Lessons not learned

To describe the White House’s report, titled “Lessons Learned,” on the government’s response to Katrina as a whitewash is a little too strong, but it is far from a hard-eyed, take-no-prisoners dissection of what was clearly a botched response, at least at the outset.

The tone of the report is set in the foreword, which says that the hurricane exposed “significant flaws” in federal, state and local preparedness, and that their emergency plans “were put to the ultimate test, and came up short.” This is stating the obvious.

The Department of Homeland Security was in charge of the Katrina operation, but the harshest judgment in the report, after praising the “energy and professionalism of DHS personnel,” is that the department “lacks both the requisite headquarters management institutions and sufficient field capabilities to organize a fully successful Federal response effort.” And the next hurricane season is a few short months away.

The report is heavy on bureaucratese _ it includes a three-and-a-half-page glossary of acronyms _ and urges coordination, communication, cooperation and re-examination. Recommendation 81, for example, calls for: “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.”

The report describes, but does not explain, the mysterious delay in reporting the ultimately disastrous breach of the New Orleans levees. The first report of a breach to a government agency, the National Weather Service, was made at 9:12 a.m., but as late as 6 p.m. the White House and senior DHS officials were being told there was no breach. A DHS official circulated an eyewitness account of the breaches that evening, but his account did not reach the White House until after midnight.

The report’s “Lesson Learned Recommendation 15: Establish a National Operations Center to coordinate the national response and provide situational awareness and a common operating picture for the entire Federal government.”

Saddest is FEMA’s failure, which the report doesn’t explain or address, to make use of readily available resources like the 300 dump trucks, 119 pieces of heavy equipment, 300 boats, 11 aircraft, 50 to 75 maintenance crews and 500 rooms the Interior Department was offering.

The most hopeful thing about the report is its title, “Lessons Learned.” Let’s hope that, underneath all that bureaucratese, the federal government did.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com.)