White House report cites Katrina failures

/ Source: The Associated Press

The White House cited failures by the Homeland Security Department and other agencies in planning, communications and leadership in a report on Hurricane Katrina Thursday and proposed a broad reworking of how the government would respond to the next catastrophe.

The 228-page report by White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend urges changes in 11 key areas — mainly in better disaster relief coordination among federal agencies — before the next hurricane season begins June 1.

The White House study took a softer approach than a scathing House report issued last week, focusing on proposals to fix problems without singling out any individuals for blame.

“We will learn from the lessons of the past to better protect the American people,” President Bush said Thursday at the end of a Cabinet meeting where the report was released.

“I wasn’t satisfied with the federal response,” Bush said.

Townsend, speaking to reporters later, said the White House itself fell short in cutting through bureaucratic red tape and quickly settling disputes among response agencies.

Her review also cites failures at a half-dozen federal agencies, singling out the Homeland Security Department for lacking fast communication with emergency responders and the public, and an inadequate system for stockpiling supplies before a disaster hits.

“In the end, we must do a much better job at preparation, at planning, and improve our response,” Townsend said.

125 recommendations
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff commended the White House’s 125 recommendations, which he said were aided by his department.

“We have already begun to take action to address many of the issues raised in the report, particularly those areas we need to improve before the start of the 2006 hurricane season,” Chertoff said in a statement. He called the report consistent with internal changes already underway at Homeland Security.

Bush ordered the review days after the Aug. 29 storm revealed widespread federal disaster response gaps. More than 1,300 Gulf Coast residents died after Katrina hit, and hundreds of thousands more were forced from their destroyed homes.

The White House review comes a week after the special Republican-dominated House committee investigating the slow response found fault at every level of government — including the president and Chertoff.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the top Democrat on a Senate panel separately investigating failures during Katrina, described the White House report as “thoughtful” but criticized it for not assigning enough blame for the problems.

“Only a full understanding of what went wrong and who was responsible will enable us to correct our path for the future,” Lieberman said in a statement.

Pentagon role could increase
Among the White House’s suggestions is a stronger role for the Pentagon in planning for disaster response, including working with Homeland Security to determine when the military should take over federal relief efforts in extraordinary cases.

To better prepare for mass evacuations that overwhelm local authorities, it says the governments needs to have ready arrangements for more buses, temporary housing, medical services and other items that proved inadequate for Katrina.

The report also encourages private citizens to take more responsibility for themselves, and recommends a public awareness campaign on individual preparedness, noting the success of slogans such as “Stop, Drop and Roll” for fire safety information.

Students should be required to take courses in first aid and disaster preparedness starting in the 2007 fiscal year, the report says. It also suggests state tax breaks to encourage citizens to purchase disaster preparedness supplies.

The report says that despite people and resources sent after the storm hit, “the response to Hurricane Katrina fell far short of the seamless, coordinated effort that had been envisioned by President Bush” when he ordered the government to craft disaster response plans two years earlier.

“We are not as prepared as we need to be at all levels within the country: federal, state, local and individual,” the report said.

The review found “significant flaws” in the national response plan the Department of Homeland Security issued last year that serves as a blueprint for action the government is supposed to follow during emergencies.

And the review called for establishing a National Operations Center to coordinate disaster response at all levels of government for future crises.

Miscommunication example
In one example of miscommunication among Homeland Security officials, the report notes that the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning in New Orleans at 9:12 a.m. the day Katrina hit, stating up to 8 feet of water was expected because of a levee breach at the Industrial Canal.

However, at 6 p.m., the Homeland Security Operations Center told senior department officials and the White House that “preliminary reports indicate the levees in New Orleans have not been breached, however an assessment is still pending.”

Meanwhile, response officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency delayed sending aid supplied by the Agriculture, Interior and Veterans’ Affairs departments because of inexperience in coordinating help and unfamiliarity with those federal programs, the report found.

Written in an even, methodical tone, the report characterizes Katrina as the storm of a century, comparing its destruction in New Orleans to the deadly Chicago fires in 1871 and the earthquake and fire in San Francisco in 1906. It calls Katrina the nation’s deadliest natural disaster since Hurricane San Felipe in 1928.

It also describes Katrina as the first U.S. disaster — natural or man-made — with damage estimates approaching $100 billion. It does not look at ways to improve state and local preparedness and response missions.