White House asks to call up troops for disaster aid

The federal government should be able to deploy troops to deal with major disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and, in “extraordinary circumstances,” should take over the entire operation from states and localities, the White House said yesterday.

In a 217-page report released yesterday by White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend, the federal government proposed 125 recommendations in 17 categories to fix widespread gaps revealed by the flawed response to one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.

The report said federal agencies must be able to respond quickly when disaster overwhelms first responders and unprepared state and municipal governments.

“It may be that our military is the last and only resort. We need to plan and prepare for the Department of Defense to play a significant supporting role during future catastrophic events,” Mrs. Townsend said when briefing reporters at the White House about the report.

President Bush asked Mrs. Townsend to conduct a “lessons learned” review just days after the Aug. 29 hurricane killed more than 1,300 Gulf Coast residents and left hundreds of thousands homeless. Louisiana officials and the city of New Orleans were unprepared for the magnitude of the storm, and the federal government was slow to respond.

“I wasn’t satisfied with the federal response,” Mr. Bush said yesterday after a meeting of his Cabinet to discuss the report. “We will learn from the lessons of the past to better protect the American people.”

The president noted that the next hurricane season starts June 1 — less than 100 days from today. To that end, the report urges immediate changes in 11 areas, mainly in establishing better coordination among federal, state and local officials.

Mrs. Townsend said the report will serve as a guideline for redrafting the 600-page National Response Plan that was in effect before Katrina struck. She called the NRP “well-intentioned” but said “it didn’t measure up.”

“Unfortunately, the one thing that the government tends to be best at is red tape, but what we know is when we’re fighting a deadly hurricane or a terrorist threat, red tape can no longer be tolerated or accepted.”

The report comes a week after a scathing review by the House, which stated, “The failure of initiative cost lives, prolonged suffering and left all Americans justifiably concerned. Our government is no better prepared to protect its people than it was before 9/11.”

Mrs. Townsend acknowledged that the homeland security system still has “structural flaws” that hamper the response to catastrophic events.

Although at least a half-dozen other reports on Katrina have spread blame across the board — to officials in federal, state and local governments — Mrs. Townsend said it is the federal government’s job to step in when others fail.

“In events like Katrina, and those where resources at the state and local level are overwhelmed, the federal government must be in a position to ensure people are moved to safety,” she said.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada rejected the internal Bush investigation and called for an independent commission to probe government failures in the response to Katrina.

“It is, regrettably, an understated and often-times self-congratulatory report written by those who were part of one of the most damaging and disturbing government failures in our history,” he said.

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