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White House Study Cites Katrina Errors

A White House report released Thursday concluded that inexperienced disaster response managers and a lack of planning, discipline and leadership contributed to vast federal failures during Hurricane Katrina.

The 228-page report by White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend urges changes in 11 key areas — mainly in better disaster relief coordination among federal agencies — before the next hurricane season begins June 1. The White House study took a softer approach than a scathing House report issued last week, focusing on proposals to fix problems without singling out any individuals for blame.

"We will learn from the lessons of the past to better protect the American people," President Bush said Thursday at the end of a Cabinet meeting at which the report was released.

"I wasn't satisfied with the federal response," Mr. Bush said. .

Read the White House Katrina report (.pdf)

Townsend, speaking to reporters later, said the White House fell short in cutting through bureaucratic red tape and quickly settling disputes among response agencies.

Her review also cites failures at a half-dozen federal agencies. It singles out the Homeland Security Department for lacking fast communication with emergency responders and the public, and an inadequate system for stockpiling supplies before a disaster hits.

"In the end, we must do a much better job at preparation, at planning, and improve out response," Townsend said.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff commended the White House's 125 recommendations, which he said were aided by his department.

"We have already 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," Chertoff said in a statement. He called the report consistent with internal changes already under way at Homeland Security.

The report does not call for any resignations, despite recent demands – mostly by Democrats – for Chertoff to step down.

The White House review comes a week after the special Republican-dominated House committee investigating the slow response found fault at every level of government — including the president and Chertoff.

Among the White House's suggestions is a stronger role for the Pentagon in planning for disaster response, including working with Homeland Security to determine when the military should take over federal relief efforts in extraordinary cases.

Mr. Bush ordered the review days after the Aug. 29 storm revealed widespread federal disaster response gaps. More than 1,300 Gulf Coast residents died after Katrina hit. Hundreds of thousands more were forced from their destroyed homes.

The report says that despite people and resources sent after the storm hit, "the response to Hurricane Katrina fell far short of the seamless, coordinated effort that had been envisioned by President Bush" when he ordered the government to craft disaster response plans two years earlier.

"We are not as prepared as we need to be at all levels within the country: federal, state, local and individual," the report said.

The review found "significant flaws" in the national response plan the Department of Homeland Security issued last year that serves as a blueprint for action the government is supposed to follow during emergencies.

And the review called for establishing a National Operations Center to coordinate disaster response at all levels of government for future crises.

In one example of miscommunication among Homeland Security officials, the report notes that the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning in New Orleans at 9:12 a.m. the day Katrina hit, stating that up to eight feet of water was expected because of a levee breach at the Industrial Canal.

However, at 6 p.m., the Homeland Security Operations Center told senior department officials and the White House that "preliminary reports indicate the levees in New Orleans have not been breached; however, an assessment is still pending."

Meanwhile, response officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency delayed sending aid supplied by the Agriculture, Interior and Veterans' Affairs departments because of inexperience in coordinating help and unfamiliarity with those federal programs, the report found.

Written in an even, methodical tone, the report characterizes Katrina as the storm of a century, comparing its destruction in New Orleans to the deadly Chicago fires in 1871 and the earthquake and fire in San Francisco in 1906. It calls Katrina the nation's deadliest natural disaster since Hurricane San Felipe in 1928.

It also describes Katrina as the first U.S. disaster — natural or man-made — with damage estimates approaching $100 billion. It does not look at ways to improve state and local preparedness and response missions.

Among other lessons learned in the report is the need for better communications to get out the word of a mandatory evacuation, CBS News correspondent Mark Knoller reports. Townsend said the radio and TV didn't do the job like the ones she remembers as a kid.

"At least when I was growing up, your TV screen went black and you heard the noise and you knew had to listen. And you knew it was going to give you instructions," she said.

Not so with Katrina. Townsend's report called for better use of modern communications, especially cell phones and pagers.

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