feature series, "Washing Away," which foretold the city's lack of preparedness for a direct hit by a strong hurricane. The preparations prompted by that series probably saved the lives of tens of thousands of New Orleans residents. Schleifstein lost his home in Katrina.

He - and the public who want to know whether FEMA is doing its job of keeping people safe - are still waiting for information from FEMA.