Katrina response faulted by White House report

Stronger federal role recommended, including more use of military

February 24, 2006|By NICOLE GAOUETTE | NICOLE GAOUETTE,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The federal government must play a stronger role in dealing with natural disasters, including greater use of the military, the White House said yesterday in a report ordered by President Bush to study lessons learned from the failed response to Hurricane Katrina.

The report, which combines a detailed reconstruction of what went wrong with more than 100 recommendations for change, embraced the traditional view that state and local authorities should take the lead in ordinary emergencies. But it said that in major disasters such as Katrina - which swept across an area the size of Britain - only the federal government has the resources and broad authority to react effectively.

The report says it was not practical to "simply let the Pentagon do it," but it called for much greater use of the Defense Department in responding to future disasters.

"The fact is that the U.S. military may be the only entity available to the federal government to protect the American people" in a disaster, said Frances Townsend, Bush's adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism, who supervised the preparation of the report.

The military can use its resources effectively, the report says, only if rules are changed to ensure that active duty troops and National Guard units are under a unified command.

After Katrina struck, Guard units were under state control and active duty units were under the Pentagon's command. As a result, the report says, in many situations neither knew what the other was doing or what resources it had available.

Townsend said the goal of the report is not to assess blame but to glean lessons that can be used in the future.

Nonetheless, the report cataloged shortcomings in the responses of local and state officials, who she said were often overwhelmed by the scale of "the worst natural disaster in U.S. history." State and local authorities must improve their ability to play major roles in emergencies, it says.

"The federal government cannot and should not be the nation's first responder," it says.

The report reserves its sharpest and most detailed criticisms for the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies, which it says were mired in red tape, lacked clear lines of authority and struggled with a crippled communications system that left emergency workers isolated and uninformed.

Some officials refused to follow the chain of command, and others were slow to assume the critical roles assigned to them by emergency response plans, the report found.

To rectify those and other problems, the report recommends changes, including a set of 11 "critical actions" to be completed by June 1, the start of the next hurricane season.

Among the changes recommended is making sure that in any future disaster, federal, state, and local decision-makers - including National Guard commanders - are brought together in one command center to avoid confusion and speed reaction times.

The report also calls for prompt steps to ensure that the federal government can quickly deploy communications equipment capable of operating under emergency conditions and providing Homeland Security Department officials with clear, timely information.

Last week, a House committee that investigated Katrina came to similar conclusions, and a Senate report expected next week is likely to do the same. But despite a consensus on what went wrong and broad agreement on the nature of what needs to be done, far-reaching reforms face political, bureaucratic and budgetary obstacles that may be difficult to overcome.

Nicole Gaouette writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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