Lawmakers Call for Katrina Investigation

Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collin says that federal and municipal governments failed in handling Hurricane Katrina. She's not alone. Lawmakers are beginning to examine what exactly went wrong in the aftermath of Katrina, and how it can be remedied.

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There's widespread agreement that the government stumbled badly in its response to Hurricane Katrina, and that's raised concerns about how well prepared the nation is to deal with other disasters, including a terrorist attack. Even as rescue efforts continue, lawmakers and others are starting to examine what went wrong and how it can be fixed. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins was blunt yesterday in her assessment of the hurricane response. She said government at all levels failed in its obligation to protect its citizens, and then she asked this.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): How is it possible that almost four years to the day after the attacks on our country that a major area of this nation was so ill-prepared to respond to a catastrophe?

FESSLER: It's a question that's on many people's minds, and Collins' panel, the Homeland Security Committee, plans to investigate. Why were there such delays in mobilizing emergency supplies? What were the evacuation plans? Why was there a lack of communication? For those who've been dealing with the country's post-9/11 efforts to prepare for another disaster, the past week's events have been sobering, to say the least. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, was among many lawmakers who expressed outrage at the response.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): We've given billions of dollars to the Department of Homeland Security. I voted for those billions of dollars as a member of the Appropriations Committee. We have given as many tools as they've asked for. What in heaven's name was happening?

FESSLER: In part what was happening, says Randy Larsen, a homeland security consultant, was a widely agreed-upon national disaster response plan. It put state and local officials in charge and says the federal government is largely there to assist.

Mr. RANDY LARSEN (Homeland Security Consultant): That works in most cases. That's what the governors want, that's what the mayors want and, frankly, that's what the federal government prefers. In catastrophic cases like this thing we're looking at, this is the equivalent of several nuclear weapons, and for that scale of operation, we need unity of command.

FESSLER: And that means the federal government has to step in much more quickly, bringing its vast resources, communications equipment, emergency supplies and personnel when local resources are clearly overwhelmed. But Larsen says even yesterday, a week after the hurricane hit, there was finger-pointing and confusion.

Mr. LARSEN: I heard the police chief of New Orleans say, `Well, we're trying to get some of those people to leave, but we're not forcing them to. If they say they want to stay, we let them stay.' And I hear the secretary of Homeland Security saying, `We need to get everyone out of the city.' Who's in charge? That's the problem.

FESSLER: He and other homeland security experts say there should be a system in place that would trigger a more rapid federal response to the biggest, most catastrophic disasters. These include the potential chemical and biological attacks that are often discussed but for which there are still inadequate response plans. James Jay Carafano of The Heritage Foundation says one problem is all the focus since 9/11 on trying to protect every community from all kinds of disasters.

Mr. JAMES JAY CARAFANO (The Heritage Foundation): We have the disaster system that everybody wanted. It's the system that Congress wanted, it's the system that the state wanted, it's the system that the mayors wanted. Everybody wanted a piece of the pie. They wanted money for this, they wanted money for that. Every state wanted money. Well, every nickel that we invested in New Orleans in terms of federal grant dollars is now under six feet of water.

FESSLER: He says instead of diluting Homeland Security spending by equipping every fire department with hazmat suits, it would be better to concentrate on preparing for the worst-case scenarios. But he admits that it's easier said than done.

Mr. CARAFANO: Our focus has not been on catastrophic disasters because, you know, people run the numbers and they say, `Well, what are the odds of a catastrophic disaster?' And they go, `Well, you know, they're really not very high.' OK, New Orleans was leveled. OK, well, when was the last time New Orleans was leveled?

FESSLER: Some have also complained that since 9/11, the government has paid too much attention to terrorism and not enough to natural disasters and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been weakened as a result. But Daniel Prieto of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government says the real problem is the intense focus on preventing terrorist attacks at the expense of preparing to respond to any disaster, either natural or manmade.

Mr. DANIEL PRIETO (Harvard's Kennedy School of Government): I find that really interesting in that, you know, as the president says and I think everyone accepts, it's not if they succeed but when they succeed. If you accept that a terrorist attack will occur, you know, that means you'd better darn well be prepared in terms of response and recovery.

FESSLER: The Bush administration says it was prepared, but only for the kinds of disasters it anticipated and that Hurricane Katrina and its extraordinary aftermath wasn't one of them. It's vowed to fix any problems it finds but not until after the relief effort is complete. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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