At a moment when confidence in the government's ability to handle big emergencies seems to be sinking, it's important to remember that two vital agencies -- the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center -- met the challenges of Katrina and Rita.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, last week held the first of several hearings on the government's bungled response to Katrina. The Weather Service and the Hurricane Center, he said, "passed Katrina's test with flying colors."
Earlier, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), chairman of a Senate commerce subcommittee on disaster prevention and prediction, said the Weather Service, in tracking Katrina, produced "one of the most accurate hurricane predictions we have ever seen."
Davis and DeMint pointed out that countless lives were saved because of the early and accurate warnings that flowed from the Hurricane Center as Katrina marched across the Gulf of Mexico in late August.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), the House Democratic leader, praised the Weather Service last week for "probably . . . the best performance of any of the federal agencies in all of this."
The Weather Service and Hurricane Center also are two agencies that know how to communicate effectively with the public. The Weather Service posts regular bulletins that help shape news media reports. Max Mayfield, director of the Hurricane Center, never appeared too tired to explain Katrina in televised interviews during the last week of August.
In his prepared testimony before the Davis committee, Mayfield said the Hurricane Center participated in 471 television and radio interviews from Aug. 25 through Katrina's landfall in Mississippi on Aug. 29.
On average, Mayfield said, forecasts of where Katrina would go "were more accurate than usual" and exceeded federal performance goals set for hurricane forecasts this year.
Davis said the forecasts showed "remarkable accuracy." Storm-track projections provided to the public 56 hours before Katrina came ashore were off by only 15 miles, he said. The Hurricane Center's predicted wind strength for Katrina at landfall, two days before the storm hit, was off by only 10 miles per hour, Davis said.
Mayfield personally called state and local leaders two days ahead of time to warn them about Katrina and gave daily pre-storm briefings to officials at the Department of Homeland Security, Davis said.
But government at all levels fell short in responding to the disaster, Davis said. "Over the next few months, we'll try to figure out why," he said.
One agency that was in place and ready to respond was the U.S. Coast Guard. In the greater New Orleans area, the Coast Guard reports it saved 33,520 lives through air and water rescues.
Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen was called upon to take charge of the Katrina response and recovery activities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and Coast Guard Rear Adm. Larry Hereth is coordinating the Rita response in Texas.
Katrina Tax Break
President Bush has signed legislation to provide tax breaks for Hurricane Katrina victims, including a provision that would waive penalties for people who need to withdraw money from their retirement accounts.
The provision would cover the Thrift Savings Plan as well as 401(k) plans, a TSP spokesman said. The TSP has about 3.5 million participants and provides retirement savings accounts to civil service, postal and military personnel.
The legislation, signed Friday, would allow eligible individuals to withdraw a maximum of $100,000 from their retirement accounts without paying the usual 10 percent tax and would increase the limit on loans from pension plans from $50,000 to $100,000.
Hurricane victims applying for the tax waiver would pay income tax on the withdrawal over three years but could avoid the tax by making a repayment within three years.
An estimated 92,000 federal employees worked in the Gulf Coast states hit by Katrina last month, according to a preliminary tally by federal officials.
Please join me for a discussion of federal employee and retiree issues at noon Wednesday on Federal Diary Live at www.washingtonpost.com.