House Report on Katrina Details Critical Response Flaws

A 520-page report from House investigators has found that the government's response to Hurricane Katrina was marred by a long list of mistakes and misjudgments. The committee said the resulting confusion cost lives and prolonged the suffering of Gulf Coast residents.

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After a five month inquiry, House investigators have found that the government's response to Hurricane Katrina was marred by a long list of mistakes and misjudgments.

The 520 page report paints a sobering picture of well intentioned people unable to do the right thing, because they didn't have the tools, information, or coordination they needed.

The Republican-dominated select committee said the resulting confusion cost lives and prolonged the suffering of Gulf Coast residents.

NPR's Pam Fessler has more.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

The report is painful at times to read. There are mistakes upon mistakes that in the end led to one of the biggest government failures ever. Committee Chairman Tom Davis, a Republican from Virginia, says it's all the more disturbing because it happened after the government spent billions trying to improve the nation's ability to respond to a major disaster.

Congressman TOM DAVIS (Republican, Virginia): Four and a half years after 9-11, America is still not ready for Prime Time. This is particularly distressing because we know we remain at risk for terrorist attacks, and because the 2006 hurricane season is right around the corner.

FESSLER: The report notes that the hurricane tragedy had long been predicted, that it was well known that a big storm could topple New Orleans' levees and flood the city.

Investigators say that state and local officials took extraordinary measure to evacuate more than a million people from the Gulf Coast, but that they didn't do enough. The report faults Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans' Mayor Ray Nagin for waiting too long to order a mandatory evacuation.

And Davis says, they failed to use state and local assets, such as buses, to help those without their own means to leave the city.

Congressman DAVIS: They failed to protect state and local assets to assist in evacuation after landfall. They had no buses or bus drivers to evacuate the Superdome, the Convention Center, or the Clover Leaf, and they failed to maintain law and order.

FESSLER: The investigators say the plan to shelter residents at the Superdome was woefully inadequate, and that Nagin didn't ask for water, food, and other supplies for the shelter until the last minute.

But the report faults officials at all levels of government. It notes a lack of coordination and a breakdown of communications all around. The report says the Federal Emergency Management Agency didn't have enough trained personnel or resources, and that the White House was unable to sort through conflicting information to find out what was going on. And it faults Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for not acting more aggressively.

Chertoff appeared yesterday before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which is also investigating the government's hurricane response. He told lawmakers he accepted responsibility for what his department did wrong, but he denied that he and other Bush Administration officials were not actively involved in storm preparations.

Mr. MICHAEL CHERTOFF (United States Homeland Security Secretary): We were acutely aware of Katrina and the risk it posed. We followed this hurricane fro the time it started to meander up towards the coast of Florida, as it crossed over the southern tip of Florida and got into the Gulf.

FESSLER: Chertoff noted that in a video conference call, the day before the storm hit, he heard assurances from federal, state, and local officials that they had the resources they needed. A transcript of the call shows that Chertoff specifically asked FEMA Director Michael Brown if he had contacted the military to see if it could help out.

But some lawmakers faulted Chertoff for putting too much faith in Brown, who told the committee he tried to work around Chertoff, who was his boss.

Norm Coleman is a republican Senator from Minnesota.

Senator NORM COLEMAN (Republican, Minnesota): It was clear that Brown was in way over his head. Way over his head. Yet on Friday, I believe it was Friday, September 2nd, the president is standing there saying, Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job--which tells me that somebody didn't tell the president that he's got a FEMA Director who is in way over his head.

FESSLER: Chertoff said it took him several days before he realized that Brown was not just overwhelmed by the storm, but had to be replaced because things weren't getting done.

Mr. CHERTOFF: If I'd known then what I know now about Mr. Brown's agenda, I would've done something differently.

FESSLER: That agenda was in part to disagree with Chertoff over FEMA's role in the Homeland Security Department. Brown has testified that the disaster agency was weakened when it was folded into Homeland Security three years ago.

A number of lawmakers are looking at whether FEMA should be allowed to stand on its own again. Meanwhile, Democrats who participated in the House inquiry say they think an independent investigation is still needed to get at all the facts and to make recommendations on what should be done before the next disaster strikes.

Democrat Charlie Melancon, from Louisiana, says he's frustrated that the House investigation only looked at the events in the few weeks surrounding the storm, and not at current government actions.

Congressman CHARLIE MELANCON (Democrat, Louisiana): Our problems in the Gulf Coast are now. This investigation has done nothing to help anyone move back home to Louisiana, get a trailer, or begin to rebuild.

FESSLER: Committee Chairman Davis says he hopes Congress will begin looking at many of these issues and others raised in the House report, to make sure they're addressed soon.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: You can read the committee's report on their response to Hurricane Katrina at NPR.org.

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