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U.S.: Despite Wealth, America Not Prepared For Disaster (Part 1)

The U.S. government is gearing up to spend tens of billions of dollars for the recovery efforts in the region struck by Hurricane Katrina. But despite the vast resources of the United States, the central government -- as well as local authorities in Louisiana and Mississippi -- have been strongly criticized for acting too slowly to assist the hundreds of thousands of mostly poor people who were caught in Katrina’s violent wake. In the first of a five-part series on the hurricane, RFE/RL looks at what went wrong in anticipating and reacting to the catastrophic storm.

Washington, 8 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Days after Katrina had struck, bursting the levees protecting New Orleans from surrounding waters, thousands of people were still trapped inside the city.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, his city visibly destroyed and thousands of its residents apparently dead, lashed out at federal officials for failing to react quickly.

“They [federal authorities] don't have a clue what's going on down here," Nagin told local radio station WWL-AM. "They flew down here one time, two days after the doggone event was over, with TV cameras, AP reporters, all kind of goddamn -- excuse my French, everybody in America -- but I am pissed.”

More than one week after the storm, authorities in Washington now say they want to understand just what went wrong with the federal, state, and local response to the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.

U.S. President George W. Bush, whom the media have harshly criticized for failing to quickly react to the catastrophe, has vowed to lead his own investigation.

Congress will also conduct probes, including one led by the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Its chairwoman, Senator Susan Collins, a member of Bush's Republican Party, told reporters on 6 September: "How is it possible that almost four years to the day after the attacks on our country [on 11 September 2001], with billions of dollars spent to improve our preparedness, that a major area of this nation was so ill-prepared to respond to a catastrophe?"

To Bush's critics, the blame lies squarely with the federal government. Specifically, they fault the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which responds to such disasters and is now a part of the Department of Homeland Security.

But the responsibility for evacuating regions before a storm hits also lies with the state and local governments, according to Jack Harrald, director of the George Washington University Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management in Washington. Harrald told RFE/RL there was ample warning Katrina would hit, but that coordination in evacuating residents was lacking between local and federal officials.

"Basically, they [federal, state, and local governments] have different but overlapping responsibilities," Harrald said. "The assumption of the National Response Plan [of the Homeland Security Department] is that local and state governments are going to be overwhelmed, and then the federal government will have to step in and mobilize adequate resources to come in and take over just about everything -- which is now occurring. But the main thing is getting people out of harm's way, which has tremendously complicated this issue. There were 150,000 or more people, largely poor people with limited resources, still in New Orleans when the levees failed."

Harrald said the biggest problem was evacuating those who couldn't afford to leave the city. He said there are federal plans for removing them, but these plans have never been realized. "Prediction and planning are not preparation," he added.

Much of the blame has been heaped on FEMA Director Michael Brown. Several Democratic members of Congress have called for him to resign or be fired.

Bush himself appointed Brown, whose previous job was organizing horse shows. Harrald suggested the FEMA director lacked key credentials for such an important position.

"Leadership -- and experience and knowledge and ability -- is critically important. The only analogue that I can think of is a wartime command. You don't pick somebody out of the line to go run your wartime battles, and this is equally complex. A recognition of that was yesterday [6 September], when the president just appointed Vice Admiral Thad Allen from the Coast Guard to be Mike Brown's deputy -- somebody with leadership abilities and proven experience," Harrald said.

Another concern involves National Guard units. They're under the control of the governors of the states in which they serve and usually play an important role responding to such natural disasters. But much of the approximately 130,000-member force now in Iraq is made up of the National Guard.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked about this on 6 September, and replied that the Iraq war would not affect the National Guard's domestic duties. "We have the forces, the capabilities, and the intention to fully prosecute the global war on terror, while responding to this unprecedented humanitarian crisis here at home," he said. "We can and will do both. It is important to remember that there are more than 300,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen who are not deployed overseas, and they're available for relief and security efforts in the United States, should they be necessary."

Senator Collins, meanwhile, wondered aloud at the 6 September news conference about how the country would have reacted had Katrina not been a hurricane, but a terrorist attack. "If our system did such a poor job when there was no enemy, how would the federal, state, and local governments have coped with a terrorist attack that provided no advanced warning and that was intent on causing as much death and destruction as possible?" she asked.

Collins phrased the thought as a question, but it was clear that she was enunciating the answer: The United States remains ill-prepared to cope with a major terrorist attack.

Audio Slideshow: Inside The Baton Rouge Shelter Real Audio, Windows Media

See also:

Hurricane Devastates New Orleans, Unique American City (Part 2)

Only The Stench Drives Survivors From New Orleans (Part 3)

Volunteers Provide Shelter To Homeless Victims (Part 4)

Damage From Katrina Poses Risks For Global Energy Market (Part 5)