A few U.S. agencies handled Katrina right

September 10, 2006|By BILL WALSH | BILL WALSH,Newhouse News Service

WASHINGTON -- The long list of federal government failings in the face of Hurricane Katrina is well-documented. Now the nation's top auditor is praising a few agencies that he says were up to the challenge.

In addition to the Coast Guard, which has been widely lauded for its daring helicopter rescues of more than 12,000 flood victims in New Orleans, Comptroller General David Walker commended other federal agencies whose efforts weren't the stuff of Hollywood action films, but filled critical needs nonetheless.

Among those singled out in a report issued last week were the National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center for accurately tracking the killer storm that caused the most expensive disaster in U.S. history.

The U.S. Postal Service and the Social Security Administration also won acclaim. So did the New Orleans-based National Finance Center, which managed to issue paychecks to half a million federal employees around the country as the storm bore down on the city.

Even the Internal Revenue Service received plaudits.

After Katrina, the IRS assigned 5,000 employees the task of getting cash to storm victims by assisting the Federal Emergency Management Agency in signing evacuees up for emergency grants.

Walker, a certified public accountant who runs the Government Accountability Office, also praised the IRS for being a kind and gentle tax collector in the wake of the storm. The agency set up a payment relief hot line and received more than 100,000 phone calls from hurricane victims.

The common thread Walker found in all of the successful federal responses was good planning.

He said the Coast Guard overcame a communications blackout in the disaster zone by wisely positioning helicopters before the storm. Before the hurricane made landfall, rescue workers were issued orders. When radios and phones failed, they could "act independently or with limited guidance from commanding officers," the GAO said.

Bill Walsh writes for the Newhouse News Service.

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