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As it turns out, no one was doing a heckuva job


Published: Fri, March 3, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.


Michael Brown must feel like he's on a roller coaster.
"Brownie," head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency when Hurricane Katrina hit last August, was being praised by President Bush one day for doing a "heckuva job," and was well on his way to being an unemployed scapegoat the next.
Just a few weeks ago, he appeared during congressional hearings on the disastrous response to Katrina, to generally bad reviews.
Brown is riding pretty high again, following the release by the Associated Press of a video conference right before Katrina hit in which Brown seemed to be saying all the right things, while President Bush appeared detached, asking no questions of his top disaster-response officials.
Getting the picture
The video and the transcripts of the conference are a snapshot, and obviously are not the definitive word on whether Brown or President Bush or any other individual was on top of things. But what they do show is that federal officials at the highest level were fully aware of the potential that Katrina represented to life and limb. They had discussed water overflowing the New Orleans levees, though the actually breaching of the levies was not predicted, and they had voiced concern about the welfare of refugees who had gone to the Superdome. The dome was to become a symbol of the government's ineptitude in the days following the hurricane, with thousands of people stranded there without adequate food, water, medical attention or sanitary facilities -- not to mention transportation out.
Even before release of the video, an AP-Ipsos survey released last week showed that only 15 percent of Americans were "very confident" in the federal government's ability to handle a major disaster in the future. That figure was even lower than in the immediate aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The video tape also follows by days the release of a White House report titled "Lessons Learned" on the government's response to Katrina.
In classic understatement, the report said Katrina exposed "significant flaws" in federal, state and local preparedness, and that their emergency plans "were put to the ultimate test, and came up short."
Sounds like Washington
The report was heavy on bureaucratese -- including a three-and-a-half-page glossary of acronyms -- and urged coordination, communication, cooperation and re-examination. Typical was recommendation 81, which suggests: "Linking prioritization for protection to prioritization for restoration will motivate private sector participation in the effort to prioritize critical infrastructure and to develop disaster response plans."
A single sentence containing three variations on the word prioritize is immediately suspect. The White House has to learn to speak in plain English. And it has to learn that releasing a report putting the best possible face on disaster response while trying to keep under wraps a video that shows the administration knew what had to be done, but simply didn't deliver is counterproductive.
Now some Democrats have renewed their calls for an independent investigation of the Katrina response. Absent a public outcry, the ruling Republicans will probably just ignore those demands.
But the White House, by being less than candid, and the Congress, by conducting an investigation that appears to be more concerned about making excuses than finding answers, are doing a disservice to themselves and the American people.
Americans should be confident that government agencies with hundreds of billions of dollars at their disposal are ready and able to respond in the event of an emergency. Any such illusions they may have had were shattered last fall. And too little has been done since to rehabilitate the image of the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA.


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