Damage and Doubts Linger After Katrina

In July, a pile of debris and detritus remained untouched in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, yards from where a levee broke when the storm hit last year.
In July, a pile of debris and detritus remained untouched in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, yards from where a levee broke when the storm hit last year. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

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By Christopher Lee and Anushka Asthana
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 21, 2006

Nearly one year after Hurricane Katrina punched into the Gulf Coast, much damage remains, both in the shattered homes that litter parts of New Orleans and in the battered reputation of government institutions, a new survey shows.

The country is in the heart of hurricane season again, and many Americans are not persuaded by federal assurances that the government is ready for the next big storm, according to the national survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Fewer than half of those surveyed said they thought the government is "very prepared" to deal with this year's hurricane season. Only half agreed that the federal government had "learned a lesson from Hurricane Katrina" -- which swamped New Orleans, killing more than 1,500 people and displacing hundreds of thousands more -- "and the nation is better prepared for a major disaster as a result." More than four in 10 respondents said the government had not learned anything.

It is an assessment the administration strongly disputes. Speaking Friday at an event entitled "Government after Katrina: Lessons Learned," R. David Paulison, the new director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, listed changes taking place inside the agency.

Paulison acknowledged that some "extraordinary criticism" FEMA received was "frankly deserved." But he promised the room packed with media and charity workers that the agency is learning.

Although President Bush pledged on Sept. 15 in a nationally televised address from Jackson Square to rebuild New Orleans, 70 percent of those surveyed said most individuals still have not gotten the help they need with housing, health care and restoring their lives. Fifty-six percent said the federal government has not done enough to help state and local governments restore services in the affected areas and 30 percent said it has.

Among African Americans, a group that suffered disproportionately from the storm's devastation, such sentiment ran stronger. Eighty-four percent of black respondents said most people affected by Katrina had not gotten the help they need to move on with their lives, and 75 percent said the federal government had not done enough to help state and local officials.

The blow to public opinion about the government extends beyond immediate Katrina-related matters. More than half of the survey's respondents (53 percent) said the government's handling of the hurricane had a negative impact on their confidence in government overall. Only 13 percent said it had a positive impact and 28 percent said it had no impact. (Five percent said they didn't know.)

Federal officials might find some solace in the fact that, while those surveyed generally gave the thumbs-down to the federal government's response to Katrina, they were willing to spread the blame around.

Thirty-one percent said failures in the response to the storm were mostly those of government agencies. But those queried also cited individual officials and leaders (21 percent of respondents) and residents who did not adequately prepare and leave in time (22 percent).

Paulison said he is concerned about the number of people who still say they will not evacuate when told. He was speaking at an event organized by the Partnership for Public Service as part of a project aiming to discuss what went wrong, what went right and what can provide lessons for future events.

"We need to see Katrina as a wake-up signal," said Max Stier, president of the partnership.

Paulison said there have been changes. He talked of an improved communications system, the ability to register 200,000 victims a day (twice the number possible last year) and a larger and more experienced workforce. FEMA has promised to have 200 buses ready and waiting in Carville, La.

"We cannot let the deaths and suffering of Katrina victims go in vain," he said. "We are taking FEMA and taking it into the 21st century."

But Paulison acknowledged that his words are not enough to convince the nation. "I understand that it is going to be how we perform," he said. "Until we actually do, people are not going to believe it."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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