The Lessons of Katrina

As hope slowly creeps back into our national psyche, as it always does, just when the lure of despair seems inescapable, Washington is brimming with ideas for “getting on” with the business of figuring out what went wrong in the immediate aftermath of Katrina’s wrath and what to do next.

There will be finger pointing and firings and hearings and reports, just as there were after Sept. 11, 2001, a horror that made us think four years ago that we had been to hell and back. We know now that hell can _ and will _ revisit us, usually when we least expect it.

But the remarkable “can do” optimism of this country is surging even as the floodwaters begin to ebb. We yearn to fix what was broken. While there will be many plans for change and improvement, here are five steps that should be taken immediately.

_ Better communication systems to integrate local, state and federal emergency responders must be devised with no more delays. It is unbelievably frustrating that the same lack of ability to communicate that dogged rescuers after 9/11 showed up again as Hurricane Katrina did what Osama bin Laden did not and wiped out an entire American city.

This country has spent billions on homeland security in the past four years and communications compatibility was supposed to have been at the top of the list. It clearly was not. Radio systems in Louisiana were incompatible and ran out of power, while backup systems that were supposed to help did not work. That is true in many areas around the country.

_ Federal assistance should not be provided to anyone for rebuilding in flood-prone areas unless levees, sea walls, estuaries and other means of flood control are built first. Every year brings more hurricanes and floods.

Yes, the Army Corps of Engineers has built many porky boondoggles because of politics and greedy politicians, but important work that should have been done years ago _ both around New Orleans and elsewhere around the country _ was shoved too far down the list.

Years of more studies and more reports aren’t needed. Other countries with low-lying flood plains already have built such projects. There are good U.S. engineers who know what needs to be done and who weren’t heeded. Now is the time to listen to them and can the pork.

_ Emergency response leaders should be trained, skilled, experienced and know what they are doing, and lines of authority should be clearly spelled out. Such top jobs should no longer be treated as political plums reserved for out-of-work governors, ex-heads of Arabian horse associations or even hard-charging law-and-order judges. Once the current victims have been helped, heads should roll.

_ Bureaucratic shuffles just for the sake of reshuffling should be avoided. The temptation is to move the rightly beleaguered Federal Emergency Management Agency, which performed abysmally, back out of the mammoth Department of Homeland Security and make it independent again. Moving little boxes around makes Congress feel likes it’s solving problems. (And gets lawmakers on TV.)

This is not a problem of organization charts. It’s a disaster compounded by incompetence and money misspent. Our zealousness borne of fear of more terrorist attacks led to silly outlays (such as people standing around airports telling us to take off our shoes and putting babies on no-fly lists), while technological improvements for preparing to care for the victims of attacks and natural disasters alike were given short shrift.

_ What was done right in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi should be written in stone, with every emergency manager in the nation clear on what worked and why and how to adapt such lessons locally. It is common sense that bottled water, fuel, meals ready to eat, medical supplies, helicopters, generators, latrines, clear and accurate directions, good evacuation plans and a police presence are vital in a crisis. None of those things was in sufficient supply.

Even when foreign countries _ more than half of the nations of the world _ offered help, there was a chaotic, ineffectual U.S. response on what was needed and where it should go and how it should be delivered.

One more thing: No more across-the-board tax cuts. We need to get rid of the deficit and put aside money for the next catastrophe.

Hope is not enough.

(Ann McFeatters is Washington Bureau chief of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Toledo Blade. E-mail amcfeatters(at)