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