WASHINGTON – Hurricane Katrina turned FEMA into a "symbol of a bumbling bureaucracy" so far beyond repair that it should be scrapped, senators said Thursday. They called for creation of a new disaster relief agency as the next storm season looms on the horizon.
The push to replace the beleaguered agency was the top recommendation of a hefty Senate inquiry that concluded that top officials from New Orleans to Washington failed to adequately prepare for and respond to the deadly storm despite weather forecasts predicting its path through the Gulf Coast.
"The first obligation of government is to protect our people," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs investigation. "In Katrina, we failed at all levels of government to meet that fundamental obligation."
She added: "We must learn from the lessons of Katrina so that next time disaster strikes, whether it's a storm that was imminent and predicted for a long time, or a terror attack that takes us by surprise, government responds far more effectively."
The inquiry's final report, given to lawmakers Thursday, faulted New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco for failing to protect sick and elderly people and others who could not evacuate the city on their own. It also concluded that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Michael Brown, who then headed the Federal Emergency Management Agency, either did not understand federal response plans or refused to follow them.
But the panel's top Democrat, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, heaped much of the blame on President Bush and the White House, which he said "were not sufficiently engaged when they should have been initiating an aggressive response."
Even after the storm's Aug. 29 landfall, the White House "still seemed detached until two days later," said Lieberman, who faces a primary re-election challenge this year.
The bipartisan panel issued 86 recommendations for change that, taken together, indicate the United States is still woefully unprepared for a storm of Katrina's scope with the start of the hurricane season little more than a month away.
The probe follows similar inquiries by the House and White House and comes in an election year in which Democrats have seized on Katrina to attack the Bush administration. Bush was visiting Louisiana and Mississippi — which bore the brunt of Katrina's wrath — on Thursday.
Katrina was one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. The storm killed more than 1,300 people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, left hundreds of thousands of homeless and caused tens of billions of dollars in damage.
The recommendations conclude FEMA is crippled beyond repair by years of poor leadership and inadequate funding and call for a new agency — the National Preparedness and Response Authority — to plan and carry out relief missions for domestic disasters.
Unlike now, the authority would communicate directly with the president during major crises, and any dramatic cuts to budget or staffing levels would have to be approved by Congress. But it would remain within the Homeland Security Department and would continue receiving resources from the department.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said FEMA needs to be stripped out of the larger department and restored to an independent Cabinet-level agency. "That's how it was done in the past and it worked as we hoped," said Lautenberg, a member of the Senate panel.
The proposal also drew disdain from Homeland Security and its critics, both sides questioning the need for another bureaucratic shuffling that they said wouldn't accomplish much.
"It's time to stop playing around with the organizational charts and to start focusing on government, at all levels, that are preparing for this storm season," Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said.
Brown, who resigned under fire after Katrina, said the new agency would basically have the same mission FEMA had a year ago before its disaster planning responsibilities were taken away to focus solely on responding to calls for help.
"It sounds like they're just re-creating the wheel and making it look like they're calling for change," Brown said.
The House report, issued in February, similarly criticized Bush, Chertoff and Brown for moving too slowly to trigger federal relief. The White House report, which came a week later, took a softer tone and singled out Homeland Security for most of the breakdowns.