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House report blames bush on katrina

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House Report on Katrina Faults Government Officials (Update5)

Feb. 13 (Bloomberg) -- Federal, state and local officials all failed to anticipate the devastation threatened by Hurricane Katrina and then were slow to react when the storm overwhelmed New Orleans levees, said a draft report by a special House committee investigating Katrina.

``At every level -- individual, corporate, philanthropic and governmental -- we failed to meet the challenge,'' the draft said. ``Our report is a litany of mistakes, misjudgments, lapses and absurdities all cascading together, blinding us to what was coming and hobbling any collective effort to respond.''

The document included many criticisms already aired in congressional hearings and independent reports. The Senate homeland security committee and the Bush administration will issue their own findings of what wrong when Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, killing more than 1,000 people.

In an echo of the independent Sept. 11 commission's report, which cited U.S. officials for a ``lack of imagination,'' the draft said those in charge of the response to Katrina lacked ``initiative.''

``Too often there were too many cooks in the kitchen, and because of that, the response to Katrina was at times overdone, at times underdone,'' the report said. ``Too often, because everybody was in charge, nobody was in charge.''

The report will be issued Feb. 15 by the special House committee created solely for this investigation. All 11 members are Republican because Democrats declined to join the panel, saying there should be an independent investigation.

Bush `Fully Involved'

In a preview of the administration's own findings, Frances Fragos Townsend, the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, told state emergency response directors that President George W. Bush was fully engaged in preparations to Katrina.

``I reject outright any suggestion that President Bush was anything less than fully involved,'' she said in a speech in Alexandria, Virginia to the National Emergency Management Association.

She said that it wouldn't have mattered if administration officials had discovered a breach in the levees on the day of the storm. ``Levees like those in New Orleans cannot be repaired in a matter of hours or even days'' and the priority was to rescue people in harm's way.

Townsend outlined some of the administration report's recommendations, such as improving communications, fostering a better relationship between the military and other emergency responders, and developing a better shelter registration system.

Bush, Chertoff Cited

The House report faults Bush and others in his administration on numerous counts, saying they failed to grasp the severity of the storm and were then slow to respond. Bush should have had someone with experience with storms advising him what would happen if the levees were breached, the report says.

The report faults Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for not declaring the hurricane an incident of national significance after the National Weather Service forecast its severity two days before it hit. The designation would have set in motion a national plan to name an experienced federal leader to prepare for and respond to the storms.

Chertoff also waited too long to convene a board of experienced advisers even though White House officials pressured Matthew Broderick, the Homeland Security Department's director of operations coordination, to do so, according to the report.

`I Am Accountable'

Chertoff, speaking today, said, ``I am accountable and accept responsibility for the entire department, good and bad.''

In a speech to the state emergency management directors, Chertoff disputed congressional criticism that his department is more focused on terrorism than natural disasters.

He also said that he wants to add staff to FEMA and create a better emergency-response team that would have common computer systems and communicate more effectively. ``There's no place for a lone ranger in emergency response,'' he said.

The House report said White House officials themselves underestimated what they faced by not taking into account early reports of New Orleans levees being breached.

Officials for Louisiana state and New Orleans took too long to order city residents to evacuate, leading to preventable deaths and ``thousands'' of dangerous rescues, according to the draft.

The media contributed to the chaos on the ground by exaggerating reports of violence, which delayed relief, the report said.

Senate Investigation

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is conducting a separate investigation of the response and plans to release a final report next month. The panel today was told of fraud and waste related to relief efforts, including overpayments for temporary housing, multiple disaster assistance payments given to the same person using false identities and poor oversight of purchases from government contractors.

``FEMA policies and procedures failed once again to prevent abuse, waste and outright fraud,'' Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, said.

An investigation by the Government Accountability Office found that the identities of more than 1.5 million applicants for disaster assistance weren't verified because they were handled by phone.

`Fast-Track Payments'

Investigators discovered one instance where 17 people received $103,000 by using 36 different social security numbers and at least 10 false addresses to apply for government checks.

``These $2,000 fast-track payments are made prior to any individual providing proof of loss,'' GAO managing director Gregory Kutz testified. ``Weak or non-existent controls leave the government vulnerable to substantial fraud and abuse in this program.''

Investigators also found instances of $2,000 government- issued debit cards being used for purchases not related to disaster recovery, including jewelry, tattoos, alcoholic beverages and a $1,300 .45-caliber pistol.

``This pay-first, ask-questions-later approach has been an invitation to be unscrupulous,'' Collins said.

FEMA's lack of contracting oversight led to the purchase of unusable manufactured homes for evacuees and payments to hotels for shelter as high as $438 per night. The agency also spent $7.9 million to refurbish a military base that provided housing for less than 19 evacuees per day in the two months after the storm.

``There was lack of communication and there was lack of coordination,'' said Richard Skinner, the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general.

Separately, Judge Stanwood Duval of the U.S. District court in the Eastern District of Louisiana today denied a temporary restraining order from plaintiffs, allowing FEMA to stop paying for evacuees' hotel rooms.

Acting FEMA Director David Paulison said he had approved the purchase of 10,000 more travel trailers, which would provide more permanent housing for hurricane victims.

``The judge recognized we're doing the right thing for these people,'' Paulison told reporters after speaking at the disaster preparedness conference in Alexandria.

Last Updated: February 13, 2006 16:49 EST

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