Sunday, February 26, 2006

Katrina Report Spreads Blame, Part 5

More by Spencer Hsu of the Washington Post:

The first federal order to evacuate New Orleans was not issued until 1:30 a.m. Aug. 31, and came only after FEMA's ground commander in New Orleans, Phil Parr, put out a call for buses after finding water lapping at the approaches to the Superdome, where about 12,000 victims were camped.

The council's "failure to resolve conflicts in information and the 'fog of war,' not a lack of information, caused confusion," the House panel wrote. It added that the crisis showed the government remains "woefully incapable" of managing information, much as it was before the 2001 attacks.

The summary obtained by The Post generally praises pre-storm evacuations by Gulf Coast leaders, but it criticizes preparations and decisions by Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D), who knew that 100,000 city residents had no cars and relied on public transit. The city's failure to complete its mandatory evacuation, ordered Aug. 28, led to hundreds of deaths, the report said.

Neighboring Plaquemines Parish, by contrast, issued its order Aug. 27, helping to hold the number of storm deaths there at three. Nursing homes outside New Orleans were able to find special transportation for patients, while at least one in the city could not find bus drivers by the time people were told to leave.

The investigation also condemned "hyped media coverage of violence and lawlessness, legitimized by New Orleans authorities," for increasing security burdens, scaring away rescuers and heightening tension in the city.

It faulted Nagin for repeating, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, rumors of armed gangs committing rapes and murder in an "almost animalistic state." The report said few cases of gunshots or violence were confirmed, although it acknowledged that few police were able to investigate and victims may have had little incentive to report crime.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company


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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Katrina Report Spreads Blame, Part 4

More by Spencer Hsu of the Washington Post:

The report said the single biggest federal failure was not anticipating the consequences of the storm. Disaster planners had rated the flooding of New Orleans as the nation's most feared scenario, testing it under a catastrophic disaster preparedness program in 2004.

About 56 hours before Katrina made landfall, the National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center cited an "extremely high probability" that New Orleans would be flooded and tens of thousands of residents killed.

Given those warnings, the report notes Bush's televised statement on Sept. 1 that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees," and concludes: "Comments such as those . . . do not appear to be consistent with the advice and counsel one would expect to have been provided by a senior disaster professional."

As the president's principal disaster adviser, Chertoff poorly executed many decisions, including declaring Katrina an "incident of national significance" -- the highest designation under the national emergency response plan and convening an interagency board of experienced strategic advisers on Aug. 30 instead of Aug. 27; designating an untrained Brown to take charge of the disaster; and failing to invoke a federal plan that would have pushed federal help to overwhelmed state and local officials rather than waiting for them to request it.

The report said Chertoff was "confused" about Brown's role and authority, and that it was unclear why he chose him, given his lack of skills and his hostility to FEMA's downgrading under new plans.

After failing to foresee the need to muster buses, boats and aircraft, the next critical federal mistake was failure to confirm catastrophic levee breaches, the report asserts.

Despite a FEMA official's eyewitness accounts of breaches starting at 7 p.m. on Aug. 29, the president's Homeland Security Council, led by homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend and her deputy, Ken Rapuano, did not consider them confirmed until 11 hours later, on Aug. 30.

More next time ...


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Sunday, February 19, 2006

Katrina Report Spreads Blame, Part 3

More by Spencer Hsu of the Washington Post:

The report puts the government response in a larger context and offers a few new details. In months of hearings, House and Senate investigative committees have already revealed the lack of White House awareness of events on the ground, political infighting between federal and state leaders, delays in ordering evacuations and the meltdown of FEMA operations.

The review, launched Sept. 15, suggests that federal funding be used to update state evacuation studies. It proposes making commercial airliners available in an emergency and creating a database to provide a national clearinghouse of shelter data. It also suggests naming a professional disaster adviser to the president, akin to the military's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Democrats, whose leaders considered the investigation a partisan whitewash and boycotted it, called for Chertoff's removal. Reps. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) and William J. Jefferson (D-La.),who informally participated in the inquiry, renewed calls for an independent commission styled after the one that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks, saying that the investigation, while comprehensive, was rushed, failed to compel the White House to turn over documents and held no administration officials accountable.

House investigators acknowledge that after reviewing nine hearings, scores of interviews and 500,000 pages of documents, they "will never know" what would have happened had federal, Louisiana and New Orleans officials activated plans and called on the military before the storm, and evacuated the city sooner than Aug. 28. However, the committee found U.S. disaster preparedness -- individual, corporate, philanthropic and governmental -- remains dangerously inadequate.

