WASHINGTON – Government at all levels took an indifferent stance toward disaster preparations after the 2001 terror attacks, leaving the Gulf Coast vulnerable to Hurricane Katrina and contributing to the death and suffering the storm inflicted, a House inquiry concludes.
Finding fault with the White House down to local officials, the 520-page report, titled "A Failure of Initiative," determined that authorities failed to move quickly to protect people — even when faced with warnings days before the catastrophic storm struck last Aug. 29.
"Passivity did the most damage," concluded the report, which was written by a Republican-dominated special House committee and obtained Tuesday night by The Associated Press. "The failure of initiative cost lives, prolonged suffering, and left all Americans justifiably concerned our government is no better prepared to protect its people than it was before 9/11, even if we are."
The hard-hitting report concludes that President Bush could have speeded the response by becoming involved in the crisis earlier. It says he was not receiving guidance from a disaster specialist, who would have understood the scope of the storm's destruction.
"Earlier presidential involvement might have resulted in a more effective response," the inquiry concluded.
White House spokesman Allen Abney declined to comment. On Monday, White House Homeland Security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend said Bush was "fully involved" in Washington's preparations and response to Katrina.
The inquiry into one of the nation's worst natural disasters looked at everything from the evacuation to the military's role to planning for emergency supplies and in each category found much to criticize.
"The single biggest failure of the federal response was that it failed to recognize the likely consequences of the approaching storm and mobilize federal assets for a post-storm evacuation of the flooded city," the report said. "If it had, then federal assistance would have arrived several days earlier."
Typical of the report's unsparing tone, it warned, "The preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina should disturb all Americans."
The House study is the first to be completed in a series of inquiries by Congress and the Bush administration about the massive failures exposed by Katrina.
The storm left more than 1,300 people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama dead, hundreds of thousands homeless and tens of billions of dollars worth of damage in its wake. Despite Bush's accepting full responsibility for the federal government's shortfalls, the storm response continues to generate finger-pointing.
The panel, chaired by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., was formally unveiling the final version of the study on Wednesday. Parts of it were released on Sunday.
House Democrats who participated in the inquiry could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday night. But in a 59-page response released last Sunday, Reps. Charlie Melancon and William Jefferson of Louisiana said that while they largely agreed with its conclusions, the report falls short of holding "anyone accountable for these failures."
Despite its accomplishments, the committee "adopted an approach that largely eschews direct accountability," Melancon and Jefferson said in their response. "The majority report rarely assesses how these problems occurred, why they were not corrected sooner, and who in particular was responsible."
In Senate testimony last week, former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown singled out the Homeland Security Department and its chief, Secretary Michael Chertoff, as a muddled bureaucracy that slowed relief to the Gulf Coast. The White House and Homeland Security have hit back, describing Brown as a renegade who failed to follow a chain of command.
The House report also finds fault with Chertoff for failing to activate a national plan to trigger fast relief, and Homeland Security, for overseeing a bare-bones and inexperienced emergency response staff.
Describing a similar delayed response, the report concludes that Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin waited until too late to order a mandatory evacuation of the city. Despite warnings of Katrina's potential destruction 56 hours ahead of landfall, the evacuation order came only 19 hours before Katrina hit.
"None of this had to happen," investigators concluded in reviewing the evacuation effort. "Despite years of recognition of the threat that was to materialize in Hurricane Katrina, no one — not the federal government, not the state government, and not the local government — seems to have planned for an evacuation of the city from flooding through breached levees."
Charitable organizations such as the American Red Cross do not escape criticism in the report, which found that they were overwhelmed by the sheer size of demands, leading to water, food and other supply shortages and disorganized sheltering processes.
Some of the response failures dated back to months and even years before Katrina hit, the report found. A lack of warning systems for levee failures delayed their fast repair and poor communications equipment prevented federal, state and local emergency responders from coordinating their counterattack.
Moreover, federal agencies — including the Homeland Security Department — were unclear about their responsibilities under a national response plan issued a year ago. And lessons learned from Hurricane Pam — a fictional storm designed to test Gulf Coast preparedness — went unheeded even though officials knew of the dangers that a Category 4 or 5 hurricane would pose to New Orleans.
Katrina was initially believed to be a Category 4 storm when it hit, but weather experts have since said it was likely a Category 3.
The House panel spent five months investigating the failures. It interviewed scores of federal, state and local authorities, sorted through more than 500,000 pages of e-mails, memos and other documents and held nine public hearings spotlighting sometimes feeble explanations by officials.
Though some Democrats — mostly representing Gulf Coast districts — participated in the House inquiry, their party leaders boycotted it, holding out for an independent commission similar to the one that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Earlier Tuesday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush has full confidence in Chertoff and has not considered asking him to step down because of the criticism.
"Secretary Chertoff is doing a great job," McClellan said Tuesday. "The president appreciates his strong leadership."
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, however, reiterated an earlier call for Chertoff to resign. The recent criticism about Chertoff's performance during Katrina "only adds to my displeasure with our secretary," Reid said.