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Fragmented Government Slowed Katrina Response

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff speaks at a news conference on the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, Aug. 31, 2005.
Chip Somodevill
Getty Images
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff speaks at a news conference on the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, Aug. 31, 2005.

Federal officials failed to act quickly or decisively enough in response to Hurricane Katrina, congressional investigators say. The failure to designate a single official to lead the overall federal response made matters worse, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The GAO also said many of the problems that arose were similar to those the agency identified more than a decade ago, after Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida.

Controller General David Walker said one of the agency's key recommendations in 1993, and again today, is that a single federal official should be put in charge whenever there's a major national disaster. He said the government's failure to do so caused much of the chaos along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

"As is all too frequently the case in the federal government, you had way too many layers, way too many players, way too many pieces of turf you have to deal with," Walker said. "And when you're dealing with this kind of situation, you need a single clearly defined, consistently communicated point person in advance speaking on behalf of the president of the United States."

Walker said someone such as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff should have been the lead federal official -- someone who could coordinate both domestic and military efforts. Instead, Chertoff counted on Michael Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who had only limited control over preparations and response.

The GAO also noted that Chertoff never designated the storm as a catastrophic event, something that would have triggered a much greater federal response.

In a written response, Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke called the GAO report premature and unprofessional. He said that a presidential emergency declaration gave FEMA the full authority to coordinate federal efforts, and that many preparations were taken in advance of the storm.

Knocke said that the administration has already admitted there were failures at all levels of government, and that it's taking steps to fix them. But that might not be enough for Congress, where both the House and Senate are conducting their own inquiries.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), who heads the House investigation, said it's clear no one was adequately prepared.

"Everybody talked about how bad this storm was going to be. The record shows the National Hurricane Center said this was the big one, the calls were made. But nobody realized how great this impact would be and they were just not ready for it… [It]overwhelmed federal state and local resources."

The Senate Homeland Security Committee heard similar complaints today from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. He said it wasn't clear to him, even five days after the storm hit, who was in charge.

"There was an incredible dance going on between the federal government and the state government on who had final authority, and it was impeding, in my humble opinion, the recovery efforts and it was very frustrating."

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