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A louder drumbeat for independent Katrina probe

Disaster experts join calls to assemble a panel outside of government to examine the nation's hurricane response.

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"Not only did [FEMA] perform well during the Northridge earthquake [in California], which was the big natural disaster during the Clinton years, but ... Congress regularly said great things about it," says Elaine Kamark of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, who led the Clinton administration's Reinventing Government Initiative. "FEMA was just our pride and joy."

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In the aftermath of 9/11, Congress folded FEMA into the newly created Department of Homeland Security. In doing so, many crucial reforms made as a result of the Andrew commission got lost in the shuffle.

"Just about every deficiency we see in the Katrina response was identified in that report 12 years ago," says Professor Tierney. "It talked about the heavy overbalance of political appointees, too many unqualified people in positions of authority, and the oversight of FEMA, now DHS, being spread over too many committees."

Is another study needed?

Of disaster experts interviewed and contacted by e-mail, most say an independent panel to investigate failures of the Katrina response is crucial. But some, even though they support the idea, have reservations.

"It's not clear to me that it would help the country," says Lee Clarke, a disaster-planning expert at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "There's so much we already know about disaster response and preparation, and it was used and employed effectively at FEMA before the Bush administration politicized the agency."

The knowledge already exists on how to prevent a confused disaster response, others say. But it's important to rethink the tradition of looking at disaster response as primarily state and local responsibilities, they add, because of how disasters are changing. It's increasingly likely that local first responders will more often be incapacitated, as they were in New Orleans and on 9/11.

Concern about worsening scenarios

Between global warming, which many expect will bring more severe weather, and the continuing war on terror, the US needs to be braced for big disasters and prepared to respond, many experts say. If disasters do escalate in their severity, "the only disaster response that's going to be capable is [from] the US military," says Professor Kamark. "It's the only organization that has the kinds of assets that will be needed when first responders are completely overwhelmed."

Others disagree that a shift toward the military is needed. Instead, they say the focus should be on better preparing ordinary citizens.

"Whoever is right there in the disaster area are the real first responders," says Linda Bourque, professor in the School of Public Health at the University of California in Los Angeles. "There was poor preparation for Katrina. People weren't evacuated, and the ones that really helped get people on their roofs and make makeshift boats were neighbors."

Professor Bourque and Kamark agree that an independent nonpartisan commission would help sort out the issues.