Thursday, February 02, 2006

Administration Faulted on Katrina; GAO Report Blames Bungled Response on Failures That Started at the Top
Administration Faulted on Katrina
GAO Report Blames Bungled Response on Failures That Started at the Top

By Spencer S. Hsu and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers

Responsibility for the government's bungled response to Hurricane Katrina extends widely but begins at the top of the Bush administration, which failed before the storm to name a White House, homeland security or other senior aide to take command of disaster relief, congressional investigators reported yesterday.

Four years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, administration officials did not establish a clear chain of command for the domestic emergency; disregarded early warnings of a Category 5 hurricane inundating New Orleans and southeast Louisiana; and did not ensure that cities and states had adequate plans and training before the Aug. 29 storm, according to the Government Accountability Office.

"A single individual -- directly responsible and accountable to the president of the United States -- should be dedicated to act as the central focal point to lead and coordinate the overall federal response," GAO chief David M. Walker said, summarizing the preliminary findings of 30 pending Katrina-related studies.

The blistering report contains the first assessments of the government's performance after Katrina. It is the first of a series of reviews in the coming weeks that are expected to fix blame and refocus scrutiny on the administration's handling of the nation's costliest natural disaster, which killed 1,307 people and caused more than $150 billion in damage along the Gulf Coast.

The report comes as President Bush prepares to unveil another hurricane relief and Iraq war budget request as early as Feb. 13, which could total well over $50 billion. The government has already allocated $85 billion to respond to the hurricane, according to the White House.

Bush aides, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and designees such as Michael D. Brown, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency at that time, did not fill a leadership role during the hurricane, Walker said, underscoring "the immaturity of and weaknesses" of national preparations for terrorism and disaster.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who asked Walker to report to a House investigation whose work is due to be completed on Feb. 15, said Bush aides including Vice President Cheney, Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend "were just not prepared for a storm of this magnitude.

"The director . . . of the National Hurricane Center said this was the big one," Davis said, but "when this happened . . . Bush is in Texas, Card is in Maine, the vice president is fly-fishing. I mean, who's in charge here?"

A spokesman for Chertoff, who has largely escaped criticism after the storm, called the GAO report "premature and unprofessional." He said it is filled with basic errors because investigators have not yet spoken with department leaders.

"We have already acknowledged that Katrina revealed problems in national response capabilities, stretching back more than a decade," spokesman Russ Knocke said. "DHS will announce a comprehensive strategy" for improvements "in the very near future," he said.

White House spokeswoman Dana Buchanan said that Townsend's deputy, Ken Rapuano, was the White House "point man" throughout the crisis and that Card's deputy was serving as the top staffer with Bush in Crawford, Tex.

"The Homeland Security Department and the rest of the government -- meaning not the White House -- were the ones in the lead for operations," Buchanan said.

Townsend is completing a White House review of what went wrong. Congressional aides expect the findings to be announced about the time Chertoff reveals the plans for retooling FEMA, probably on Feb. 13.

Members of Congress have cautioned that the White House report will not be independent and objective. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), the chairman and ranking Democrat, respectively, of a Senate Katrina investigation panel, as well as Davis, repeated criticisms that the White House is not cooperating fully. The senators asked Card to weigh the Senate findings before proposing any changes.

"If we produce separate agendas, we risk conflict and a fragmented approach," Collins and Lieberman wrote to Card on Tuesday. "But if we work together, our chances of achieving success multiply."

House Democrats, who were given an update by Rapuano last month, said the administration review has identified more than 60 flaws, including breakdowns in the new emergency National Response Plan, in federal command and control, in communications and homeland security planning, as well as an overemphasis on terrorism at the expense of natural threats.

Brown and his Clinton administration predecessor, James Lee Witt, praised the GAO report yesterday. Brown has said FEMA should be freed from the Department of Homeland Security's budget cuts and bureaucracy, while Witt has suggested that its head's Cabinet-level status should be restored.

At a hearing of the Senate panel yesterday, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D) acknowledged that his government was overwhelmed by Katrina. He said evacuation plans will be upgraded and levees repaired before the June 1 start of the hurricane season.