Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

February 16, 2006

House Katrina report: initial reactions

Filed under: Congress and HLS,Preparedness and Response — by Christian Beckner on February 16, 2006

I’ve now read key sections of the House Select Committee report on Katrina. I’ll be commenting on it in more detail over the next few days, but my initial reaction is that is an excellent report, and an important contribution to the current efforts to improve disaster response. It’s also an admirably radical report in its observations about response systems today. These five paragraphs are, for me, the core thesis of the report:

The preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina show we are still an analog government in a digital age. We must recognize that we are woefully incapable of storing, moving, and accessing information – especially in times of crisis.

Many of the problems we have identified can be categorized as “information gaps” – or at least problems with information-related implications, or failures to act decisively because information was sketchy at best. Better information would have been an optimal weapon against Katrina. Information sent to the right people at the right place at the right time. Information moved within agencies, across departments, and between jurisdictions of government as well. Seamlessly. Securely. Efficiently.

Unfortunately, no government does these things well, especially big governments.

The federal government is the largest purchaser of information technology in the world, by far. One would think we could share information by now. But Katrina again proved we cannot.

We reflect on the 9/11 Commission’s finding that “the most important failure was one of imagination.” The Select Committee believes Katrina was primarily a failure of initiative. But there is, of course, a nexus between the two. Both imagination and initiative – in other words, leadership – require good information. And a coordinated process for sharing it. And a willingness to use information – however imperfect or incomplete – to fuel action.

However, it doesn’t appear that the report translates this radical diagnosis into equally radical recommendations about how we transform the system. Hopefully we will see innovative ideas from Congress, think tanks, the private sector, academia (and heck, maybe even blogs) in the coming months that respond to this report and address how we make our response systems and cultures more effective and entrepreneurial. (Readers are encouraged to let me know about good existing reports that fit this description).

One final comment for this initial post: Based on what I’ve read so far, the report is very well-written. It doesn’t assume prior knowledge of the Stafford Act and the acronym soup of the emergency management field, and it does a good job of explaining all of these things in context without becoming overly simplistic in its analysis. Kudos to the committee members and staffers for their conscious efforts to make this report accessible to a general readership.

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3 Comments »

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Comment by Claire B. Rubin

February 16, 2006 @ 8:19 am

See also the report by the Democratic Staff of the House Committee on Homeland Security, entitled “Redirecting FEMA Toward Success.” Feb. 13, 2006. The Democrats chose not to participate in the big report (600 pp.) issued Wed.but issued their own
40-page. While it tends to write emergency management history to favor the Democrats, it is a novel take on the history of emergency management and the evolution of FEMA.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

February 16, 2006 @ 12:51 pm

The report reads like an ater-actionn report. You have to have knowledge to realize it provides few answers but it does document quite well the issues. Overriding all is its documentation that there is no National Response System but many systems most of which are defectively authorized, funded, operated, and could be deadly should a no-notice event like a NUDET, large-scale earthquake/volcano or a tsuanmi (sic) occur. Actually the annual hurricane cycle gave plenty of notice that a Katrina was possible an the fact that even NOAA cannot predict exact landfall 18 hours in advance had nothing to do with the systematic failures documented in the report. Just as there is a National DAM Safety program perhaps a National Levee Safety program should be mandated by Congress. Footnote 43 on page 160 documents Mike Brown’s allegation of FEMA being stripped of funds. That list may not be complete. Also many key functions in FEMA are only one-person deep and operating 24/7 is not possible. Also, the bullets listed on page 359 summarizing the problems could have been much longer. Again, the report documents no National Response System and those mandated to produce one bear some measure of responsiblity. A timeline from the adoption of NIMS and then the NRP in April 2005 until Katrina might be of interest. Also what has happened and been accomplished since Katrina might be of interest. After all 6 months have passed and the so-called big one may be around the corner.

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Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Blog Archive » Thoughts on the Senate’s Katrina report

April 27, 2006 @ 3:52 pm

[...] Given the incomplete nature of today’s documents, I’m somewhat reluctant to make final judgments about the report. But my initial reaction is a sense of disappointment in the report. It focuses significantly on bureaucratic issues related to the nation’s preparedness and response challenges, to the detriment of a consideration of the systemic and cultural reasons for the multiple failures in the response to Katrina. The House’s report on Katrina, released in February, takes much more of this latter approach, although it lacked any recommendations that derived from these findings. Perhaps the optimal analysis can be found in the synthesis of the two reports. [...]

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