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White House Unveils Disaster-Response Measures


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. Today the White House released its review of the government response to Hurricane Katrina. The 217-page report was far less harsh in its assessment of what went wrong than a similar report last week by a committee from the House of Representatives. But the administration does admit the response was flawed. It recommends more than 100 ways to address problems that emerged during the storm.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

House investigators concluded in their report last week that earlier involvement by President Bush might have improved the government's response to the hurricane. They also faulted Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for a delayed reaction. But the White House review generally avoids such blame. White House Homeland Security Advisor Frances Townsend, who conducted the review, says President Bush is more interested in the future.

Ms. FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND (Homeland Security Advisor): Like all Americans he was not satisfied with the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, and he accepted responsibility for the shortcomings in the federal response. He demanded that we find out the lessons, that we learn them, and that we fix the problems.

FESSLER: She says those problems largely involved a lack of coordination and poor communications. The review found that emergency preparedness plans at all levels of government fell short, and that there was widespread confusion among officials over who was supposed to be doing what. It found that the federal government was unable to do something as simple as keeping track of emergency supplies. Townsend promises before the next hurricane season the Federal Emergency Management Agency will have a better system in place.

Ms. TOWNSEND: FedEx can track a package anywhere in the world real time. FEMA should be able to do the same thing for ice, water and food.

FESSLER: Another major failure involved evacuation, both before and after the storm hit. The report notes that state and local governments were overwhelmed, but that the federal government was unable to fill the gap. It says the U.S. Department of Transportation should be prepared in the future to conduct mass evacuations if necessary. Townsend says the administration is also reviewing state and local evacuation plans.

Ms. TOWNSEND: Those plans must especially include accommodating the ill, the elderly and the disabled.

FESSLER: Townsend also says the review found a lack of coordination between the military and other federal agencies. It recommends a greater military role in future disasters, possibly even leading the response in some extraordinary cases, but it leaves it up to the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security to work out the details.

Response to the White House review was lukewarm, especially among Democrats, who say it doesn't address a number of important issues. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the ranking minority member on the House Homeland Security Committee, complained in a statement that the White House review doesn't recommend giving the director of FEMA greater access to the president during a disaster. That's something a number of lawmakers say is needed. George Haddow, a senior FEMA official in the Clinton administration, says it's a serious shortfall if the disaster agency remains part of a big department primarily concerned with terrorism.

Mr. GEORGE D. HADDOW (Federal Emergency Management Agency): They need a more nimble organization who has the interest and the authority vested in it by the president to do this critical mission. And right now I think they've proven beyond a doubt that it can't happen in the Department of Homeland Security. And I don't think anything that Frances Townsend or Mike Chertoff are proposing is going to fix that.

FESSLER: But Townsend says the problem during Katrina was just the opposite, that former FEMA director Michael Brown refused to report to his boss, Michael Chertoff, and went directly to the White House, and that added to some of the confusion.

Ms. TOWNSEND: Michael Brown chose not to follow his chain of command. That can't happen again. That has to be very clear.

FESSLER: She says the answer is to make sure there's a more unified command. One recommendation is to establish a new interagency national operations center to coordinate the federal response and make sure everyone's on the same page. But this isn't the last word on the issue. A Senate investigation into the government's response is expected to release its findings and recommendations next month.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

BLOCK: You can read the full White House review at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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