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States Feel Left Out Of Disaster Planning

In the White House's after- action report in February 2006, President Bush's homeland security adviser, Frances Fragos Townsend, called the National Response Plan overly complicated, Washington-driven and filled with "enough government acronyms and jargon to make your head spin."

"We need to rewrite the National Response Plan so it is workable and it is clear," she said. "We will draw from the expertise at the state and local levels to ensure that we get it right."

The pre-Katrina plan was developed shortly after FEMA was subsumed in the huge new homeland security bureaucracy, a shift that critics later concluded had put new bureaucratic layers between responders and decision makers.

Partly as a result, White House investigators said, senior officials did not anticipate the long-foreseen levee breaches that flooded New Orleans, or activate federal powers to speed the movement of 70,000 troops to the region, or unify chains of command to promptly evacuate the Louisiana Superdome and secure the chaotic city after the hurricane's landfall.

Instead, senior U.S. officials including Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, then five months on the job, implemented the existing federal plan late, ineffectively or not at all, a special Republican-led House panel on the Katrina disaster reported. Conflicting command roles under the plan also contributed to a bitter public feud between Chertoff and Michael D. Brown, who resigned as FEMA director in September 2005 after Chertoff relieved him of his on-site relief duties on the Gulf Coast.

In a statement, Brown said a "Washington knows best" attitude led the nascent DHS to produce a convoluted, out-of-touch plan and to "ram the results down the throats of first responders, mayors and governors" in 2005 before Katrina proved they would not work. "How many times does it take Washington to realize that state and local governments are the first responders and we should rely on their expertise, their knowledge and work with them as partners?" Brown asked.

DHS Deputy Secretary Michael P. Jackson, who is preparing the new draft with Joel Bagnal, the White House deputy assistant for homeland security, said in May that the old plan was "impenetrable" and that a rewrite was necessary so that "people can use it and train to it and understand it at a governor's level, at a mayor's level, at the level of a congressman."

The new draft, which was released publicly only after it was leaked to Congressional Quarterly, states that it is a simplified but "essential playbook" that describes various responsibilities of government executives, private-sector business and nongovernmental leaders and operators. Acknowledging that its directives exceed current capabilities, however, the framework commits the federal government to developing later actual strategic and operational plans.

Bush officials add that state, local and private-sector partners will get their say during a 30-day review when the plan is formally released later this year.

"The draft National Response Plan will be presented to the president after an extensive 30-day review period by federal, state and local officials, and we look forward to receiving the draft plan after that review period," White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said.

John R. Harrald, a professor at George Washington University's Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management, cautioned that shutting out state and local voices during the plan's preparation would be ill-advised. He said that the administration appears "to be guided by a desire to ensure centralized control of what is an inherently decentralized process. . . . Response to catastrophic events requires collaboration and trust in a broad network of organizations."

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