Senators say changes unlikely before storm season.
WASHINGTON -- A Senate inquiry into the government's Hurricane Katrina failures ripped the Bush administration anew Thursday and urged the scrapping of the nation's disaster response agency. But with a new hurricane season just weeks away, senators conceded that few if any of their proposals could become reality in time.
The bipartisan investigation into one of the worst natural disasters in the nation's history singled out President Bush and the White House as appearing indifferent to the devastation until two days after the storm hit.
It said the Homeland Security Department either misunderstood federal disaster plans or refused to follow them. And it said New Orleans for years had neglected to prepare for large-scale emergencies.
"The suffering that continued in the days and weeks after the storm passed did not happen in a vacuum; instead, it continued longer that it should have because of -- and was in some cases exacerbated by -- the failure of government at all levels to plan, prepare for and respond aggressively to the storm," concluded the report.
It was titled "Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared," sober words for the future.
The Senate inquiry is the third major federal report on the government failures exposed by the Aug. 29 storm, which killed more than 1,300 people and which the Senate Budget Committee says has so far cost the federal government $103 billion.
The report follows similar inquiries by the House and White House and comes in an election year in which Democrats have pointed critically to the administration's Katrina response.
The senators concluded that only by abolishing the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- which Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, called a "bumbling bureaucracy" -- and replacing it with a stronger authority could the government best respond to future catastrophes.
But the two lawmakers who led the inquiry, Collins and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said such an overhaul could not be completed by the June 1 start of the hurricane season.
"As a practical matter, that's just five weeks away, and it's not going to happen," Collins told reporters. "But that doesn't mean that we should continue in the long term to operate with a system that's failed, that is so clearly flawed."
Looking ahead to approaching hurricane season, Collins added: "We're clearly better prepared than last year, but are we prepared enough? No, we're not."
Underscoring the hurdles the proposals face, eliminating FEMA got a cool reception from the White House as Bush headed to the still-ravaged Gulf Coast to view rebuilding efforts in New Orleans and Mississippi.
"As we're headed into the hurricane season, now is not the time to look at moving organizational boxes around," said White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend.
Besides dumping FEMA, the report makes 85 other recommendations, from clarifying who's responsible for maintaining New Orleans levees to demanding better plans for protecting or evacuating elderly and poor victims.
The report calls for more funding for disaster planning and response, but does not specify how much or where the money would come from.
The Bush administration says it has been working to prepare for what the National Hurricane Center has predicted will be an active decade for hurricanes. It is rebuilding New Orleans levees, prodding local governments to update evacuation plans and hire emergency workers, and creating databases to order and track food and other supplies needed during disasters.
Though the new report singles out officials from New Orleans to Washington for blame -- and lambastes Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in particular -- it gives Bush a mixed review for his performance. It credits the president for declaring an emergency before the hurricane's landfall, but faults him for waiting until two days after it hit to return to Washington and convene top officials to coordinate the federal response.
Lieberman, in an addendum, took sharper aim at Bush, who he said appeared distracted from the disaster as it unfolded. "The president is, after all, the commander in chief -- not only in terms of international crises, but in terms of catastrophes here at home," he said.
Not all the senators who participated in the seven-month inquiry agreed with its central recommendation -- to create a National Preparedness and Response Authority but keep it within the oversight of Homeland Security Department to draw on the larger department's resources.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said FEMA needs to be stripped out of the larger department and restored as an independent Cabinet-level agency. "That's how it was done in the past and it worked as we hoped," said Lautenberg, a member of the Senate panel.
But Robert Latham, director of Mississippi's emergency response efforts, said lingering funding and manpower problems should be addressed before such a drastic step is taken.
"Changing the name of something doesn't fix a problem, other than maybe fixes a perception," Latham said. "Maybe FEMA has taken such a bashing that the name recognition itself will be hard to overcome."