The Government Accountability Office issued a preliminary report today on the government’s response to Katrina, outlining some of its top-level findings in the course of its investigations over the past several months, as a prelude to more detailed reports in the coming months on a number of specific issues.
The report divides its critiques into three categories:
- Clear and decisive leadership
- Strong advance planning, training, and exercise programs
- Capabilities for a catastrophic event
Under “leadership”, the report criticizes the adminstration for not having a single person responsible for crisis management in the White House:
As we recommended in 1993, we continue to believe that a single individual directly responsible and accountable to the President must be designated to act as the central focal point to lead and coordinate the overall federal response in the event of a major catastrophe. This person would work on behalf of the President to ensure that federal agencies treat the catastrophe as a top priority and that the federal governmentâ€™s response is both timely and effective….
Neither the DHS Secretary nor any of his designees, such as the Principal Federal Official (PFO), filled this leadership role during Hurricane Katrina, which serves to underscore the immaturity of and weaknesses relating to the current national response framework.
These are very strong words coming from the GAO, and likely to rekindle a tumultuous political debate about the performance of senior leadership in the response to Katrina. That debate is necessary, but hopefully it can also be constructive, focusing on how we improve the system in the future, rather than being punctuated by partisan finger-pointing. If the Katrina investigations are used as a political game by either or both major political parites, then we’re endangering our ability to fix the system in a rapid timeframe.
The report goes on to criticize DHS for using the National Response Plan (link to large PDF) ineffectively (emphasis added):
For example, the DHS Secretary designated Hurricane Katrina as an incident of national significance on August 30thâ€”the day after final landfall. However, he did not designate the storm as a catastrophic event, which would have triggered additional provisions of the National Response Plan (NRP), calling for a more proactive response. As a result, the federal posture generally was to wait for the affected states to request assistance.
In an AP story, a DHS spokesman tries to refute this particular charge (emphasis added):
Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said the GAO’s findings were riddled with errors, particularly in its criticism about whether declaring Katrina a catastrophic disaster would have speeded up relief efforts.
He said federal officials and supplies were already in the Gulf Coast before Katrina hit, and that an index in the response plan that deals with catastrophes is only used for unexpected disasters.
So who’s right? Here’s how the actual NRP defines “catastrophic incidents” on page 357 of the PDF version of the plan:
A catastrophic incident, as defined by the NRP, is any natural or manmade incident, including terrorism, that results in extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the population, infrastructure, environment, economy, national morale, and/or government functions. A catastrophic incident could result in sustained national impacts over a prolonged period of time; almost immediately exceeds resources normally available to State, local, tribal, and private-sector authorities in the impacted area; and significantly interrupts governmental operations and emergency services to such an extent that national security could be threatened. All catastrophic incidents are Incidents of National Significance. These factors drive the urgency for coordinated national planning to ensure accelerated Federal/national assistance.
And two pages later, still in the same section of the NRP (emphasis added):
A catastrophic incident may occur with little or no warning. Some incidents, such as rapid disease outbreaks, may be well underway before detection.
There is absolutely nothing in the NRP that says that a catastrophic incident must be “unexpected.” Knocke says that the GAO report “displays a significant misunderstanding of core aspects of the Katrina response.” But it seems that on this issue, he’s the one who needs a refresher on the National Response Plan.
Under the category of “advance planning and training”, the report highlights issues such as:
- The need for better pre-planning about how to use military resources in response situations.
- The need to enhance advance preparations about how to manage the contractor community.
- Improving the process by which “lessons-learned” from training exercises influence efforts to improve preparedness.
And under the final category, “capabilities for a catastrophic event”, the report discusses the following issues:
- Difficulties with the continuity of government services.
- Challenges associated with conducting damage assessment.
- Problems with the logistics system for the distribution of critical resources.
- The need to enhance evacuation and mass care capabilities.
- Better management of volunteer resources.
Overall, this is a very thoughtful and measured report, and certainly not “premature and unprofessional” as the DHS spokesman charges in the AP story. I don’t see any obvious errors in it….and as loyal readers of this site know, I’m quick to point out errors in reports or articles that criticize DHS.
The conclusion to the report notes that the GAO is pursuing 30 separate investigations related to Katrina right now that it expects to write about this year. I’ll be writing about these future reports when they appear.