Speed Read: The White House Katrina Report

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After every spectacular government failure comes an acronym-laden, bullet-pointed report. The bigger the failure, the longer the report. Last week, a congressional committee issued a 520-page study of the governmentís response to Hurricane Katrina titled "A Failure of Initiative." Today, the White House issued its own, 228-page report, entitled, a tad more diplomatically, "Lessons Learned." While the White House report avoids castigating individual actors (read: Michael Brown or Michael Chertoff), this debrief is just as sweeping.

Does this report say anything that hasnít been said before?

The main novelty of this report, submitted by White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend, is that it is hell-bent on looking forward. Yes, this happens to be politically convenient. No administration relishes pointing fingers at itself. But it is also a reasonable next step, given that hurricane season is just a few months away.

OK, so what does the report recommend?

There are 125 recommendations in here, most of which are aimed at improving communications and the command structure of the federal government before and during a disaster. This means that the report is laced with procedural jargon. But, alas, churning through mind-numbing details is the only way to fix a massive bureaucracy.

For example, the report finds "significant flaws" in the National Response Plan, a framework for handling disasters that the Department of Homeland Security unveiled at the beginning of last year. The report calls for a 90-day review of the plan and says it should be changed to anticipate that the feds may need to temporarily assume some state and local responsibilities.

It also urges the federal government to be prepared to carry out a mass evacuation if state and local officials canít do so. That means making sure states and locals have (and rehearse) good plans — which must include strategies for dealing with the sick and elderly, whose particular plight after Katrina was one of the most troubling aspects of the relief operations. The report suggests that locals should not get federal disaster money if they have not completed such plans in advance.

Though it takes pains not to cast blame, the report does suggest shifting a number of functions currently handled by the Department of Homeland Security (or its now notorious division, FEMA) to other branches of the federal government. Those include having the Department of Justice take over sole responsibility for handling law enforcement immediately after a disaster, giving Health and Human Services the job of overseeing the distribution of emergency aid to victims as well as a network of medical response teams, and bringing Housing and Urban Development on board to manage temporary housing — which should not, the report stresses, be primarily made up of trailers.

Do the recommendations seem sensible?

Many of the suggestions mirror things that have been said by people (like Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, who took over the federal response to Katrina after Brown was sent home) who are in a position to know what needs to be done. For instance, the report says the government needs to work with the American Red Cross to create a database for registering evacuees — so that government assistance can follow them from shelter to shelter. Thatís something Allen has said for months. It also emphasizes the need for a "culture of preparedness" among regular citizens — another action item echoed by respected disaster experts.

Do they seem feasible?

Well, thatís a different matter altogether. Some do, some donít. As the report points out, the military has a great unified-command model that the Department of Homeland Security could learn from; but that model took almost 60 years to build. It will be hard to streamline the system in time for the next major disaster.

And, speaking of the military, the report also recommends that the Defense Department do more, sooner after a big disaster, helping to expedite search and rescue operations, as well as evacuations and the delivery of supplies. But this is a not exactly a new idea. The same recommendation came out after the governmentís dismal response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992. For political, legal and historical reasons, this is much easier said than done.

Whatís next?

The report urges federal agencies to make a slew of changes before June 1, which is ambitious. In the meantime, stay tuned for the Senate to issue its own Katrina report sometime in the next several weeks.