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Homeland Security: Criticism for Katrina response was deserved

04:00 PM CDT on Thursday, April 13, 2006

Lara Jakes Jordan / Associated Press

WASHINGTON-- Widespread criticism of the government's sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina was largely deserved, the Homeland Security Department's internal watchdog concludes in a report rapping the agency for focusing on terrorism at the expense of preparing for natural disasters.

The report by Inspector General Richard L. Skinner, to be released Friday, includes 38 recommendations for improving disaster response missions by the department and its Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The report's executive summary and the recommendations were obtained Thursday by The Associated Press.

The federal government, and FEMA in particular, "received widespread criticism for a slow and ineffective response to Hurricane Katrina," the report concludes. "Much of the criticism is warranted."

"After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, DHS' prevention and preparedness for terrorism have overshadowed that for natural hazards, both in perception and in application," the report found.

Spokesmen for FEMA and Homeland Security did not have immediate comments.

Though FEMA provided "record levels of support" to storm victims, emergency responders and state authorities, investigators found it was hampered by untrained staff, unreliable communication systems and poor coordination in delivering aid. The report also called FEMA plans to assist overwhelmed states during disasters "insufficient for an event of Hurricane Katrina's magnitude."

It also found that confusing guidelines in the National Response Plan -- issued in December 2004 as a blueprint for action the government is supposed to follow during emergencies -- led to duplicated communication and efforts during Katrina.

The 38 recommendations call for better training, coordination, and systems for ensuring communications among local and state emergency responders and between federal agencies providing aid.

They also call for more clearly defined roles and an established chain of command within the federal government.

One recommendation also urges stronger oversight of federal contracts before they are awarded. FEMA rebid $3.6 billion worth of storm-related contracts last month after lawmakers complained the money had been given to four firms that did not compete for the work.

FEMA and Homeland Security have promised that many reforms -- including systems to track supplies, aid victims and deliver quick information to all levels of government during a disaster -- will be ready by the June 1 start of the hurricane season.

Though pointed, the Homeland Security report's summary is far less harsh than a House inquiry in February that concluded that government indifference toward disaster preparations contributed to deaths and suffering that Katrina inflicted. The White House also cited numerous failures in federal disaster planning, communications and leadership in its own "lessons-learned" review issued later that month.

The Senate is preparing its own inquiry into the Katrina response. It was due in late March, but has been delayed by at least a month.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)