White House Whitewash

Sunday, February 26, 2006

WITH EFFORT, it is possible to unearth some worthy recommendations in "The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned," the White House report on what went wrong during Hurricane Katrina. Echoing other reports, most notably one recently produced by Congress, the White House homeland security adviser, Frances Fragos Townsend, found that "we can improve our preparedness and response to reduce future loss and preserve life." More specifically, her investigative team found, among other things, that more top officials should have emergency management training; that the Defense Department should have more involvement in preparing for disasters; that the Department of Homeland Security should maintain its own crisis communications system; and that the federal government should clarify the role of police officers during a crisis too. All of these ideas sound sensible -- so sensible, in fact, that it seems odd no one had thought of them before last summer's storm.

Some of the report's other recommendations are more dubious, such as the suggestion that DHS divide the country into regions, each of which would have a fully staffed and equipped "preparedness team" on hand at all times. Given that one of the core problems during Katrina was the difficulty of coordinating local, state and federal responses, it's far from clear that adding a fourth regional level of response would help; it seems more likely to confuse matters further. There are also a few suggestions that seem beside the point, such as the proposal that states develop "tax relief holidays," in order to "allow citizens to purchase disaster preparedness supplies" -- as if the reason people had not purchased such supplies had anything to do with their being overtaxed.

But the report also has a deeper flaw: It coats the entire subject in a layer of bureaucratese so thick that some recommendations have to be read twice before it becomes clear that they are restating the obvious. If confused writing reflects confused thinking, what are we to make of statements such as the suggestion that the Department of Homeland Security together with "other homeland security partners" should "strengthen the Federal Government's capability to provide public health and medical support during a crisis," a step that "will require the improvement of command and control of public health resources, the development of deliberate plans" and "an additional investment in deployable operational resources." What this may mean is that the U.S. government should have more doctors on hand in case of a public health crisis, since there are currently not enough -- but that has been known for quite some time.

In the same spirit, the report glances over actual mistakes made by actual people, preferring to dwell on more general mistakes made by agencies. Most notably, it exempts DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff from criticism, despite the fact that the earlier House investigation found that he did not understand the response plans he was supposed to implement. Naturally, the report exempts the president as well. Perhaps that is to be expected of a White House document -- but it does have the effect of making an unconvincing investigation seem even less reliable.

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