NEW ORLEANS - A company assigned the delicate duty of collecting Hurricane Katrina's dead in Louisiana wanted out of the federal job days later, complaining of a "bureaucratic quagmire" in its dealings with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Kenyon International asked FEMA to find someone else to do the work in a Sept. 11 letter to Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, head of the agency's response to Katrina. The disaster management company stayed on the job, however, and signed a contract with the state of Louisiana days later.
Kenyon's president, Robert A. Jensen, wrote that his company was finding it difficult to meet its own standards in the task of recovering bodies as federal officials asked it to perform more and more duties. He also cited bureaucratic confusion - in one instance, he said, Kenyon workers had taken bodies to mortuary facilities only to find that the facilities had been relocated without the company's knowledge.
"Kenyon must have the authority to control what we need to get the job done without the impact of the bureaucratic quagmire in which we find ourselves," Jensen wrote.
The Associated Press obtained a copy of the letter Friday, a day after a Republican-dominated congressional committee released memos in which a FEMA official blamed state officials' inaction for delays in recovering bodies.
Body collection is the latest point of controversy in ongoing tensions between Republicans in Congress and the White House and Democratic state and local officials over the response to Katrina. The hurricane is blamed for more than 1,000 deaths in Louisiana.
FEMA called on Kenyon to set up a portable morgue Aug. 30, a day after Katrina struck. But a timeline accompanying the letter shows that the agency changed its mind repeatedly on where the facility should be located.
It says Kenyon was first told to deploy its portable morgue to Baton Rouge, then, en route, was diverted to Pineville, in central Louisiana, on Sept. 2. After waiting days without instruction, Kenyon was told Sept. 5 to move the morgue to Baton Rouge. Meanwhile, the state was establishing a morgue of its own for Katrina victims at St. Gabriel.
On Sept. 6, the Houston-based company was asked to undertake the actual recovery of bodies where they lay after the storm. Federal officials also called on Kenyon for other jobs, including consultation for a family assistance program.
The state asked Kenyon to do the job after Jensen's letter to Allen. "We made the decision to stay - to accept the contract with the state," Jensen said in a Thursday interview.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco's office announced the contract with Kenyon on Sept. 14 after Blanco complained that the federal government was moving too slowly to collect bodies.
Jensen was interviewed Thursday night, before the letter was made public. He declined to comment further Friday, saying through a spokesman he expects to be called before a congressional committee.
FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews said Friday that state or local authorities have routinely taken the lead in body collection following major catastrophes such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Oklahoma City bombing and, most recently, in the state of Mississippi following Katrina.
She said Louisiana initially said it would take the lead in body recovery, but later asked FEMA to negotiate a contract. Andrews said Kenyon was not satisfied with the terms of FEMA's proposed contract, although its terms included standards for treating bodies with respect and safety standards for workers.