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Archive for Saturday, September 2, 2006

Disaster response has a long way to go

September 2, 2006

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Over the next three weeks, Americans are marking the two worst domestic tragedies in memory - the 9-11 terrorist attack on New York and Washington, and Hurricane Katrina's devastation of the Louisiana-Mississippi coast.

Much of the news coverage is focusing on stories of individual Americans or assessments of President Bush's leadership in coping with events that mark the peak and nadir of his public standing.

With two months until the November election, there is also partisan criticism of how he handled Katrina and its aftermath.

But the crucial factor that may be lost beneath predictable administration positive spin and equally predictable Democratic criticism is the degree to which steps have been taken to avoid repetition of these two massive governmental breakdowns.

Bush did stress his own responsibility for the breakdown on Katrina. But most Americans reached that verdict months ago.

And the breakdown was far greater than he acknowledged in noting that federal, state and local governments were "unprepared" for Katrina. It was not confined to a single party or agency.

Neither New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco - two Democrats - nor the Federal Emergency Management Agency made sufficient plans or acted fast enough.

Though Mississippi was less devastated, its Republican governor, Haley Barbour, seemed more on top of things.

In New York, Mayor Rudy Giuliani rightfully got credit for his post-9-11 leadership. But the heads of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission say they should have asked tougher questions about the city's inadequate disaster response plans and poor communication between police and fire officials.

Still, the disaster was beyond what any city or state could handle. The worst breakdowns were on the federal level.

Inexperienced political appointees at the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA and a White House weary after four years of crises almost guaranteed an inadequate response.

In advance of 9-11, neither the Clinton nor the Bush administration gave sufficient priority to the potential threat. Bureaucratic bungling and communications breakdowns prevented any response to warning signs that look far more significant in retrospect than they seemed at the time.

Since the two disasters, there has been a massive public and private effort to deliver relief and ensure the government will be better prepared in the future. But the results have been mixed at best.

The federal government, Bush noted, "has committed $110 billion to the recovery effort" on the Gulf Coast. But most of the funds have yet to be spent. Some studies say several billion dollars have been wasted. Large areas remain uninhabitable.

Despite strenuous efforts by agencies and special Katrina coordinator Don Powell, relief efforts are lagging. Some critics suggest the major beneficiaries have been big, outside companies that got rebuilding contracts, rather than devastated local businesses.

Levees that collapsed under Katrina's pressure have been rebuilt. But officials question whether they can withstand a similar blow. And staff studies raise doubts whether FEMA would perform better now.

Bush has convinced Americans they are safer today than in 2001. Most people are more alert to potential terrorist dangers. But each hole that is closed only serves to illustrate one that remains open. While there is less chance a hijacker could board a commercial aircraft, ports, tunnels and power plants remain wide open to potential terrorism.

Political compromises have spread funds to help local communities from the likeliest targets to many less endangered places. The drain of Iraq has hurt.

The first response to 9-11 was an attack to keep Afghanistan from being the staging ground for future attacks. But the military effort flagged after Bush switched his emphasis to Iraq.

The U.S. government has made only minimal progress in restructuring itself to meet these threats. Katrina revealed the shortcomings of subordinating FEMA to the sprawling Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security.

A recent Senate report suggests the intelligence services still suffer from deficiencies that failed to prevent the 9-11 attacks and helped mislead the United States into attacking Iraq.

Some of this week's speeches still made the effort to cope with these tragedies sound like a governmental triumph. That in itself shows how far we still have to go.

- Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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