Senate Panel Holds Crisis Hearing

The Senate Homeland Security Committee holds a hearing on about emergency preparedness in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The session comes as former members of the 9/11 Commission release a report on how their recommendations on emergency preparedness have been implemented in the past year.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Today, Congress held what is expected to be the first of many hearings into Hurricane Katrina and the government's response. Lawmakers say they want to fix problems before there's another disaster. At the same time, former members of the commission that investigated the 9/11 terrorist attacks held a news conference, and they reported on how little has been done to fix problems that they uncovered after that disaster. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

The former 9/11 commissioners who were clearly frustrated at all the chaos they saw after the terrorist attacks four years ago had emerged again in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Former Chairman Thomas Kean said he was disappointed that so many of his panel's recommendations to improve emergency preparedness had not been adopted before the current disaster.

Former Governor THOMAS KEAN (Republican, New Jersey; Former Chair, 9-11 Commission): There was confusion, and we all saw the confusion before our eyes on television in all areas. No agency was clearly in charge.

FESSLER: He said hurricane search-and-rescue efforts were uncoordinated, and there was poor communication just as on 9/11.

Mr. KEAN: Emergency responders in New Orleans and in nearby parishes all used different radio systems and they're all operating on different spectrums. They had problems talking to each other, they had problems talking to the state authorities, they had problems talking with federal authorities. It is a scandal.

FESSLER: A scandal the commission had hoped to avoid when it proposed last year that Congress pass legislation to make more radio spectrum available for first-responders. The former commissioners also listed 13 other recommendations that have yet to be implemented, or on which there's been limited progress, proposals such as making sure it's clear who's in charge when there's a disaster. Former Commissioner John Lehman said failure to do these things has put the country at risk.

Mr. JOHN LEHMAN (Former Member, 9-11 Commission): The Katrina disaster and the failure of leadership at so many levels has lessoned our deterrence, has had to have encouraged terrorists, which puts all the more urgency into putting the pressure on our leaders to get these things done.

FESSLER: Lawmakers on Capitol Hill say that's what they plan to do, but there's disagreement over how to proceed. Republican leaders want a joint House-Senate inquiry into what went wrong in the hurricane, but Democrats say an independent commission, such as the 9/11 one, would be better. The former 9/11 commissioners were split over whether a post-Katrina panel should be appointed, at least for now. Lehman said it might slow things down.

Mr. LEHMAN: We need action. We don't need more investigation.

FESSLER: Meanwhile, some congressional committees are moving forward on their own. The Senate Homeland Security Committee opened hurricane hearings today. Chairwoman Susan Collins of Maine said her panel will conduct a thorough review of what she said was a sluggish response to the disaster, considering all the money that's been spent since 9/11 on preparedness.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): We will ask the hard questions about the adequacy of the planning efforts for this long-predicted natural disaster.

FESSLER: But today, panel leaders steered clear of those questions. They said they didn't want to call up any officials involved in the current relief effort because they're so busy. Instead, the committee heard from former officials involved in other natural disasters about what they think should be done now to help the hurricane victims. The witnesses said it's important to cut through red tape, and former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial said victims also need one reliable place to get information because they have so many questions.

Former Mayor MARC MORIAL (New Orleans): `Is the city going to be drained in eight weeks, or is it going to be drained in 12 weeks? And then when will I be able to return? How about my insurance claim? How about my automobile insurance claim? Do I have to pay my mortgage? Do I have to pay my bank loans?'

FESSLER: They also talked of the need for someone to oversee the recovery effort, maybe a hurricane czar to help avoid any further confusion. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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