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Upcoming House Report on Katrina Details Failures

A report from investigators in the House, due for release Wednesday, is expected to fault all levels of government in the response to Hurricane Katrina. Authors of the report, "A Failure of Initiative," outline 90 serious flaws in the response. They range from ineffective leadership at the Department of Homeland Security to inadequate state and local plans for evacuation to a "fog of war" at the White House that prevented the president from getting timely information. The report is the first of three major investigations into what went wrong along the Gulf Coast.

House investigators describe their report as "a litany of mistakes, misjudgments, lapses and absurdities all cascading together." The report says mistakes and misjudgments were found at every step of the way, starting with the government's failure to prepare for a disaster that was not only predictable, but predicted.

The draft report cites numerous warnings -- months, days and even hours before the storm hit -- that the powerful hurricane would break the levees in New Orleans, causing widespread flooding and massive casualties. Despite those warnings, city officials had woefully inadequate plans to evacuate the 100,000 residents they knew would be unable to leave on their own. The report also faults city officials for designating the Superdome as a shelter of last resort, even though it was located in a floodplain.

On the federal level, the report cites a dysfunctional system in which the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) waited to get requests for aid from state and local officials who were already incapacitated by the storm.

Dave Marin, staff director for the House Select Katrina Committee, notes that the draft findings are still not final. But he confirms that the panel found fault at all levels.

"I don't think anyone who prepared for and responded to Katrina was fully effective," Marin said. "Even those departments and agencies that responded pretty well had problems with coordination, had problems with command and control, had problems with situational awareness."

The draft report was made available to NPR by a committee staffer, who requested anonymity because the report is not yet finished. But it's highly unlikely that the findings -- which have come out over several months of committee hearings -- will change.

For example, the report notes that the White House was unable to confirm for top officials, including the president, that the levees in New Orleans had broken until almost 24 hours after the fact. Yet the day before, numerous reports had been issued that the levees had indeed been breached. The report also cites the inability of FEMA officials in New Orleans to communicate with their counterparts in Baton Rouge.

The report is especially critical of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for not taking control of the crisis earlier, and for failing to implement certain emergency procedures. "Secretary Chertoff executed these responsibilities, late, ineffectively or not at all," the report found.

In minority views released Sunday, Democrats who worked on the investigation said Chertoff should be replaced.

"Bring somebody into DHS that understands the complexity of what DHS needs to do and understands the role that FEMA plays and don't decimate FEMA in order to strengthen other elements of the Department," said Rep. Charlie Melancon, (D-LA).

FEMA officials complained to the committee that the agency was severely weakened when it became part of the Homeland Security department in 2003.

But Russ Knocke, a spokesman for Chertoff, said the criticism is unfair. He said the secretary was actively engaged in preparing for and responding to the hurricane. Knocke said it was a mistake, though, to put former FEMA director Michael Brown in charge of coordinating the federal response. He said Brown was "willfully insubordinate." In fact, Brown testified in the Senate last week that he thought talking to Chertoff during the crisis would be a waste of his time, and that he tried to deal directly with the White House.

Melancon said an independent commission is still needed to get at the true story. The House investigation was largely conducted by Republicans.

The finger pointing isn't expected to end soon. The White House is also conducting a review of the Katrina response, and a Senate committee is doing its own investigation.

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Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.