updated 9/4/2005 2:52:48 PM ET 2005-09-04T18:52:48

The Homeland Security Department spent the past four years focused on averting the next terrorist attack and was unprepared to decisively respond to the overwhelming devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, former officials and experts say.

The agency, created after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was still struggling days after Katrina battered the Gulf Coast to coordinate federal rescue and relief efforts and communicate with emergency workers on the ground. The fractured federal response left critics questioning whether the department is prepared to deal with the aftermath of a terror attack.

“I can’t tell you that we’re lock, stock and ready to go,” said former Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Adm. James Loy, who left the department earlier this year. He called the issue “a very, very legitimate question,” and said the agency’s front-burner issue has been preventing and preparing a response to terrorism.

“Because of the focus in the last four years, we would be better prepared for” terrorism, Loy said.

The devastation left in Katrina’s wake stretches over 90,000 square miles — a potentially larger area than anything terrorists could effect with anything but the most lethal of weapons, Homeland Security officials said.

Chertoff: Plan for natural, manmade events
“I think we have to plan for both” terrorist attacks and natural disasters, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said. He said the big problem with Katrina was that a catastrophic storm was followed by an equally devastating breaching of New Orleans’ levees, swamping the city.

“I think the problem is we had two events that have been hypothesized that occurred simultaneously,” Chertoff said Saturday. “And I guess that does, you know, indicate that at some level with all of the planning and all of resources, if a truly catastrophic event, if an ultra-catastrophe occurs, there’s going to be some harmful fallout.”

In January, Homeland Security issued a national response plan combining disaster relief programs from at least 12 agencies to ensure streamlined assistance to state and local authorities. It also conducted several studies of New Orleans’ vulnerability to hurricanes and other emergencies that would be worsened by its water-bound location and weak levees.

Even so, the department’s response to Katrina faltered in areas that included reliable communications systems and the maintenance of law and order, said former Homeland Security intelligence official John Rollins.

“Given three days notice as to the general location of landfall and the projected level of impact, I thought we would have been better prepared for this situation,” Rollins said. “We certainly would not have had the luxury of knowledge of timing and location were it a terrorist attack on the levees rather than the impact from Katrina.”

Fingerpointing begins
Already, some fingers are pointing at bureaucratic problems that may have cluttered the response, including questions about how well the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its director, Michael Brown, have functioned as a branch of Homeland Security.

Well before the hurricane, Brown privately expressed frustration with his Homeland Security superiors over what he considered a lack of attention to natural disaster planning, including strategies for a major hurricane in New Orleans.

While Brown and his management team believed they understood the need to focus on terrorism, FEMA leaders felt natural disaster strategies and spending were often given short shrift by Homeland Security brass.

“We were taking an agency that was maybe 1 percent dealing with homeland security and 99 percent disaster, and folding it into something where it could lose focus and resources,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore. “And that is what’s happened.”

‘Protector of last resort’
Despite the sheer magnitude of the disaster, homeland security expert Daniel Prieto said the federal government has to be prepared to pick up the slack when the private sector and state and local officials can’t.

“The federal government is the protector of last resort. Dispassionately, that is where responsibility lies,” said Prieto, research director for the homeland security partnership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

“I think this really points out how far we have to go, even after 9/11, even though there was knowledge of this storm coming,” Prieto said.

But William Parrish, who formerly held a number of Homeland Security senior positions, said now is not the time to point fingers.

“Every time we have a disaster we have to look at it and see what we can learn from it. This one is going to be studied and studied and studied,” said Parrish, now a professor of homeland security and emergency planning at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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