"All the little pigs built houses of straw," it wrote. "Katrina was a national failure, an abdication of the most solemn obligation to provide for the common welfare."

The report reconstructs a chronology of events over a three-week span from Aug. 22 to Sept. 12. It focuses primarily on failures by Chertoff and the rest of the administration to execute a year-old National Response Plan and set up a related command structure, designed to marshal resources in the critical first 72 hours after a catastrophe.

More next time ...


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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Katrina Report Spreads Blame, Part 2

More by Spencer Hsu of the Washington Post:

The White House did not fully engage the president or "substantiate, analyze and act on the information at its disposal," failing to confirm the collapse of New Orleans's levee system on Aug. 29, the day of Katrina's landfall, which led to catastrophic flooding of the city of 500,000 people.

On the ground, Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael D. Brown, who has since resigned, FEMA field commanders and the U.S. military's commanding general set up rival chains of command. The Coast Guard, which alone rescued nearly half of 75,000 people stranded in New Orleans, flew nine helicopters and two airplanes over the city that first day, but eyewitness reconnaissance did not reach official Washington before midnight.

At the same time, weaknesses identified by Sept. 11 investigators -- poor communications among first responders, a shortage of qualified emergency personnel and lack of training and funding -- doomed a response confronted by overwhelming demands for help.

"If 9/11 was a failure of imagination then Katrina was a failure of initiative. It was a failure of leadership," the report's preface states. "In this instance, blinding lack of situational awareness and disjointed decision making needlessly compounded and prolonged Katrina's horror."

Chertoff spokesman Russ Knocke said, "every ounce of authority" and "100 percent of everything that could be pre-staged was pre-staged" by the federal government before landfall once the president signed emergency disaster declarations on Aug. 27. Brown had "all authority" to make decisions and requests, and his "willful insubordination . . . was a significant problem" for Chertoff, Knocke said.

White House spokesman Trent Duffy said Bush had full confidence in his homeland security team, both appointed and career. "The president was involved from beginning to end," implementing emergency powers before the storm and taking responsibility afterward, Duffy said.

Duffy objected to a leaked draft of an unpublished report, and said the White House is completing its own study. "The president is less interested in yesterday, and more interested with today and tomorrow," he said, "so that we can be better prepared for next time."

More next time ...


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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Katrina Report Spreads Blame...

Spencer S. Hsu, Washington Post Staff Writer, reports

Hurricane Katrina exposed the U.S. government's failure to learn the lessons of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, as leaders from President Bush down disregarded ample warnings of the threat to New Orleans and did not execute emergency plans or share information that would have saved lives, according to a blistering report by House investigators.

A draft of the report, to be released publicly Wednesday, includes 90 findings of failures at all levels of government, according to a senior investigation staffer who requested anonymity because the document is not final. Titled "A Failure of Initiative," it is one of three separate reviews by the House, Senate and White House that will in coming weeks dissect the response to the nation's costliest natural disaster.

The 600-plus-page report lays primary fault with the passive reaction and misjudgments of top Bush aides, singling out Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security Operations Center and the White House Homeland Security Council, according to a 60-page summary of the document obtained by The Washington Post. Regarding Bush, the report found that "earlier presidential involvement could have speeded the response" because he alone could have cut through all bureaucratic resistance.

The report, produced by an 11-member House select committee of Republicans chaired by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), proposes few specific changes. But it is an unusual compendium of criticism by the House GOP, which generally has not been aggressive in its oversight of the administration.

The report portrays Chertoff, who took the helm of the department six months before the storm, as detached from events. It contends he switched on the government's emergency response systems "late, ineffectively or not at all," delaying the flow of federal troops and materiel by as much as three days.

More next time ...


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Thursday, February 09, 2006

Of Hardball and Corruption ...

From Reuters via CNN:

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (Reuters) -- Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco warned state lawmakers Monday that corruption could no longer be tolerated, as the area rebuilds from Hurricane Katrina, and vowed to "play hardball" with Washington over oil and gas revenues.

Opening a special legislative session in the New Orleans Convention Center, where thousands of residents took refuge in the days after Katrina flooded the city, Blanco said the disaster that killed 1,300 people had become "yesterday's problem" for many in Washington.

"We had all better put Louisiana politics aside and worry about Washington politics, or our people and our state will lose," she said.

Five months after Katrina, much of the city remains in ruins and two-thirds of its population has not returned. Local and federal officials have blamed each other for the lack of a clear recovery plan and the White House has come out against a proposed bill that would have bailed out uninsured homeowners with billions of federal dollars.

