NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


September 22, 2005

During the Katrina disaster in New Orleans, private companies that were well-equipped to save lives were hamstrung by the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) bureaucracy, says New York Times columnist John Tierney.

Specifically, when the city's communication system failed, private company Acadian Ambulance set up its own communication system, having the only working radio system in the city.

  • While the local phone system failed, Acadian's medics were ready with satellite phones.
  • Acadian directed the evacuation of hospitals while the company's medics cleared trees and light posts to clear landing pads for helicopters.
  • Medics used three tractor trailers to move patients out of one hospital.
  • Newborns were packed in cardboard boxes in order to make room for more of them on helicopters.

Yet, bureaucratic red tape got in the way of saving more lives, says Tierney. While medic Marc Creswell had 10 helicopters ready to go, FEMA kept stalling them with paperwork. "Every 30 or 40 minutes somebody was dying," recounted Creswell.

Furthermore, Creswell sent several doctors and nurses to help at the airport, which was set up as a make-shift triage, but they were prohibited from working because they weren't certified. Creswell says that FEMA told the medical workers they could not help because they weren't "federalized."

President Bush should keep this in mind when contemplating the role of Washington in the next disaster, says Tierney.

Source: John Tierney, "Going (Down) by the Book," New York Times, September 17, 2005.

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