Host: Renee Montaigne
Reporter: Pam Fessler
Renee Montaigne: Investigators in the House are expected to fault all levels of government in response to Hurricane Katrina. NPR has obtained a draft of that report entitled "A Failure of Initiative." It is scheduled to be released on Wednesday [2/15]. Investigators detail 90 serious flaws in the response ranging from ineffective leadership at the Department of Homeland Security to inadequate state and local plans to evacuate residents to a "fog of war" at the White House that prevented the President from getting timely information. NPR's Pam Fessler reports:
Pam Fessler: House investigators described their report as "a litany of mistakes, misjudgments, lapses, and absurdities, all cascading together." The report says the 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 and that it would lead to widespread flooding and massive casualties. But despite those warnings, House investigators found that city officials had inadequate plans to evacuate the 100,000 residents they knew would be unable to leave on their own, and that city officials designated the Superdome as a shelter of last resort even though it was located in a flood plain. On the federal level, the report cites the dysfunctional system whereby the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Homeland Security Department 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.
Dave Marin: I don't think anyone who prepared for and responded to Katrina was fully effective. Even those departments and agencies which responded pretty well had problems with coordination, had problems with command and control, and had problems with situational awareness.
Fessler: The draft report was made available to NPR by a Committee staffer who requested anonymity because the report is not 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. This despite numerous reports, the day before, 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 and confusion over who was in charge of the Superdome. 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. The report says that "Secretary Chertoff executed these reponsibilities late, ineffectively, or not at all." In minority view released yesterday, Democrats who worked on the investigation said Chertoff should be replaced. Congressman Charlie Melancon is from Louisiana:
Charlie Melancon: Bring somebody into DHS that understands the complexity of what DHS needs to do and understands the role that FEMA plays. Don't decimate FEMA in order to strengthen other elements of the Department.
Fessler: 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, spokesman for Secretary 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. Democratic Congresman Melancon said that he thinks 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. A Senate committee is doing its own investigation.