Disaster Response Improvements Lacking

The Associated Press
Saturday, April 29, 2006; 7:20 PM

WASHINGTON -- Most of the changes in natural disaster preparedness proposed by the White House and Congress since Hurricane Katrina are years away at best, leaving the Gulf Coast and other areas vulnerable to new devastation.

Only a few of the 211 suggested improvements from three federal reports will be ready when the hurricane season starts June 1, and limited dollars and political squabbling already are complicating the progress.

"Nature doesn't care about reports," said Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado. "Nor does it care about the fact there are people still suffering, and we're not ready.

"The big question in everybody's mind is whether entities that proved themselves incompetent to handle Hurricane Katrina can become competent by the summer of 2006," Tierney said Friday. "So far, we've seen no evidence of that."

Separate investigations by the House, Senate and White House delved into managing an emergency response to a storm as massive as Katrina, which stretched across 90,000 square miles:

_The House report did not make any recommendations for change. It did conclude that local, state and federal officials lacked any sense of urgency in preparing for catastrophic disasters.

_The White House inquiry focused on flawed federal plans and confusion during the storm, which hit Aug. 29. The report made 125 recommendations, including 11 to be completed by June 1, including plans for evacuating victims, ably tracking supplies and delivering quick information from disaster zones.

_The Senate report, portions of which were released last week, offered 86 recommendations, most notably replacing the Federal Emergency Management Agency with a more potent successor. The report made the case for more money local, state and federal responders, without saying how much or the source of the dollars.

"We recognize that our recommendations will not be enacted in the next five weeks, before the next hurricane season begins," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who led the Senate inquiry. "But we cannot stay with the same deeply flawed system that has proven that it simply does not work."

President Bush on Friday rejected the idea of killing FEMA.

"The lessons of Katrina are important," Bush said. "We've learned a lot here at the federal level. We're much more ready this time than we were the last time."

"Let's, first of all, pray there's no hurricanes," Bush said. "That would be, like, step one."

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