- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2006

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.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said his agency already has begun “to take action to address many of the issues raised in the report, particularly those areas we need to improve before the start of the 2006 hurricane season.”

KATRINA LESSONS

Here are some recommendations made by the White House yesterday in its report on Hurricane Katrina:

• The Defense and the Homeland Security departments should draw up plans for how the military will participate in the response to the next catastrophe, including how resources should be put in place before a predicted disaster.

• The Homeland Security Department and other agencies should improve their abilities to communicate with one another during a disaster, and buttress programs for training emergency officials and workers.

• The Justice Department should plan for how it and other federal agencies can help state and local agencies provide law enforcement during disasters, including how to quickly pour in large numbers of federal law-enforcement officers if needed.

• The Health and Human Services Department has to better plan how it can provide large amounts of public health and social services in devastated areas.

• The Housing and Urban Development Department must plan how to provide more temporary and long-term housing assistance after disasters, working with other federal agencies and the American Red Cross.

• The Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies have to figure out how they can more quickly determine whether a disaster area has environmental hazards.

• A national operations center should be established to coordinate federal response to disasters and ensure that information is being provided to all government agencies.

• The Homeland Security Department should produce an inventory of federal resources and capabilities so the government will know the tools it has for responding to disasters.

• The government needs a strong campaign for educating the public on the need to prepare for catastrophes, including building disaster preparedness into school curriculums and encouraging state tax breaks for people buying emergency equipment.

• Federal and local agencies must work out ways to better coordinate assistance offered by private organizations.

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