WASHINGTON—Despite ample warning of an impending catastrophe, the federal government bungled its response to Hurricane Katrina because of a void of leadership and confusion about who was in charge, an independent investigation ordered by Congress has found.
The Government Accountability Office, the investigatory arm of Congress, in a preliminary report to be released Wednesday faulted Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and his designee, former Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown, for not filling a crucial "leadership role during Hurricane Katrina."
That void "serves to underscore the immaturity of and weaknesses relating to the current national response framework," according to a copy of the report obtained Tuesday evening by Knight Ridder.
While the report says little more than was apparent in the hours after the hurricane damaged, demolished or destroyed long swaths of the coastline, the GAO's conclusion is striking for its bluntness.
"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," GAO Comptroller General David M. Walker's prepared remarks read. The speech faults the federal government, saying it "did not act decisively or quickly enough."
Walker notes that "there were multiple chains of command, a myriad of approaches and processes for requesting and providing assistance and confusion about who should be advised of requests and what resources would be provided within specific timeframes."
Walker's statement said other agencies got ready in advance, including the military and the post office, but not FEMA—the nation's principal disaster relief agency.
This assessment comes as no surprise to former FEMA Director James Lee Witt, who served during the Clinton administration.
Witt said during his tenure he reported directly to the president, but when Homeland Security was formed it created "a chain of command that was fragmented." He said it minimized what FEMA could do and the responsibility does lie with Chertoff.
"It was not only leadership, but it was minimizing the capability of FEMA," Witt said.
The GAO said it warned of these problems after Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and then again in 1993. Witt said the problems were fixed in 1993, but resurfaced with the Bush administration's new Homeland Security Department.
A spokesman for Chertoff and Homeland Security could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.
Another major part of the problem was a late and incomplete activation of the new national response plan and a lack of understanding of it, the GAO found.
The report says Chertoff "designated Hurricane Katrina as an incident of national significance on August 30th—the day after final landfall. However, he did not designate the storm as a catastrophic event, which would have triggered additional provisions of the National Response Plan (NRP), calling for a more proactive response. As a result, the federal posture generally was to wait for the affected states to request assistance."
Knight Ridder first reported the late activation of the plan last September, which Homeland Security officials at first denied.
The GAO also faulted Homeland Security for not following up on training exercises, including the prescient Hurricane Pam exercise in 2004 that envisioned a major storm smacking into New Orleans. The funding for a follow-up to Pam was cut by Homeland Security officials, Eric Tolbert, a former senior FEMA official, told Knight Ridder last summer.
"Not all capabilities-related issues identified in the Hurricane Pam exercise were addressed before Hurricane Katrina hit," the GAO report found.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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