Aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, had adverse impact on government's response to Katrina, expert says

Thursday, February 16, 2006

This week, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff answered questions from a Senate committee about his department's inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina, claiming responsibility for "unnecessarily prolonged" suffering of people along the Gulf Coast following the storm. A report from the House Select Committee on Katrina was also released this week, accusing Chertoff of missteps in waiting two days after the storm to activate a national response plan.

A University of North Texas expert in emergency management says that because the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, took the focus on emergency management away from the Federal Management Response Agency and gave it to the Department of Homeland Security with emphasis on response to terrorism rather than response to natural disasters, response to Katrina "resulted in minimized capacity and produced disorganization."

"There has always been a tendency to overact to the last disaster instead of maintain a coherent policy for the future. However, response to Katrina disaster started off poorly because of the decisions and non-decisions at the local and state levels," says David McEntire, an associate professor in UNT's emergency administration and planning bachelor's degree program. "The local government was not adequately prepared. The state government let politics overshadow the need to care for disaster victims. And the federal government did not take the situation seriously in the first few days of the disaster, although they did respond more quickly than they had to Hurricane Andrew (in 1992)."

McEntire, who attended a FEMA conference several years ago and observed officials working on plans to simultaneously respond to four hurricanes the size of Hurricane Andrew (a Category 4 storm at landfall like Katrina), says the federal government "should not have been taken by surprise" by the impact of Katrina.

"There were numerous studies that pointed out the vulnerability of New Orleans, and local, state, and federal officials participated in an exercise on hurricanes in Louisiana one year prior to Katrina's landfall. If federal officials were disengaged, it was because they were ignoring the expert advice of those interested in natural disasters," he says.

The report by the House Select Committee on Katrina criticized Chertoff for appointing Michael Brown, the director of FEMA when Katrina made landfall, to lead the federal response to the disaster, despite not being trained to take on that role.

McEntire says he disapproves of Chertoff and Brown being appointed to lead the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA, and other political appointments to lead those organizations.

"These organizations are much too important to put in the hands of those who have little or no knowledge in such areas," he says.

He adds, however, that although Brown did not have all of the necessary qualifications and expertise to lead the federal response to Katrina, he believes that most of the problems at the federal level "were the result of decisions made for and by the DHS."

"The federal government destroyed FEMA by taking away the preparedness function from it and has finally recognized the need to rebuild and even improve the agency," McEntire says. "My recommendation is to give more power and authority to FEMA to deal with all types of disasters.

They have the expertise -- more so than DHS. Of course, DHS does play an important role in terrorism prevention and that should not be discounted."

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108