ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block. Congressional investigators issued a harsh report today about the response to Hurricane Katrina. It says that federal officials failed to act quickly or decisively enough and that government at all levels was overwhelmed by the storm. The Government Accountability Office also says many of the problems that arose were similar to those the agency identified more than a decade ago after Hurricane Andrew.
NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER reporting:
Controller General David Walker said one of his agency's key recommendations in 1993 and again today is that a single federal official should be put in charge wherever 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.
Mr. DAVID WALKER (Government Accountability Office): As all too frequently is the case in the government, you have way too many layers, way too many players, way too many pieces of turf you've got to deal with, 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.
FESSLER: 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 effort.
Mr. WALKER: That would have caused them to be much more proactive, to lean forward and to try to take steps a lot sooner than otherwise would be the case.
FESSLER: 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. He 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.
Virginia Republican Tom Davis heads the House investigation, which is expected to release its findings within two weeks. Davis said it's clear that no one was adequately prepared.
Representative TOM DAVIS (Republican, Virginia): 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.
FESSLER: 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.
Mr. RAY NAGIN (Mayor, New Orleans): 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.
FESSLER: But lawmakers noted that New Orleans itself failed to adequately provide for the evacuation of at-risk residents, including those in nursing homes. The committee also revealed that the city told a FEMA official the night the storm hit that the city might use its Convention Center as a shelter and that it would need emergency supplies if it did. But the panel said it found no evidence that Nagin ever informed federal officials when the Convention Center was indeed opened.
Pam Fessler, NPR News Washington.
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