Katrina & Beyond

Katrina Report Cites Government Failures

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A White House report released Thursday concludes that poor planning and lack of leadership led to the federal government's failed response to Hurricane Katrina.


But first, today brings another report on Hurricane Katrina, this one from the White House itself. The document cites the lack of experience on the part of federal disaster managers as well as a failure of planning, discipline and leadership. The report also includes recommendations for broad changes, including giving the military a bigger role in the wake of a major storm or another disaster. Joining us to talk this through is NPR's David Greene at the White House.

And David, first of all, tell us who presented this report.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

Well, this is a document produced by the White House. President Bush's Homeland Security Advisor Fran Townsend took the lead. You'll remember Mr. Bush, after all the criticism of the federal government after the storm, said he took responsibility for whatever failings there were in the federal government, and he directed his own staff to look into those failings.

Leading up to the release of this document, there were Democrats who were doubting whether the report really could be credible since the White House was, I guess you could say, examining itself. But White House officials insisted they were going to be tough on themselves and look for ways they could improve.

BRAND: And there are a lot of recommendations, 125 I believe, for doing things differently. What are the highlights?

GREENE: It's almost 220 pages. A lot of bureaucratic language. A lot of specifics. For example, the report talks about what happened at the Super Dome in New Orleans, the crowds and the heat and the lack of food and water. It says the Department of Transportation should be better ready to stage a mass evacuation in another disaster. One of the main themes is that the military should play a bigger role in response to disasters in the future.

There are some specifics that the President wants to be taken up by the government before the next hurricane season. One criticism was that Department of Homeland Security officials had unclear and overlapping roles and responsibilities that were flawed, the report said. And what the report calls for is for there to be defense, Department of Defense points of contact at pre-positioned federal field offices and at FEMA regional offices ready to jump in and take over and the run the show in extreme cases.

BRAND: But David, weren't there some problems with the military in the case of Katrina?

GREENE: Well, there were, and back through American history. There've always been sensitivities. I think you could go back to the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, certainly the Civil Rights Era. Always eyebrows raised when you deployed federal troops to do anything inside U.S. borders. And in a major disaster, you know, people, state officials, local officials, are probably glad to see an airborne unit arrive with food. But governors have always been concerned about what those troops will be doing after that.

What White House officials say is that there will be bright line that can be respected and active troops can be deployed to do relief and recovery work in an emergency while still respecting the Constitutional and traditional strictures on the use of active duty forces that have always been there.

So the President's confident, even without any additional authority, that he'll be able to deploy troops within U.S. borders in a disaster in the future.

BRAND: And the President was there at this briefing today. What did he have to say?

GREENE: Well, he said again that he wasn't satisfied with the federal response to Katrina last summer. He said this report has a lot of good guidance on how the government can improve. And he said he's committed to putting the changes in place.

You know, it's interesting. The report didn't point as much blame as the House report did that came from Republicans earlier this month. That report, it was called A Failure of Initiatives, said pretty pointedly that if Mr. Bush himself had gotten involved sooner, it could have been a more effective response from the government. The White House report, more gentle. It does say that Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff had difficulty coordinating disparate activities in the federal government and that he lacked real-time awareness of what was going on on the ground. But beyond that, little blame, little accountability and certainly no call for anyone to be fired.

BRAND: And finally, did he address another controversial subject and that is letting Dubai-owned company manage U.S. port operations?

GREENE: Yeah, the President spoke briefly about that in response to a question. And he sounded a reassuring note. You know, this is a huge political problem for him right now because so many Republicans are standing against him. The President said to Americans, there's no need to worry about security. The Coast Guard will still be handling security at these ports, and to trust him.

BRAND: NPR's White House Correspondent David Greene. Thank you, David.

GREENE: My pleasure.

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