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INTENSITY OF DISASTER CATCHES UNPREPARED RELIEF AGENCIES OFF GUARD

Annette Sanders stands on the steps of a disaster assistance center, denied entrance. She's mad. Actually, she's far beyond mad.

Sanders angrily denounces the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Red Cross and any other agency she can think of for not helping her find a place to live.The single mother - her 5-year-old daughter at a friend's home sick from drinking contaminated water, her 9-year-old daughter on the verge of tears- has just been told that she can get an appointment with a FEMA official to talk about the loss of her house to Hurricane Andrew. But it won't be for another 20 days.

Her response is almost lost in the deafening roar of huge military cargo planes and a swarm of helicopters bringing aid to victims of the most devastating natural disaster in U.S. history. Those supplies won't help her.

Americans have opened their checkbooks, flexed their muscles, offered their individual expertise from cardiology to carpentry to help the more than 250,000 residents of South Florida whose lives were forever changed by a brutal storm the morning of Aug. 24.

But the cacaphony of voluntarism is missing a conductor. The disaster relief offered in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew was, in itself, sometimes a disaster. Once again, America was not prepared.

Partly the problem was the magnitude of the damage: nearly 400 square miles annihilated by the storm. Experienced disaster specialists were stunned.

Usually, destruction of this intensity is spread over a few blocks or hopscotches along a narrow strip, and those whose homes are destroyed can travel a few blocks or across town to get clean water, buy food or seek shelter. Not so with Andrew.

Survivors must rely on government for the basics of survival - food, water, shelter and medical care.

That's what Sanders sought from the government. A few minutes after she stalks off from the Homestead disaster center, FEMA spokesman Wayne Goodson concedes: "We could have bent the rules a little and at least let her come in and talk to someone."

FEMA, the federal agency that is given the task of coordinating disaster response, has become the favorite target for criticism. The tiny agency is top-heavy with presidential appointees - 10 times as great as other agencies - most of whom have no emergency management expertise. Many professional staffers say agency leaders often place political expedience ahead of what is prudent for public safety.

Andrew has prompted a rash of calls for an investigation of FEMA, but there is wide agreement among weary disaster specialists that FEMA alone is not the problem; it's how the nation handles disasters that must be investigated.

"This entire system needs to be restructured," said Roger Desjarlais, an emergency management director from Lee County, Fla., who was lent to co-direct relief efforts around Florida City.

"FEMA is getting dumped on because it didn't respond like a 911 operation. That's not its mission. The Red Cross blew it again by not having people and supplies where they promised they would, and now it's trying to excuse the delays by saying Andrew was a 100-year storm.

"We have to begin taking emergency management seriously and stop leaving vital responsibilities like immediate food, shelter and medical aid to a volunteer group like Red Cross. I think it's clear that the time has come to assign the military the permanent role of disaster response."

He's not alone in his view. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., also thinks the military should take a leading role in disaster response.

"A new book needs to be written, and it has to have military resources on board from hour one," said Graham. "It's the only institution in our society that has the capacity, the resources, to take over something like this when there just is no effective local government.

"Having the military would give us a clear chain of command, with one person making decisions. That would avoid some of the politics and posturing that slows everything down."

From his front-line perspective, Homestead Mayor Tad DeMilly said he's sure that assigning the military a permanent role is an idea whose time has come.

"There should have been, and should be in the future, a red-tape-less military to alert and send out units to assess and move in immediately on something like this," DeMilly said.

"We've already learned there's a high degree of turfism in all this, both at the government and private volunteer level. The Red Cross was just not there at first. We've quickly learned who was down here for the photo ops and who was here to really help.

"The military doesn't have to play the public relations or political games. They'll just do the job, and that's what this country needs."

Not everyone thinks the military is the answer. Don Jones, the Red Cross' national disaster manager, retired recently as a three-star general serving as the Army's deputy secretary of defense for personnel.

"I don't think the military can dedicate the specific capabilities to do the job whenever it's needed," he said. "I don't think they can get in here within 24 hours to give specific services to people."

It was apparent four days after Andrew that the present system wasn't working.

President Bush's instant appointment of Transportation Secretary Andrew Card to head the recovery effort came before FEMA ever had a chance to implement the new coordinated federal response plan developed in the wake of criticism spawned during Hugo and the California earthquake.

The installation of Card's Presidential Task Force overlays yet another layer of bureaucracy atop a system already denounced for being bogged down by red tape.

Long before Card was tapped, and two days before the hurricane hit, FEMA had moved 50 of its experts into Florida, and top people were poring over emergency plans with state officials in Tallahassee.

Early Aug. 24, as Andrew was still passing over Florida's west coast, FEMA assembled representatives of 26 government agencies and the Red Cross in the state's emergency operations center.

Officials of the alphabet agencies arrived at the meeting well aware of their respective responsibilities, written into a plan regularly getting practice runs but never tested for real before.

Assignments were confirmed. The Department of Health and Human Services ordered in medical teams. The Department of Agriculture found the closest government food supplies. The Environmental Protection Agency alerted teams to respond to hazardous materials leaks or spills, and the Red Cross said it was ready to supply mass care - supplying of shelter, food and first aid to the victims.

The agencies hit the debris-strewn streets as fast as they could - some faster than others.

A problem surfaced immediately: Government leaders were vociferous in complaining about the shelter and feeding of those forced from their homes. There was little sign of the Red Cross in the hardest-hit communities like Homestead and Florida City.

The Florida Air and Army National Guard were ordered to the streets that first morning, but the U.S. military was bashed for slowness in responding.

It was ready to move. Five minutes after the eye of the storm pulverized Homestead, at 4:55 a.m. on Aug. 24, the Pentagon flashed an "alert notification" to all major military units, ordering them to prepare to help.

Eleven hours later, U.S. Forces Command, the headquarters in Atlanta which controls all Army troops in the country, was told to move out what was needed.

Within the first 24 hours, FEMA requested - and the military delivered - two medical units and 200,000 pouches of Meals-Ready-to-Eat field rations.

However, the highest-ranking general cannot order his troops into a civilian community unless someone much higher up tells him to go. But not until the afternoon of Aug. 27 did Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles ask the government for the military and Bush passed the order to move out.

At 12:04 a.m. on Aug. 28, the 1st Corp Support Command of the Army's XVIII Airborne Corp was loading personnel, vehicles and more mobile kitchens onto C-5s and C-141s at an Air Force base near Fort Bragg, N.C.

The largest buildup of military personnel and equipment into South Florida since the Cuban Missile Crisis three decades ago was under way.

While the bureaucrats weren't happy about the military's delay in arriving, the men and women in uniform liked it even less.

On the morning of Aug. 31, Marine Capt. Dan Elzie watched as 120 of his men worked in the already stifling heat to erect the first of a dozen tent cities.

"We were told to be ready to move out the day the storm hit, but we didn't get orders to go for five days, so we waited," Elzie said. "This is an important mission for the military and my men are eager to help, but next time I hope they don't wait so long to call us in."