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White House report on Katrina recommends small fixes

WASHINGTON—The White House acknowledged Thursday that the response to Hurricane Katrina was botched because federal officials were confused, poorly prepared and communicated badly. But instead of an overhaul of the Homeland Security bureaucracy, officials proposed 125 smaller fixes.

The 11 most urgent recommendations, which the White House said are needed before the hurricane season starts this year, had been routine practices by the Federal Emergency Management Agency before it was folded into the Department of Homeland Security, two former FEMA directors said Thursday.

Homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend, the author of the 228-page "Lessons Learned" report, blamed former FEMA Director Michael Brown, but not his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, for the communication and leadership problems. Both Brown and Chertoff are Bush administration appointees. Brown was forced out of his job weeks after the storm hit.

"The response to Hurricane Katrina revealed a lack of familiarity with incident management, the planning discipline, legal authorities and field-level crisis leadership," the report said.

The 125 recommendations are designed to improve communications and coordination. Townsend also called for more outside help for Homeland Security, including increased use of the active military in disasters.

President Bush said Thursday that he "wasn't satisfied with the federal response," and he vowed that the government will learn from Katrina in time for the next hurricane season, which starts June 1.

The report, the third Katrina post-mortem issued this month by federal officials, highlighted 11 urgent changes, including the development of a roster of state, local and federal disaster relief helpers. But two former FEMA directors said that most of those changes would only be bringing back successful practices commonly used in the 1980s and 1990s.

"We did all that stuff all the time," said James Lee Witt, who ran FEMA under President Clinton. "I don't understand what they're doing. It's weird. They need to put FEMA back as an agency as it used to be. ... They need to look at how it used to be done, because it did work extremely well."

Gen. Julius Becton, the FEMA director under President Reagan, agreed. "I don't know why they didn't" keep the former practices, he said.

Becton, Witt, and other experts said the White House missed the biggest Katrina problem: the creation of a weaker, slower FEMA with added layers of bureaucracy. That problem was highlighted by the Government Accountability Office in a report earlier this month.

Having Brown report to Chertoff instead of to the president is "one extra step that I was not faced with," Becton said. "All of those levels (of bureaucracy) you put in there are going to delay things."

Asked about the GAO report and the added levels of bureaucracy, Townsend blamed Brown for gumming up the process by choosing to ignore Chertoff and trying to deal directly with the White House.

"Michael Brown chose not to follow his chain of command," Townsend said. "That can't happen again. That has to be very clear."

Brown, in congressional testimony earlier this month, said he usually reported directly to the White House in responding to past hurricanes, such as the Florida trio in 2004. Dealing with the White House instead of the Homeland Security secretary worked better and faster, he said.

The White House report also cited the slow and confused activation of the newly adopted National Response Plan, a problem first highlighted by Knight Ridder on Sept. 13 and initially denied by Homeland Security officials.

Townsend wrote that Chertoff didn't activate the disaster plan until a full day after Katrina hit partly because the plan "lacks sufficient clarity" about when a disaster is big enough to qualify. It's also unclear if Chertoff had to formally declare Katrina an "Incident of National Significance," Townsend wrote. But the National Response Plan was adopted soon after Chertoff took office in 2005, and its first practice run was conducted near his hometown.

Beverly Cigler, who co-chaired a study of Katrina response for a public administrators' association, disputed Townsend's assessment. The plan "was as clear as day," Cigler said.

"The people didn't read the plan, didn't know the plan or didn't implement the plan," said Cigler, a Penn State University public administration professor.

The problem wasn't the leadership on the ground—Brown was in Baton Rouge, La., after Katrina hit—but in Washington, and the White House didn't want to look at that, Cigler added.

"We need to find out who did what, where and why," Cigler said. "If the problem was leadership, that would explain it. This (report) just kind of says, `It's the system.'"

The report also called for better use of the national emergency broadcast system to alert affected residents. Townsend recommended expanding the system to include alerts on pagers and cellular phones.

Governments need to create communications systems that survive disasters and are compatible with each other, the report said. That recommendation also came out in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks but, despite billions of dollars in homeland security spending, the problem hasn't been fixed, according to the 9-11 commission's latest update.

The Townsend report acknowledged that, saying: "Too often after-action reports for exercises and real-world incidents highlight the same problems that do not get fixed—the need for interoperable communications for example."

The White House Lessons Learned report is at: www.whitehouse.gov/reports/katrina-lessons-learned.pdf

The Government Accountability Office preliminary Katrina report is at: www.gao.gov/new.items/d06365r.pdf

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

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