A congressional report blames government-wide ineptitude for mishandling the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.
The 600-page report by a special Republican-dominated House inquiry into one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history concluded that "Katrina was a national failure, an abdication of the most solemn obligation to provide for the common welfare. At every level – individual, corporate, philanthropic, and governmental – we failed to meet the challenge that was Katrina."
Excerpts from a draft of the report obtained by CBS News said "a blinding lack of situational awareness and disjointed decision making needlessly compounded and prolonged Katrina's horror."
CBS News correspondent Bob Fuss reports that the draft report said President Bush's Homeland Security team didn't analyze or act effectively on the information it had after Katrina hit, that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff failed to do what he was supposed to and that the federal government "stumbled" into its response for the first several days after Katrina came ashore.
The report was being released as Chertoff announced wide-ranging changes to the nation's embattled Federal Emergency Management Agency. The changes range from creation of a full-time response force of 1,500 new employees to establishing a more reliable system to report on disasters as they unfold.
They are the first steps to overhauling FEMA, which was overwhelmed by the Aug. 29 Gulf Coast storm.
Separately, the Justice Department said Monday that federal prosecutors have filed fraud, theft and other charges against 212 people accused of scams related to Gulf Coast hurricanes. Forty people have pleaded guilty so far, the latest report by the Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force said. Many defendants were accused of trying to obtain emergency aid, typically a $2,000 debit card, issued to hurricane victims by FEMA and the American Red Cross.
Chertoff – who has been the target of much of the criticism of the federal response to the hurricane – rejected criticism that his agency is preoccupied with terror threats, at the expense of preparing for natural disasters like Katrina.
"I want to tell you I unequivocally and strongly reject this attempt to drive a wedge between our concerns about terrorism and our concerns about natural disasters," Chertoff said.
His strong defense of his agency came in response to criticism by ex-FEMA chief Michael Brown and others.
Brown, who resigned under pressure as FEMA head, told a Senate committee last week he told the White House and Homeland Security officials on Aug. 29, the day Katrina hit, that major flooding was under way and a levee had been breached.
But both President Bush and Chertoff said previously that they were unaware of the levee breach until the next day, Aug. 30.
The failure of the levee system led to the catastrophic flooding of the city of 500,000 people.
"I want to be clear, as the secretary of homeland security I am accountable and accept responsibility to the performance of the entire department, good and bad," Chertoff said.
"I also have the responsibility to fix what went wrong," he added.
Chertoff suggested that time was of the essence, noting that June 1 looms as the start of another hurricane season.
He pledged "a hard, honest look at what we can do to improve our response capability."
Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee issued their own recommendations Sunday for changing FEMA, including having the agency's director report directly to the president during major disasters. They also said the director should be an experienced emergency manager.
White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend also was expected to discuss parts of her upcoming review about the federal response to Katrina.
In its rush to provide Katrina disaster aid, the Federal Emergency Management Agency wasted millions of dollars and overpaid for hotel rooms, including $438-a-day lodging in New York City, government investigators said Monday.
Meanwhile, two other reports released by the Government Accountability Office and the Homeland Security Department's office of inspector general detail a series of accounting flaws, fraud or mismanagement in their initial review of how $85 billion in federal aid is being spent.
The two audits found that up to 900,000 of the 2.5 million applicants who received aid under FEMA's emergency cash assistance program — which included the $2,000 debit cards given to evacuees — were based on duplicate or invalid Social Security numbers, or false addresses and names.
Thousands of additional dollars appear to have been squandered on hotel rooms for evacuees that were paid at retail rather than the contractor's lower estimated cost. They included $438 rooms in New York City and beachfront condominiums in Panama City, Fla., at $375 a night, according to the audits.
The two audits were released by the Senate Homeland Security Committee as the panel wrapped up its investigation into the federal government's preparation and response to the disaster.
The FEMA changes follow the results of a House inquiry that found unheeded warnings, poor planning and apathy in recognizing the scope of Katrina's destruction led to the slow emergency response from the White House down to local parishes.
The House GOP report said the federal government's response to Katrina was marked by "fecklessness, flailing and organizational paralysis."
The House findings mark the first of two congressional inquiries and a White House review of the storm response expected over the next six weeks.
Among the planned changes at FEMA: