ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
Today, investigators from the House of Representatives released a scathing 520- page report about the government's disorganized response to Hurricane Katrina. It says the disarray cost lives and prolonged suffering. The inquiry was run by Republicans with help from a few Democrats, and it found fault at all levels of government, from bad evacuation planning in New Orleans to a failure at the White House to get timely, accurate information. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff took issue with some of the report's findings. He went before a Senate committee today. Chertoff said the administration is trying to fix the problems before the next hurricane season.
NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER: The House report is the product of a five-month investigation, and chronicles dozens, if not hundreds, of mistakes and misjudgements in the days before and after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. The 11 Republicans who prepared the report called it a national failure. They said it "left all Americans justifiably concerned our government is no better prepared to protect its people than it was before 9/11." Republican Tom Davis of Virginia led the inquiry.
TOM DAVIS: It remains difficult to understand how government could respond so ineffectively to a disaster that was anticipated for years and for which specific dire warnings had been issued for days.
FESSLER: Some of the findings are painful to read. Local, state and federal officials were well aware that the hurricane could topple New Orleans's levees, causing massive flooding. And they also knew an estimated 100,000 residents had no way to leave the city on their own. But investigators found that no arrangements were made to evacuate those residents other than to provide what they called woefully inadequate shelter at the Superdome. Davis said coordination and communications also were weak at all levels of government.
DAVIS: Information passed through a maze of departmental operations centers and ironically named coordinating committees, losing timeliness and relevance as it was massaged and interpreted. As a result, leaders became detached from the changing minute-to-minute realities of Katrina.
FESSLER: Investigators found that even the military, with all of its assets, relied to an unusual extent on media reports to figure out what was going on. They said the White House was overcome by the fog of war, unable to sort through conflicting information, and that earlier involvement by President Bush could have meant a more effective response. Democrat Gene Taylor of Mississippi said it was surprising, given the results, that FEMA director Michael Brown was the only official to lose his job.
GENE TAYLOR: When bad things happen, people ought to take responsibility, and the people responsible for those failures should either admit their mistakes and pledge that they'll get better or they should be replaced.
FESSLER: While the committee said it did not intend to assign blame, the report was especially critical of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for his response to the storm. The panel said he executed his responsibilities late, ineffectively or not at all. But Chertoff vehemently defended his actions in an appearance before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which is conducting its own investigation.
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: The idea that this department and this administration and the president were somehow detached from Katrina is simply not correct.
FESSLER: Chertoff said that he and other top administration officials were actively engaged in preparing for the storm, and that President Bush took the unusual step of issuing an emergency declaration before landfall. But Democratic senator Carl Levin took Chertoff to task for his failure the day the storm hit to believe reports and pictures showing that New Orleans's levees had broken.
CARL LEVIN: Those pictures all were there before you went to bed.
CHERTOFF: I read it by late Monday. By Monday, by the time those pictures were taken, I --
LEVIN: How did these screw-ups happen? I mean, have you looked into them?
CHERTOFF: Yes. The answer is, I have looked into them.
LEVIN: And how did they happen?
FESSLER: Chertoff said one problem is that there was conflicting information coming from multiple sources, and some of the information never got to his department's operation center. It wasn't until the following day that he learned the truth. Committee chairwoman Susan Collins said one of Chertoff's biggest mistakes was relying on FEMA director Brown, even though it's now clear that Brown was not sharing information with the rest of the department.
SUSAN COLLINS: I have an email in which your staff is complaining to Michael Brown's staff that you've lost all contact with Michael Brown for two days, and this is a critical two days.
FESSLER: The ones right after the storm, when there was so much confusion about the extent of the damage. Chertoff said at first he thought Brown was just busy. It was several days later that he realized that the FEMA director needed to be replaced, because important things, such as getting supplies into New Orleans, weren't getting done.
CHERTOFF: Yes, if I'd known then what I know now about Mr. Brown's agenda, I would've done something differently.
FESSLER: Chertoff says his agency also plans to do a lot differently in the future, including better coordination of information and tracking of emergency supplies, two major problems identified in the House report.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
SIEGEL: And you can read the House Select Committee's report on the response to Hurricane Katrina at our website, NPR.org.
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