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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A growing number of top disaster experts are adding their voices to calls for an independent, nonpartisan commission to examine what went wrong, as well as right, with the nation's response to the Katrina disaster.

Washington's plans for such inquiries have moved in a different direction. The White House this week named President Bush's top homeland security adviser, Francis Fragos Townsend, to head an inquiry into the sluggish and chaotic response to hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. House Republicans, meanwhile, are planning an investigation led by the Government Reform Committee. On Wednesday, congressional Democrats said such an inquiry would lack credibility because of Republicans' ties to the White House, and they renewed their call for an independent panel.

The disaster experts - mostly from academia - are staying clear of politics, but they insist that for a commission to be effective it must be made up not of politicians and lawyers but of people in the various fields of disaster response, from emergency management to federal policy.

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"This is too important to make this a matter of partisan politicians. We must call and continue to call for an independent panel of experts who have subpoena power, who can collect the data and do interviews as necessary," says Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "That's the only way we're going to derive lessons learned and actionable guidance."

Independent commissions have a mixed history of success in reforming institutions, forming both public policy and influencing public opinion.

In the early 1980s, a commission funded by the Carnegie Foundation produced "A Nation at Risk," a report on the failures in the US educational system. It served as a wake-up call to many Americans and started a public-policy debate about improving education that continues today.

Other commissions have had less success. In 2001, the Bush administration created a high-profile Commission for Strengthening Social Security to find ways to address the long-term shortfalls in the system. Its findings did not resonate with the public, and the administration subsequently distanced itself from the commission, according to a study on the effectiveness of commissions by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore.

The 9/11 commission, created after victims' families objected to having a government-backed panel, is the most recent independent commission to make a mark on US policy. Its effectiveness has been mixed. Some commission recommendations have transformed the Washington bureaucracy and airline security, but many others in the area of emergency preparedness have not been implemented. At a recent Monitor breakfast in Washington, former commission chairman Thomas Kean said: "We believe had they been implemented that the [Katrina] tragedy might have been less severe in terms of human lives."

The best example of an effective commission in the area of disaster response, experts say, is one set up to study failures to effectively help victims of hurricane Andrew in 1992. The first Bush administration and Congress commissioned the National Academy of Public Administration to set up a nonpartisan panel to find ways to make the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) more effective. The academy is charged with finding ways to improve governance in the United States. Many key recommendations by its panel were carried out, transforming FEMA from a maligned agency that some in Congress had targeted for elimination into a respected and effective emergency-management organization under James Lee Witt in the 1990s.

"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."

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.

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