the deaths of a hundreds of New Orleans residents and the suffering of so many thousands more people could have been avoided, an inquiry into the Hurricane Katrina disaster has concluded.
A US Congressional report, by a Republican-dominated committee from the House of Representatives, spreads the blame on everyone from President Bush down to local officials, for reacting to events rather than anticipating the storm’s deadly potential.
But the report does not openly attack the Bush administration for failing to invest in adequate flood defences before the storm.
New Orleans’ flimsy levees were broken by flood water when Hurricane Katrina hit the United States’ south coast on August 29 last year.
The 520-page report, titled ‘A Failure of Initiative’, was released on Wednesday.
‘The preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina should disturb all Americans,’ the report says.
It notes that, ‘The failure of initiative cost lives, prolonged suffering, and left all Americans justifiably concerned’.
The report says that the Bush administration failed to recognise Hurricane Katrina’s likely consequences as it approached.
Had it done so, a mobilisation of federal government resources could have been organised to get people out of New Orleans several days before they were finally evacuated.
Tens of thousands of New Orleans residents were left stranded, waiting for help to arrive, after the city was flooded.
The report also finds that ‘earlier presidential involvement’ by George W Bush himself could have speeded the response to Katrina.
Bush should have been talking to a disaster specialist – the report says – who would have understood the scope of the storm’s destruction.
The White House maintains that Bush was ‘fully involved’ in the federal government’s preparations and response to the hurricane.
Katrina left more than 1,300 people dead across the southern US states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
Hundreds of thousands of people were made homeless and the damage done by the hurricane and the flood of New Orleans runs into tens of billions of dollars.
On Monday survivors from flooded New Orleans found themselves homeless again, when a special aid programme to provide hotel accommodation to thousands of evacuees was halted by FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency).
New Orleans residents were again seen trudging the streets with their belongings in plastic bags and trolleys, after being kicked out of their hotel rooms.
On the question of the levees supposed to protect New Orleans from Mississippi flood water, the report confirms that they were only designed to resist a standard hurricane, roughly Level 3, but not the most severe hurricances.
There is no actual ‘standard hurricane’, however, because of the unique factors that contribute to a particular storm.
The report says: ‘The reasons for the levee failures appear to be some combination of nature’s wrath (the storm was just too large) and man’s folly (an assumption that the design, construction, and maintenance of the levees would be flawless). . .
‘There was a failure of initiative to get beyond design and organisational compromises to improve the level of protection afforded.’
The report says that the mandatory evacuations of residents in the states of Alabama and Mississippi – and for the general population of Louisiana outside New Orleans – went relatively well.
But criticising Louisiana state governor, Kathleen Blanco, and New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin, the report accuses them of waiting until it was too late to order a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans.
It says that clear warnings had been made of Katrina’s potential destruction 56 hours ahead of landfall. But the order to evacuate New Orleans came 19 hours before the storm hit.
Failure to order evacuations in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish until it was too late, or not at all, ‘led to preventable deaths, great suffering and further delays in relief’, the report finds.
The report claims that at least 35 of the 215 nursing home and hospital deaths in New Orleans can be attributed to bad decisions not to evacuate.
It also blamed ‘rampant false media reports’ for contributing to ‘unnecessary disorder and delay’.
It says: ‘There were repeated broadcast reports on September 1 that evacuations at the Superdome had been suspended because of shots fired at a helicopter, and unsubstantiated reports of two babies with throats slit.’
But the report also implies some blame on poorer elements of the population, reinforcing myths of ‘lawless’ elements.
It says: ‘First the levees were breached and then law and order.
‘As Katrina left people scrambling for food, for water, for supplies for survival, lawlessness and violence, both real and imagined, spread, creating yet another problem for authorities who were burdened enough already.’
The report says federal agencies were unclear about their responsibilities, despite the issuing of a national hurricane response plan.
It says the American Red Cross and other charities were then overwhelmed by the sheer size of demands, when New Orleans was flooded, leading to water, food and medical supply shortages and chaotic emergency shelter arrangements.
When the Red Cross placed orders for food such as Meals-Ready-to-Eat through the government, many of the requests got lost in an overburdened FEMA computer system, the report says.
The report says officials in Mississippi requested 450 trucks of water and ice from FEMA, as well as 50 trucks of Meals-Ready-to-Eat in the days after Katrina.
But FEMA was only able to provide 15 per cent of that request right away, forcing state officials to buy from the commercial market at an untold cost.
The report defends a massive $236 million contract with Carnival Cruise Lines for temporary housing.
It says ‘unfounded negative publicity’ concerning the contract could hurt relief efforts in the future.
Turning to President Bush’s remarks, shortly after Katrina hit, that ‘I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees’, the report said this showed he was not being briefed by a disaster specialist as the crisis unfolded.
Federal delays in assigning the Pentagon relief missions ‘may have been avoided if the President had been advised of the need for early presidential involvement.’
Homeland Security Department chief Michael Chertoff should have activated plans ‘to shift the federal response posture from a reactive to proactive mode’ to save lives and speed relief.
Despite reports from FEMA and the Coast Guard the night Katrina hit, the Homeland Security Operations Center failed to conclude that New Orleans levees were breached.
‘Perhaps the single most important piece of information during Katrina was confirmation of the levee breaches in New Orleans,’ the report says.
The House committee interviewed lots of officials, held nine public hearings and was given over 500,000 pages of e-mails, memos and other paperwork to study.
However, although some Democrats – mostly representing Gulf Coast districts – participated in the inquiry, Democrat leaders boycotted it, calling for an ‘independent’ commission, along the lines of the commission created to investigate the September 11 attacks.
At the same time as the House report was published, Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff was giving testimony to a separate Senate committee investigation.