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House panel criticizes officials over Katrina response

WASHINGTON—As Gulf Coast residents suffered and died in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, local officials were overwhelmed, the nation's top homeland security official was "confused" about his role in getting critical help to the region, and the White House was "overcome by the fog of war."

Meanwhile, the comprehensive national emergency plan designed to guide everyone involved in such a disaster went largely ignored.

Those are among the findings of a mostly Republican panel from the House of Representatives that has spent five months examining what caused the inept response to one of the nation's worst natural disasters.

"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," said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the House select committee on Katrina. "If this is what happens when we have advance warning, we shudder to imagine the consequences when we do not."

On Wednesday, Davis' committee released its 505-page report, titled "A Failure of Initiative," which repeatedly cited examples of inaction by key decision-makers. The report echoes some of the preliminary conclusions released last month in a separate investigation by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. Investigations by a Senate panel and the White House are ongoing.

Among those singled out in the House report is Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, the official designated in the National Response Plan as being in charge during a major national disaster. The report says that Chertoff delayed taking several key actions, including waiting 36 hours after the storm hit to declare Katrina an Incident of National Significance—an action that would have helped speed massive federal aid to the region. Knight Ridder first reported Chertoff's blunders on Sept. 13.

"Given the well-known consequences of a major hurricane hitting New Orleans, the Secretary should have designated an incident of national significance no later than Saturday, two days prior to landfall," the report found.

A handful of Gulf Coast Democrats who participated in the probe said Chertoff should be replaced with an emergency management expert because of his poor performance in the Katrina crisis. Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown shouldn't be the only government official to lose his job, they said.

"The discussion of Secretary Chertoff's response is in many ways the strongest part of the majority views," Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La., and Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., said in a companion report. "Unlike other areas, where the report eschews accountability, the majority makes affirmative findings that identify major shortcomings in Secretary Chertoff's actions."

Davis, the panel's chairman, seemed to try to soften the report's pointed criticism of Chertoff as he released it during Wednesday's committee meeting, saying that Brown failed to advise Chertoff of the actions the secretary needed to take in the disaster. "Despite media reports to the contrary, we have not singled anyone out," Davis said.

Russ Knocke, Chertoff's spokesman, declined to answer specific questions about the report's findings.

In testimony Wednesday before the Senate's Katrina panel, Chertoff vowed to build the nation's ability to deal with mega-disasters, including improving how federal agencies assist state and local governments. "I am responsible for the Department of Homeland Security, and I am accountable and accept responsibility for the performance of the entire department, the bad and the good. I also have the responsibility to fix what's wrong," he said.

With another hurricane season approaching and the threat of terrorism ever present, turning lessons learned into meaningful actions is critical, experts said.

Now's the time to start conduct exercises and do the planning needed to put the National Response Plan into action, said retired Coast Guard Adm. James Loy, who helped develop the plan while he was deputy secretary of homeland security from 2003-2005.

"I think by and large, if it had been used, it would have been a very strong strategic plan," Loy said. But he said it's time to move forward: "Katrina's past and it was a nightmare. ... We can waste a lot of time pointing fingers."

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(Seth Borenstein contributed to this report.)

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The report of the House investigation into Hurricane Katrina is available at three sites online:

http://www.katrina.house.gov/

http://www.reform.house.gov/

http://www.tomdavis.house.gov/

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): KATRINA

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060215 KATRINA report

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