- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) head Michael Brown confirmed the dysfunctional performance of his organization throughout the first three or four days following Hurricane Katrina’s assault on New Orleans. In an interview on CNN’s “Paula Zahn Now,” three-and-a-half days after Katrina made landfall, Mr. Brown insisted that the federal government in general and FEMA in particular had no idea until that very day that tens of thousands of New Orleans residents and tourists had assembled at the city’s convention center.

“Sir, you aren’t just telling me you just learned that the folks at the convention center didn’t have food and water until today [Thursday], are you?” Mrs. Zahn asked incredulously. “You had no idea they were completely cut off?”

“Paula, the federal government did not even know about the convention center people until today,” Mr. Brown said, ever so matter-of-factly. With that reply, he confirmed the enormous size of the disaster that was the federal response.

How the federal government should respond to emergencies and disasters is detailed in the National Response Plan, a 426-page report issued by the Department of Homeland Security. “The National Response Plan embodies our nation’s commitment to the concept of one team, one goal,” Tom Ridge, the secretary of Homeland Security at the time, declared on Jan. 6, 2005, when the response plan was revealed. “This achievement is a bold step forward in bringing unity in our response to disasters and terrorist threats and attacks.” The plan was overwhelmed by events in its first major test with reality.

Guiding the nation’s response to emergencies and disasters, the National Response Plan “establishes a comprehensive all-hazards approach to enhance the ability of the United States to manage domestic incidents,” the Department of Homeland Security asserted. “The plan incorporates best practices and procedures from incident management disciplines,” including emergency management, law enforcement and public health, “and integrates them into a unified structure. It forms the basis of how the federal government coordinates with state, local and tribal governments and the private sector during incidents.” Contemplating a national catastrophe comparable to Katrina, a department fact sheet states that the response plan “ensures the seamless integration of the federal government when an incident exceeds local and state capabilities.” Moreover, the plan “provided the means to swiftly deliver federal support in response to catastrophic incidents.”

In the wake of the disastrous initial responses to the Katrina disaster, the self-congratulatory conclusion asserted in the preface of the response plan is particularly disturbing. “The end result is vastly improved coordination among federal, state, local and tribal organizations to help save lives and protect America’s communities by increasing the speed, effectiveness and efficiency of incident management.” By FEMA’s own description of its mission, they failed.

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