Congress Begins Assessment of Katrina Response

Congress begins hearings to examine the response to Hurricane Katrina and how the government can better respond to similar disasters. Many lawmakers blame the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a slow and disorganized recovery effort. But others say that Congress shares some of the responsibility.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The official death toll in Louisiana from Hurricane Katrina is rising. Officials there now put the number of dead at 423. Thirty-four of those people died in a New Orleans-area nursing home. Louisiana authorities have charged the home's owners with negligent homicide. The state says the owners had been repeatedly warned that a hurricane was coming and should have evacuated all of their patients. Yesterday, at a White House news conference, President Bush addressed the Katrina response.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government, and to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility.

MONTAGNE: Congress begins hearings today to find out who else ought to take responsibility for the Katrina response and how the government can better respond to similar disasters in the future. Many lawmakers have blamed the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a slow and disorganized recovery effort. Others say Congress shares some of the blame. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

When Michael Brown appeared before a Senate committee three years ago to be confirmed as FEMA's deputy director, only four senators showed up and the hearing lasted less than 45 minutes. No one questioned Brown, then the agency's general counsel, about his limited experience in emergency management. Instead, Colorado's Republican senator at the time, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, told colleagues that Brown was dedicated and tenacious.

(Soundbite of congressional hearing)

Senator BEN NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL (Republican, Colorado): Mr. Chairman, I cannot state firmly enough that I believe Michael Brown to be more than qualified to serve FEMA and the people of this country as part of the administration.

FESSLER: And Brown was quickly confirmed. When he later moved to the top job at FEMA, Senate confirmation wasn't even required. That's because Congress passed a new law creating the Department of Homeland Security, which includes FEMA. It waived confirmation for Homeland Security officials whose new duties were essentially the same as what they'd already been doing.

Now lawmakers are questioning how Brown, who quit his post under fire this week, managed to make it so far. In announcing hearings on the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, Senator Joseph Lieberman, ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, said Congress needs to review everything.

Senator JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (Democrat, Connecticut): Including to look at our own work in creating the Department of Homeland Security and putting the Federal Emergency Management Agency within it in appropriation levels that were given to FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security. I mean, we can't be defensive about anything.

FESSLER: Indeed, one of Congress's main responsibilities is oversight of the federal government. Hundreds of hearings have been held since the attacks of 9/11 on how the country can be better prepared to handle a disaster. Democratic Congressman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi says one problem is that more than one committee has jurisdiction over agencies involved in the hurricane relief effort.

Representative BENNIE THOMPSON (Democrat, Mississippi): The more you split jurisdiction among committees, you get caught in the turf wars between the committees and that's not good for this country.

FESSLER: He notes, for example, that one committee has oversight of FEMA's disaster preparedness mission; another has jurisdiction over its anti-terrorism role. And efforts to streamline the committee system have been met with strong resistance from those lawmakers who stand to lose power.

Thomas Kean, former chairman of the commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks, says there are several issues Congress has failed to address over the past four years.

Mr. THOMAS KEAN (Former Chairman, 9-11 Commission): They still haven't allocated security funds based on need. The Department of Homeland Security has a lot of money, but the Congress now gives it out on a pork-barrel basis, not of areas of greatest vulnerability.

FESSLER: And that, he says, has limited spending on things that might have improved the response to Hurricane Katrina, such as better communications equipment for emergency responders. Former members of Kean's commission are issuing a report today on what's happened to all their recommendations for improving homeland security and emergency response. Judging by Hurricane Katrina, Kean says the answer is frustratingly little.

Mr. KEAN: It was so infuriating to see the same problems that occurred on 9/11 in New York. There's no excuse for that. I mean, to me it's a disgrace and it's got to be fixed before the next disaster comes along. It costs people their lives.

FESSLER: Kean says not only Congress but the administration must address these problems. That's something both President Bush and congressional leaders have vowed to do.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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