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Urgent Change Needed To Hurricane Response

The White House review was published days after a congressional report strongly criticised the administration for failing to heed warnings before the hurricane and for responding too slowly afterwards.
by Stephen Collinson
Washington DC (AFP) Feb 23, 2006
A White House report Thursday demanded urgent changes to disaster relief plans before the 2006 storm season, as President George W. Bush pledged to learn lessons from the Hurricane Katrina debacle.

The report probed failures exposed when Katrina roared ashore last August, devastating the US Gulf Coast and whipping up a floodtide that swamped New Orleans and a political firestorm over the government's response.

It was published with the administration still weathering attacks over its handling of the crisis, which tore at fault lines in federal, state and local levels of government and killed more than 1,300 people.

It also appeared days after a congressional review accused the White House of failing to heed warnings and acting too slowly when disaster struck.

"We will learn from the lessons of the past to better protect the American people," Bush told reporters, brandishing a copy of the report finished in a red, white and blue livery.

"We have made a strong commitment to the people in the Gulf Coast and we will honor that commitment as well."

The 600-page report, titled "The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned", categorises Katrina as "the most destructive natural disaster in US history", worse than catastrophes such as the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 and Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

"The magnitude of Hurricane Katrina does not excuse our inadequate preparedness and response, but rather it must serve as a catalyst for far-reaching reform and transformation," the report said.

Emergency preparations at all levels of government "were put to the test and came up short", the White House said in a fact sheet accompanying the report.

"Changes must be made immediately to prepare for the 2006 hurricane season. The 2006 hurricane season is just over three months away."

The review also called for the better use of the US military, which due to constitutional restrictions on the use of federal forces in law enforcement operations had its hands tied in the aftermath of Katrina.

"When state and local responders are overwhelmed and incapacitated it may be that our military is the last resort," the president's homeland security adviser Fran Townsend told reporters.

Bush's handling of Katrina contributed to a perfect storm of political woes, including disquiet over Iraq and political scandals which helped dent his public opinion ratings last year.

The White House review was published days after a congressional report strongly criticised the administration for failing to heed warnings before the hurricane and for responding too slowly afterwards.

It also came after the much-lampooned Michael Brown, former chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), blamed current Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff for much of the botched response to Katrina.

Chertoff hit back by saying that as the disaster unfolded, he started to doubt that Brown was "up for this."

Despite calls for his resignation and rising political fire, Townsend said Thursday that Chertoff "enjoys the confidence of the president," and the secretary himself issued a statement calling the report "comprehensive."

The White House report contains 17 "lessons learned" after the disaster and 125 specific recommendations for better disaster response.

It calls for a "comprehensive National Preparedness System" and a "culture of preparedness" to unite all levels of government on homeland security issues.

The report calls for 11 measures to be implemented before the 2006 hurricane season.

It urges federal, state and local leaders to work more closely together, and with National Guard reserve troop commanders when disaster strikes.

Communications, which were largely severed in hurricane-hit regions, should be improved with mobile units, was among its recommendations, as well as a call for much better pre-planning for relief and clearing up after storms.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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Military To Plan For Larger Role In Disaster Relief
Washington DC (AFP) Feb 23, 2006
The US military will plan to assume a larger role in domestic disaster relief, including taking the lead in major catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina, a Pentagon spokesman said Thursday. A White House report on the lessons of Katrina said the military and the coast guard proved to be the only federal entities capable of turning the president's orders into prompt action on the ground.

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