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Report: Terror Eclipsed Disaster Prep

As the wounds of Katrina fester from Biloxi to Baton Rouge, the Department of Homeland Security is taking body blows for a botched federal response. The latest punch is from its own Inspector General, Richard L. Skinner, in a report released Friday, reports CBS News correspondent Bob Orr.

The report charges the government's heavy focus on terrorism has left it unprepared to deal with a natural disaster, and says urgent improvements are required in terms of training, communications, and coordination with state and local emergency responders, reports Orr.

"After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, (Homeland Security's) prevention and preparedness for terrorism have overshadowed that for natural hazards, both in perception and in application," the report reads.

The study includes 38 recommendations to improve disaster response missions by the department and its Federal Emergency Management Agency.

But the report comes a day after flood advisories detailed how high the water might rise in certain sections of the city during a once-in-a-100-year storm, and how well the levees would protect residents. The government protection recommends that thousands of homes and businesses in areas ravaged by Hurricane Katrina be raised at least 3 feet, a requirement that clears the way for residents to decide how, or whether, to rebuild.

"This will enable people to get on with their lives," said Donald Powell, the chief federal coordinator for Gulf Coast hurricane recovery. But the New York Times reports that in New Orleans, the federal advice was received with confusion by some.

"What we're having a problem with is, where was the three-foot figure derived from?" John Luther, an executive at the New Orleans Home Builders Association, told the Times.

The Homeland Security Department was founded after the attacks of 9/11, and FEMA, previously an autonomous agency, was folded into it. Some say downgrading FEMA was a major factor in its lackluster performance in the recovery effort the widespread destruction wreaked by Katrina and a second major hurricane, Rita, which followed three weeks later.

Read the Department of Homeland Security report.
The federal government, and FEMA in particular, "received widespread criticism for a slow and ineffective response to Hurricane Katrina," the Homeland Security report concludes. "Much of the criticism is warranted."

Responding, Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said many of the recommendations already are being installed at FEMA — including revamped federal response plans and the assurance that state and local authorities are ready for the next storm season, which begins June 1.

"We'll apply these lessons learned from Katrina and these other various reviews to the way forward as we get ready for June," Knocke said.

Though FEMA provided "record levels of support" to storm victims, emergency responders and state authorities, investigators found it was hampered by untrained staff, unreliable communication systems and poor coordination in delivering aid.

The report also called FEMA plans to assist overwhelmed states during disasters "insufficient for an event of Hurricane Katrina's magnitude."

It also found that confusing guidelines in the National Response Plan, issued in December 2004 as a blueprint for action the government is supposed to follow during emergencies, led to duplicated communications and efforts during Katrina.

The 38 recommendations specify better training, coordination and systems for ensuring communications among local and state emergency responders and between federal agencies providing aid.

They also recommended more clearly defined roles and an established chain of command within the federal government.

One recommendation also urges stronger oversight of federal contracts before they are awarded. FEMA rebid $3.6 billion worth of storm-related contracts last month after lawmakers complained the money had been given to four firms that did not compete for the work.

FEMA and Homeland Security have promised that many changes, including systems to track supplies, aid victims and deliver quick information to all levels of government during a disaster, will be ready by June 1.

Though pointed, the Homeland Security report's summary is far less harsh than a House of Representatives inquiry in February that concluded that government indifference toward disaster preparations contributed to deaths and suffering that Katrina inflicted after its Aug. 29 landfall.

The White House also cited numerous failures in federal disaster planning, communications and leadership in its own "lessons-learned" review issued later in February.

The Senate is preparing its own inquiry into the Katrina response. It was due in late March, but has been delayed by at least a month.