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Bush to Probe Storm Response

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By Jonathan Weisman and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Stung by criticism of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, President Bush yesterday promised to investigate his own administration's emergency management, then readied a request for tens of billions of dollars for relief and cleanup.

From the Pentagon to Capitol Hill, official Washington spent yesterday grappling with a hurricane recovery effort that, according to some estimates, will cost more than $100 billion and influence a broad range of federal policy, from emergency response to coastal development, from expanded domestic oil exploration to the future of the estate tax.

Bush vowed to "find out what went right and what went wrong." Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that the military already has begun a "lessons-learned" assessment of its coordination with state and local governments. Nine Cabinet members briefed Senate and House leaders last night on the federal response, and key senators pushed for changes that would allow Third World relief efforts to be emulated in the United States.

"Nothing will be the same again," said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), whose Pascagoula home was destroyed.

Just days after Congress approved a $10.5 billion emergency relief package, Bush informed congressional leaders of a request of as much as $40 billion, making Katrina the federal government's most expensive domestic emergency ever. The package could be passed as early as today, aides said.

But with the Federal Emergency Management Agency spending more than $500 million a day, lawmakers from both parties said the cost will climb much higher. Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) suggested the total could exceed $150 billion, with $100 billion for FEMA alone. Lott said the cost will be "well in excess of $100 billion," and few were disagreeing.

Beyond money, congressional leaders ordered committee chairmen to draft any legislation that could remedy the problems revealed by the hurricane and its aftermath. And after nearly a week of recriminations, Washington slipped into an extraordinary bout of self-reflection.

"It is fair to say the overall response to this emergency could have and should have been better," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) called for FEMA Director Michael D. Brown to leave and be replaced by "an experienced, professional emergency manager."

Speaking to reporters after a Cabinet meeting , Bush said: "It's very important for us to understand the relationship between the federal government, the state government and the local government when it comes to a major catastrophe. . . . We want to make sure that we can respond properly if there's a WMD [weapons of mass destruction] attack or another major storm."

Bush, who has called the response to the hurricane unacceptable only to amend that to say the results were not acceptable, offered no specifics on his planned investigation. Still, the call for an investigation was unusual coming from a president who rarely admits mistakes.

House Republican leaders suggested that Congress launch one comprehensive examination of the disaster response, possibly a joint House-Senate investigation. But Senate committees were already moving forward. The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee has scheduled hearings next week to examine the federal disaster response.

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