Fragmented Government Slowed Katrina Response

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff speaks at a news conference.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff speaks at a news conference on the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, Aug. 31, 2005. Chip Somodevill/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Chip Somodevill/Getty Images

Federal officials failed to act quickly or decisively enough in response to Hurricane Katrina, congressional investigators say. The failure to designate a single official to lead the overall federal response made matters worse, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The GAO also said many of the problems that arose were similar to those the agency identified more than a decade ago, after Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida.

GAO's Initial Findings

(Scroll down to read excerpts of the GAO report.)

Dept. of Homeland Security Response

 

Comptroller General Walker has decided to publicize an incomplete "preliminary report" on the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) efforts in Hurricane Katrina without even bothering to talk to the senior leadership of DHS. The resulting report is premature and unprofessional. Apart from its obvious errors, it displays a significant misunderstanding of core aspects of the Katrina response that could have easily been corrected in the most basic conversations with DHS leaders.

 

For example, the preliminary report gives significance to the catastrophic incident annex to the National Response Plan. A cursory phone call to DHS would have revealed that the catastrophic annex is designed for "no-notice" or "short-notice" events, where no personnel or supplies have been pre-positioned, which was clearly not the case in Katrina. What did apply, but is not mentioned in the report, are the President's emergency declarations on the weekend before the hurricane, which activated the National Response Plan and gave FEMA full authority to coordinate the federal response in the field. Further, the preliminary report falsely implies inaction by DHS and FEMA before landfall. In fact, the clear record shows that state officials expressed satisfaction with the federal government's asset pre-positioning and other pre-hurricane assistance during a video teleconference the Sunday prior to landfall.

 

Putting aside the holes in the GAO's "preliminary report", the Department of Homeland Security has repeatedly observed that federal, state, and local response capabilities were overwhelmed by the size and scope of Hurricane Katrina. We have already acknowledged that Katrina revealed problems in national response capabilities, stretching back more than a decade, and demonstrated the need for more comprehensive federal, state, and local planning for catastrophic events.

 

For that reason, we are working closely with Congress, the Administration, and state and local responders to address shortcomings in planning and response. Secretary Chertoff publicly spoke to many of these issues weeks before Katrina hit, and he identified many of the recommendations raised in the GAO preliminary report in public testimony in October. DHS will announce a comprehensive strategy to improve the nation's capability to manage catastrophic incidents in the very near future.

 

—Russ Knocke, DHS Press Secretary

Controller General David Walker said one of the agency's key recommendations in 1993, and again today, is that a single federal official should be put in charge whenever there's a major national disaster. He said the government's failure to do so caused much of the chaos along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

In Depth

"As is all too frequently the case in the federal government, you had way too many layers, way too many players, way too many pieces of turf you have to deal with," Walker said. "And when you're dealing with this kind of situation, you need a single clearly defined, consistently communicated point person in advance speaking on behalf of the president of the United States."

Walker said someone such as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff should have been the lead federal official — someone who could coordinate both domestic and military efforts. Instead, Chertoff counted on Michael Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who had only limited control over preparations and response.

The GAO also noted that Chertoff never designated the storm as a catastrophic event, something that would have triggered a much greater federal response.

In a written response, Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke called the GAO report premature and unprofessional. He said that a presidential emergency declaration gave FEMA the full authority to coordinate federal efforts, and that many preparations were taken in advance of the storm.

Knocke said that the administration has already admitted there were failures at all levels of government, and that it's taking steps to fix them. But that might not be enough for Congress, where both the House and Senate are conducting their own inquiries.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), who heads the House investigation, said it's clear no one was adequately prepared.

"Everybody talked about how bad this storm was going to be. The record shows the National Hurricane Center said this was the big one, the calls were made. But nobody realized how great this impact would be and they were just not ready for it… [It]overwhelmed federal state and local resources."

The Senate Homeland Security Committee heard similar complaints today from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. He said it wasn't clear to him, even five days after the storm hit, who was in charge.

"There was an incredible dance going on between the federal government and the state government on who had final authority, and it was impeding, in my humble opinion, the recovery efforts and it was very frustrating."

Excerpts from the GAO Report

Clear and Decisive Leadership

...Prior to a catastrophic event, the leadership roles, responsibilities, and lines of authority for the response at all levels must be clearly defined and effectively communicated in order to facilitate rapid and effective decision making, especially in preparing for and in the early hours and days after the event. As we recommended in 1993, we continue to believe that a single individual directly responsible and accountable to the President must be designated to act as the central focal point to lead and coordinate the overall federal response in the event of a major catastrophe.

...No one was designated in advance to lead the overall federal response in anticipation of the event despite clear warnings from the National Hurricane Center. Furthermore, events unfolded both before and immediately after the landfall of Hurricane Katrina that made it clear that governmental entities did not act decisively or quickly enough to determine the catastrophic nature of the incident.

...Some federal responders such the Coast Guard and [the Department of Defense] did "lean forward" in proactive efforts anticipating a major disaster. Furthermore, other federal agencies took proactive steps to prepare for and respond to the disaster, such as the U.S. Postal Service and the National Finance Center.

Strong Advance Planning

...To best position the nation to prepare for, respond to, and recover from major catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina, there must be strong advance planning, both within and among responder organizations, as well as robust training and exercise programs to test these plans in advance of a real disaster.

Capabilities for a Catastrophic Event

...Hurricane Katrina exposed difficulties in continuing or rapidly restoring essential government operations, particularly at the local level. Local government infrastructure was destroyed and essential government employees, including many first responders, were evacuated or victimized themselves by the storms, resulting in limited continuity of operations for essential public safety and key service agencies.

...A catastrophic event will overwhelm the capacity of state and local officials to assess damage, and our preliminary work indicates that the military’s significant capabilities in assessing damage — a capability used for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and other past disasters — should be an explicit part of future major catastrophic disaster plans.

...Evacuation capabilities must include evacuating special needs populations such as those in hospitals and nursing homes, coordinating transportation assets, and ensuring that receiving shelters are not overwhelmed. Search and rescue and mass care should work together in a seamless transition so that victims are not just rescued, but can be taken to a place of shelter.

...Our early work indicates that because of the magnitude of the storms, volunteers and donations, including from the international community were not generally well integrated into the overall response and recovery activities. For example, there were challenges in integrating the efforts of the Salvation Army and smaller organizations, often local churches and other “faith-based” organizations. In addition, federal agencies involved in managing the international assistance were not prepared to coordinate, receive, distribute, or account for the assistance.

...Beginning and sustaining community and economic recovery, including restoring a viable tax base for essential services, calls for immediate steps so residents can restore their homes and businesses. Removing debris and restoring essential gas, electric, oil, communications, water, sewer, transportation and transportation infrastructure, other utilities, and services such as public health and medical support are vital to recovery and rebuilding.

Source: Government Accountability Office

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