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Report: Criticism of FEMA's Katrina response deserved

Inspector general: 'Much of the criticism is warranted'

From Mike M. Ahlers
CNN Washington Bureau
An internal report says it was almost three days before FEMA realized the scope of the hurricane's destruction.



Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
Department of Homeland Security
Disaster Relief

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- After being roundly criticized in a slew of media, congressional and government reports, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's internal watchdog Friday returned its own verdict on the handling of Hurricane Katrina: The criticism against FEMA is largely deserved.

In a hefty 218-page reportexternal link, the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general writes that the federal government and FEMA received "widespread criticism for a slow and ineffective response to Hurricane Katrina."

"Much of the criticism is warranted," Inspector General Richard L. Skinner writes.

The report gives an account of FEMA's recent history and response to Katrina, covering ground that has been well-plowed in recent months, although adding some details.

It describes manpower problems, a decline in planning for natural disasters as attention focused on possible terrorist scenarios, and confusion over the roles and responsibilities of officials in responding to disasters.

It culminates with 38 recommendations to FEMA's director and to the agency's parent organization, the Department of Homeland Security.

Among the findings:

  • Comprehending the disaster: With the communications infrastructure destroyed, it took FEMA officials about three days after landfall to grasp the magnitude of the hurricane's destruction.
  • Meeting expectations: FEMA has long held that state and local governments should be prepared to survive 72 hours before federal intervention. But the report says, "It is unclear whether this is responsive to the needs of a state and the needs of disaster victims." The report continues: "What is clear is that a 72-hour response time does not meet public expectations, as was vividly demonstrated by media accounts within 24 hours after landfall."
  • New response plans: The federal government was phasing in two "watershed planning documents" when Katrina struck -- the National Response Plan and National Incident Management System. Katrina exposed "severe deficiencies" in the response plan, such as the role of the principal federal officer, the person designated to coordinate the federal government's response. Then-FEMA Director Michael Brown was designated as such a person for Katrina.
  • The role of emergency managers: The report questions the need for "emergency managers," one of 14 functions carried out by FEMA staff members during an emergency. Agency staffers who created the "emergency manager" function said it was "hastily designed, is incomplete and has not been fully implemented," the report says.
  • Integrating federal and state command structures: The report says the federal government and the state of Louisiana, in particular, had "great difficulty" in meshing their command structures and "never fully achieved a unified command with FEMA."
  • Emergency housing: The report cites numerous shortcomings with delivering housing. It notes that cruise ships contracted to provide shelter for emergency relief workers were 35 percent occupied during the first 30 days after the disaster. "At that occupancy rate, the cost to FEMA was approximately $3,363 per week per evacuee, which was about three times higher than the existing per diem rate for federal government workers in the area," the report says.
  • Search and rescue: FEMA was ill-prepared to conduct the massive search-and-rescue function. Its federally coordinated teams conducting secondary building searches found spray-painted symbols indicating that state teams already had looked through the buildings.
  • Ice, water and supplies: FEMA needs to improve the tracking of supplies. Some FEMA and state workers said they had to order twice as many supplies to get half of what they needed, primarily because they had no confidence in the system.
  • Disaster drills: FEMA conducted large-scale natural disaster exercises between 1995 and 1998 but then opted for smaller ones with fewer participants. FEMA officials also said it became more difficult to maintain relationships with local officials when the job of awarding grants was transferred to another unit within the Department of Homeland Security.
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