Monday, February 13

Republicans' Report on Katrina Assails Response


WASHINGTON, Feb. 12 — House Republicans plan to issue a blistering report on Wednesday that says the Bush administration delayed the evacuation of thousands of New Orleans residents by failing to act quickly on early reports that the levees had broken during Hurricane Katrina.

A draft of the report, to be issued by an 11-member, all-Republican committee, says the Bush administration was informed on the day Hurricane Katrina hit that the levees had been breached, even though the president and other top administration officials earlier said that they had learned of the breach the next day.

That delay was significant, the report says, rejecting the defense given by the White House and the Department of Homeland Security that the time it took to recognize the breach did not significantly affect the response.

"If the levees breached and flooded a large portion of the city, then the flooded city would have to be completely evacuated," the draft report says. "Any delay in confirming the breaches would result in a delay in the post-landfall evacuation of the city." It adds that the White House itself discounted damage reports that later proved true.

The report, by the select House committee examining the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, is the first of three major investigations into the subject; the others, for which reports are expected within one or two months, are being conducted by a Senate committee and by the White House.

The House report blames all levels of government, from the White House to Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Louisiana to Mayor C. Ray Nagin of New Orleans, for the delayed response to the storm.

"Our investigation revealed that Katrina was a national failure, an abdication of the most solemn obligation to provide for the common welfare," the draft says. "At every level — individual, corporate, philanthropic and governmental — we failed to meet the challenge that was Katrina. In this cautionary tale, all the little pigs built houses of straw."

A White House spokesman said that President Bush was now focused on the future, not the past. A Department of Homeland Security spokesman said that Michael D. Brown, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was partly to blame for failing to make timely reports to his superiors.

The response to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, in which about 1,400 people died along the Gulf Coast, raises troubling questions about the nation's ability to react to other threats to domestic security, the draft report says.

"If this is what happens when we have advance warning, we shudder to imagine the consequences when we do not," the draft says, referring to the potential for a terror attack. "Four and a half years after 9/11, America is still not ready for prime time."

Democrats declined to appoint members to the committee, raising concerns that the group would produce a whitewash, though several House Democrats participated in committee discussions. After the Republican report was prepared, Democrats praised it in a written response for being comprehensive and detailed, though they complained that it did not hold enough individual officials accountable and continued their call for an independent commission.

What is most disturbing about the hurricane response, the draft report says, is that the entire catastrophe was so easily foreseen — given the weather reports and the precarious position of New Orleans as a below-sea-level city in a major hurricane zone — yet still the response was so flawed.

"It remains difficult to understand how government could respond so ineffectively to a disaster that was anticipated for years, and for which specific dire warnings had been issued for days," the report says. "This crisis was not only predictable, it was predicted."