WASHINGTON – No strangers to bureaucratic bungling and turf wars, the nation's governors watched in horror as government agencies handled Hurricane Katrina (search) with glaring incompetence — and now worry that the next disaster could deal their states the same ugly fate.
The fear is bipartisan. Republican and Democratic governors agree that the response to Katrina was deplorable, and many ordered reviews of their own state emergency strategies to root out problems they're witnessing in the Gulf Coast (search).
Their top priority: Avoid the bureaucratic red tape that tripped up state, local and federal authorities at every step of the Gulf Coast crisis. Thousands of lives may be at stake after the next natural disaster or terrorist strike.
"Every one of those government levels could have done better," said Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican. "The great thing about this country is we usually learn from these tragedies. There is some accountability. Some heads will roll."
"This certainly gives me great pause," said Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat. "We have to look at emergency response in a new light with the lapses down there."
More than a dozen governors were interviewed for this story, and most had a bureaucratic horror story about Hurricane Katrina.
In Arkansas, state officials were first told to expect 300 evacuees. Nobody came. Then the state was told to prepare 4,000 meals for a fleet of buses. No buses arrived. Suddenly, in the wee hours of Sunday, more than 9,000 refugees showed up at a National Guard post. "It rained people on us," said Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican.
In West Virginia, Gov. Joe Manchin dispatched several planes to the South to ferry refugees to his state. Most of the aircraft sat empty until he ordered them back home in frustration. "The waste that goes on because of a lack of coordination ... ," he said. Too angry to finish that sentence, Manchin spit out a new one: "To bring five planes back empty is a crying shame."
In New Mexico, Gov. Bill Richardson said he authorized National Guard troops to leave for New Orleans early last week, but paperwork delayed their departure for days.
"A lot of states wanted to help, but there was no place to turn," said Democratic Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia.
While Democrats were a bit more likely to blame President Bush (search) and Republicans tended to question the actions of Democratic leaders in Louisiana, the governors as a whole were far less partisan than politicians in Washington.
From top to bottom, all forms of government failed Katrina's victims, they said.
"I think it's unfair to blame President Bush here," said Richardson, a Democrat who is mulling a presidential bid in 2008. "What I would blame is the bureaucratic red tape throughout the system that is out of control with little credibility and way too turf-conscience. Rather than point fingers in blame, the state and the federal governments need to develop a new emergency system."
Why isn't one already in place? It's been nearly four years since the Sept. 11 attacks (search), which buoyed Bush in political terms and temporarily united both parties behind a promise to protect the nation from the next calamity. Together, Democrats and Republicans created the Homeland Security Department — an enormous, clumsy bureaucracy responsible for handling natural disasters and terrorist attacks.
"What is potentially harmful about this whole situation is that people lose faith in the fact that the government can be a protector," said Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat. "I'm hopeful that we can use this as an opportunity to demand more of government."
Taking a lesson from New Orleans, Sebelius ordered state emergency planners to identify residents of Kansas' major cities who would be unable to evacuate after a terrorist strike or natural disaster, whether due to a physical handicap or lack of transportation.
Republican Gov. Matt Blunt of Missouri said it's a good time to review how state and federal governments would coordinate emergency efforts in the wake of an earthquake along the New Madrid fault, a looming danger that draws little attention outside the region.
Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa, a potential presidential candidate in 2008, raised a rare partisan note, taking a soft jab at the Bush administration. "Some anguish could have been avoided and I think it's the job of the federal government to make sure this never happens again," he said.
Nobody got the job done. While Bush and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani showed true leadership four years ago, several governors said, Katrina's deadly winds produced no political heroes.
"However it was supposed to work, it didn't," Manchin said from West Virginia. "I don't know if it's a territorial thing, which we all deal with as governors; everybody hunkers down and protects their turf, and somebody has to cut through that for the people's sake."
"Clearly, nobody did that on Katrina," he said. "Nobody led."