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24 February 2006

Katrina: The Unlearned Lessons

From today's American Progress Report:

Yesterday, the White House released a 228-page report on the "lessons learned" from the response to Hurricane Katrina. Despite its length, the report fails to address the most important issues. According to the New York Times, it "reads more like a recitation of history, than a critical overview of what went wrong with the response. Other times, the report appears to be attempting to offer rationales for mistakes -- like the failure to recognize on the day the storm hit that major sections of the levees in New Orleans had been breached -- instead of explaining exactly why they occurred." The whole White House effort stands in sharp contrast to more critical non-partisan reports from the House of Representatives and the Government Accountability Office (GAO), as well as the priorities outlined in the President's budget.

NO PAIN, NO GAIN: Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff described writing the report as "deep, difficult and even painful." Homeland Security officials "have engaged in their own soul searching" during the process, he said. But yesterday's report "takes pains not to cast blame," and the report goes on for 228 pages "without singling out any individual for blame." While a close examination of the structural problems at Homeland Security and FEMA are necessary, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT) points out, "Only a full understanding of what went wrong and who was responsible will enable us to correct our path for the future." Chertoff, who was singled out by the House and given "principle blame" by the GAO, gets off with barely a scratch from the White House report. In fact, Homeland Security Adviser Frances Townsend went out of her way to say Chertoff still "enjoys the confidence of the President" and remains a "tremendous partner." Townsend also defended Bush's leadership. "Those of us in government must take the lead," she said, "and President Bush made clear he is doing just that." Both the House and GAO reports found Bush did not properly take the lead during Katrina. The House report found Bush "could have spurred a faster response," and the GAO Comptroller said designating a point-person during the disaster was "up to the President of the United States."

SHOW US THE MONEY: "We need to work with our state and local partners about preparing America's communities," Townsend said yesterday. The working relationship got off to a rocky start earlier this year when President Bush's budget cut "funds for state and local programs by nearly 10 percent." State and local companies are also being shortchanged in the critically important debris removal process thanks to mismanagement by the federal government. The budget also slashed first responder programs, including a 45 percent cut in federal firefighter assistance. The New Orleans levees remain dangerously underfunded, and the administration's promise to "make sure that the levees in New Orleans were stronger and better than before Katrina hit" has rung hollow. "A 34 percent cut on the construction budget for the Army Corps of Engineers" and a 13 percent cut to flood prevention will make rebuilding the levees more difficult. Meanwhile, "widespread armoring of levees and floodwalls likely won't get started until 2007," and "work hasn't been scheduled and can't possibly come in time for this year's storm season."

FURTHER STRETCHING THE NATIONAL GUARD: One of the report's main recommendations is to give America's reserve forces a more active role in national emergencies. "Reserve components historically have focused on military and war fighting missions, which will continue," the report says. "However, we should recognize that the Reserve components are too valuable a skilled and available resource at home not to be ready to incorporate them in any Federal response planning and effort." U.S. law already defines this is as one of their duties. Title 10, Section 10102 of the U.S. code says "the purpose of each reserve component is to provide trained units and qualified persons available for active duty in the armed forces, in time of war or national emergency." In fact, the rapid deployment of the National Guard to the Gulf Coast was one of the few bright spots in the federal disaster response. Yet the Guard remains stretched from long deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, where around 60,000 citizen soldiers are still stationed. The administration's budget dealt a setback to its goal of making "maximum use of the state National Guards" by cutting the National Guard "from its authorized level of 350,000 soldiers to 333,000, the actual number now on the rolls" because of recruitment problems. The authorized number of Army Reservists would also shrink from 205,000 to 188,000 under Bush's budget plan.

CAN THE PLAN? The White House report places blame on the National Response Plan, saying it "didn't measure up" and "came up short." Townsend said the administration would "rewrite the National Response Plan so it is workable and it is clear." While the plan is long and full of technical jargon, both the House and GAO criticized the plan's implementation rather than its substance. The House report took "Chertoff to task for waiting until two days after the storm hit to activate a national response plan." The GAO report said Chertoff waited too long declare Katrina an "incident of national significance" that would have triggered parts of the National Response Plan.

SHUFFLING CHAIRS ON A LEAKY SHIP OF STATE: Townsend correctly noted that bureaucratic "red tape" slowed the federal response, and a "better structure at the White House" is needed to make split-second decisions effectively. President Bush once said about homeland security, "We do not need rules and bureaucracy to entangle us in the job you want us to do." But the White House report would create another level of bureaucracy called the "Disaster Response Group." It is doubtful the group would stop the kind of infighting that occurred between Chertoff and Mike Brown. Former Homeland Security inspector general Kent Ervin took a dim view of the bureaucratic reshuffling. "There seems to be this tendency to reinvent the wheel and then reinvent it again," he said. "If you are going to have a Department of Homeland Security, then we need to figure out whatever is inhibiting its effectiveness and provide what it lacks, not simply parcel out responsibilities from various agencies where they came from."

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