Blanco, a Democrat, has threatened to block planned August sales of offshore oil and gas leases, unless Washington agrees to give the state 50 percent of the royalties.

Louisiana currently gets no royalties from leases more than 6 miles off its coast and says it needs the billions of dollars it would receive to help repair coastal wetlands that oil industry development has left vulnerable to hurricanes.

U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton could override the governor on the lease sale, but that could trigger a lengthy legal battle.

"Industry leaders understand our predicament," Blanco said. "It's time to play hardball as I believe that's the only game Washington understands."

Blanco pledged to use the 12-day legislative session to push bills to unify the area's various levee management boards, which are widely seen as corrupt; to reorganize New Orleans' government to make it more accountable; and to create a housing trust to help families return to their homes.

"Louisiana can no longer tolerate the perception that you must pay to play if you expect to do business in this state," she said. "We must put the sins of the past behind us and use our recovery as an opportunity to earn the trust and confidence of the nation."

Blanco chose to hold the session in the convention center, marking the first time in 125 years the legislature has met outside the state capital Baton Rouge, to draw attention to New Orleans' struggles.

Some analysts have attributed the Bush administration's reluctance to pour money into recovery efforts to the perception that local politics is rife with corruption.
Washington has made some relief funds contingent on reforms, such as the unification of the state's levee boards.

"The legislature is going to be analyzed in Washington to see if these people are serious about spending the money wisely or not," said Susan Howell, a political science professor at New Orleans University.


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Sunday, February 05, 2006

King of the Road ...

We just moved into our ninth address since evacuating New Orleans on August 27, just ahead of Katrina. This does not even count one-night hotel stays. Qualify it by stays of a week or more and it is our fourth place, with plans to move to the fifth in the next month or so.

We expect that our next address, on Scofield St. in Metairie, will be longer-term but there are no guarantees. We left Columbus Ohio just before Christmas expecting that Scofield would be ready in a week or two. Well, a week or two became a month or two. Thanks to the craziness of the New Orleans housing situation, we had a one-month lease at our first stop back, a pool house just off Panola St. in N.O.

So now we have a two-month lease on Cherokee St. in N.O., hoping that our builder's ability to project completion dates is improving with time. Cherokee is a nice apartment, and our son is back staying with us for the first time since the storm. We might get comfortable here if we could afford the rent.

Katrina has immeasurably changed our direction and perception. Before the storm we lived in our dream house, but now we yearn for a simpler life. We have liquidated (liquified?) our real-estate portfolio, and may never own another house. Susan is beginning to consider retiring soon. I am beginning to treat my "between assignments" status as a longer-term semi-retirement.

Every day the logistical difficulties of living in N.O. rear their ugly head, from traffic jams to crowded stores to other drags on productivity coming at us from every direction. Every day we find ourselves nudging ahead a little bit in the insurance wars; trying to simply get a fair settlement feels like a half-time job.

And we are among the luckiest. Our loved ones are fine, and we were adequately insured. We just suffered a massive inconvenience.

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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Ways to bring minorities home ...

More from Karen Brooks of the Dallas Morning News:

An underlying concern is whether people will be able to live in their old neighborhoods, where some families have been for generations. The most hotly contested part of the debate has become whether New Orleans has to look like its old self on the map in order to regain its heritage and personality, said Susan Howell, director of the Survey Research Center at the University of New Orleans.

"It has become a very racially charged discussion," she said.

As the city prepares to decide which neighborhoods should be brought back, the race question is hard to ignore: If the Lower Ninth Ward is bulldozed, where will those lower-income black homeowners rebuild? If the white, upper-class Lakeview neighborhood is rebuilt, will those affluent residents drive up housing costs in other areas?

Those involved or closely watching the progress say the answer is to encourage developers to build affordable housing for the working class, who prop up the city's tourism-based economy. Workers have complained that they're unable to go back to the houses they once rented because the rents have skyrocketed since the storm increased the demand and shortened the supply.

"If you really want to rebuild this city equitably and justly, then you will do it the way you never do it and that is to invest in the weakest neighborhoods first because it's in the interest of the city to do so," said Barbara Major, a black community activist and co-chairwoman of the mayor's Bring Back New Orleans Commission. She has been living in Houston since her eastern New Orleans home flooded during Katrina.

"If the mayor doesn't put economic justice front and center, then I don't want to come back to the damn city," she said, "and I don't want anybody else to, either."

Allen Johnson, a freelance writer based in New Orleans, contributed to this report.
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