Disaster Response Changes Promised

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Bush administration acknowledged its mistakes yesterday and promised anew to re-engineer the nation's homeland security agencies in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, scrambling to contain the damage from sharp criticism by House investigators and testimony by the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

President Bush's homeland security adviser, Frances Fragos Townsend, addressing 50 state emergency managers at a meeting in Alexandria, previewed results of a government-wide review due later this month that she said would make more than 100 recommendations to improve disaster response. They will include stronger mandatory evacuation policies, closer military involvement in homeland security, and larger regional FEMA offices to work with governors and mayors of large cities.

"It was the president who acknowledged the response to Hurricane Katrina was insufficient, and it was the president who first sought the lessons learned," said Townsend, who, as head of the Homeland Security Council, is leading the review ordered by Bush.

The White House offensive comes as the House and Senate are nearing completion of separate investigations that will cast a harsh light on the government's response to Katrina and Bush's management of homeland security more than four years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks made that task his presidency's defining theme.

Yesterday, testimony by congressional and Department of Homeland Security auditors also highlighted flaws in the ongoing domestic reconstruction -- at $85 billion in congressional aid so far, nearly six months after the Aug. 29 storm -- finding millions of dollars in waste, dubious eligibility of tens of thousands of people who received aid after the storm, and poor federal financial controls.

Also yesterday, a federal judge ruled that FEMA can stop paying directly for hotel rooms for 12,000 families left homeless by hurricanes.

White House aides rushed to defend Bush's actions after the Gulf Coast storm, add specifics to previous broad pledges to restructure preparedness and recovery efforts, and personalize attacks on critics.

Responding to a draft House report that said the administration disregarded warnings of Katrina's threat to New Orleans and that Bush was slow to become engaged, Townsend said, "I reject outright any suggestion that President Bush was anything less than fully involved."

In his own speech to the National Emergency Management Association's mid-year meeting of state officials, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff responded to concerns from the group and other critics, repeating the administration's commitment to defend against natural and man-made hazards. "I unequivocally and strongly reject this attempt to drive a wedge between our concerns about terrorism and our concerns about natural disasters," he said.

But he largely accepted 90 findings of flaws at every level of government by a draft House report to be released tomorrow, including many directed at him.

Chertoff acknowledged that the government waited too long, until after Katrina made landfall, to mobilize troops, vehicles and aid needed to rescue and remove victims from New Orleans, adding to deaths and suffering. He said that under his watch, federal emergency plans and command of the crisis that killed more than 1,300 people broke down.

"I am accountable and accept responsibility for the performance of the entire department, good and bad," Chertoff said.

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