Friday, February 24, 2006

White House Cites Katrina Response Failures

Yahoo! News
White House Cites Katrina Response Failures
By LARA JAKES JORDAN, Associated Press Writer

Flawed government planning for major disasters led to rampant confusion during the slow federal response to Hurricane Katrina, the White House concluded Thursday in a report focusing more on fixing shortfalls before the next storm season than on assigning blame.

The review described poor communications systems, delays in delivering supplies and overall tumult within the Bush administration, but revealed little new about the plodding federal effort in the days just before and after the storm socked the Gulf Coast last Aug. 29.

The 228-page document, including 125 recommendations for improvement, adopted a far softer tone than a scathing House report issued last week and offered scant criticism of President Bush, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and then-FEMA Director Michael Brown.

That House review, written by a Republican-led committee, blamed all levels of government for the lackluster response that it said contributed to the deaths and suffering of thousands of the region's residents.

"The magnitude of Hurricane Katrina does not excuse our inadequate preparedness and response, but rather it must serve as a catalyst for far-reaching reform and transformation," the White House report concluded.

It added: "Similar to the images of grief and destruction on September 11, 2001, the images of suffering and despair from Hurricane Katrina are forever seared into the hearts and memories of all Americans. Those painful images must be the catalyst for change."

Katrina, one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, left more than 1,300 people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama dead, hundreds of thousands homeless and tens of billions of dollars worth of damage in its wake.

Days after the storm, Bush accepted responsibility for the faulty federal response and ordered White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend to conduct the internal inquiry.

"We will learn from the lessons of the past to better protect the American people," Bush said Thursday.

The report's recommendations span from dramatic reforms — including potentially giving the Pentagon control over the federal response in worst-case disasters — to smaller changes. It calls for a public awareness campaign on individual preparedness similar to the successful "Stop, Drop and Roll" slogan for fire safety information.

It says the government should improve its evacuation preparations, its plans for swifter medical aid and its overall blueprint for coordinating federal response efforts, calling it confusing. It also calls for state tax breaks to encourage citizens to purchase disaster gear and requirements that students take courses in first aid, starting next year.

The review singles out the Homeland Security Department for most of the breakdowns. They included failure to understand the scope of Katrina's damage, delays in passing information to the White House and emergency workers, and a system for delivering water, food and other supplies that was ensnared in red tape.

In one example of the department's failures, the report noted that Homeland Security's operations center was still dithering about whether New Orleans levees had been breached nearly six hours after a National Weather Service reported a break in at least one floodwall.

The report also cited several examples in which the Federal Emergency Management Agency rejected help from other federal agencies — including boats, aircraft, maintenance crews and housing for evacuees — because of miscommunications and misunderstandings. It said Brown, who was heading the federal response at the scene, was still organizing his chain of command nearly 60 hours after the storm struck.

Members of Congress, including Senate Homeland Security Committee chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the White House assessment is not clear on how it will enact and pay for some of its recommendations. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., questioned why the report does not hold anyone accountable for the failures.

"Only a full understanding of what went wrong and who was responsible will enable us to correct our path for the future," said Lieberman, the top Democrat on a Senate panel separately investigating failures during Katrina.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (news, bio, voting record) of Mississippi, top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, criticized the report for ignoring calls to remove FEMA from Chertoff's control.

"Simply providing recommendations is not enough for the American people," Thompson said.

Chertoff commended the report, which he said was consistent with internal changes already under way at his department.

Brown, who quit under fire in Katrina's aftermath, applauded the report for concluding the agency's resources and personnel have been stretched too thin since it was merged into Homeland Security in 2003.

"I am pleased that this has been finally recognized and that an opportunity now exists to put FEMA on proper footing," Brown said in an e-mail.

Underscoring the report's upbeat tone, the White House called it, "The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina, Lessons Learned." It included a 19-page chapter called "What Went Right," citing strong work by the National Weather Service and Coast Guard and saying the section portrayed "at best only a partial representation of the enormity of the American spirit."


Associated Press Writer Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report.


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