The Government Accountability Office report said the resulting confusion from a lack of decisive leadership led to significant breakdowns in relief efforts.
“We continue to believe that a single individual directly responsible to the president must be designated to act as the central focal point to lead and coordinate the overall federal response in the event of a major catastrophe,” the preliminary report found.
The GAO report is the first conclusions from a series of congressional investigations into the response to Hurricane Katrina and covers all levels of government — federal, state and local. However, the report is especially critical of the federal response.
The report criticized the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for being slow to recognize the severity of the situation, despite clear warnings from the National Hurricane Center.
Shortly after the report was announced, a DHS spokesman lambasted the GAO report as premature, unprofessional and full of mistakes, according to the Associated Press.
The GAO specifically questioned DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff both for designating Hurricane Katrina an incident of national significance and for delaying the announcement until Aug. 30 — the day after landfall. Investigators argue that had Chertoff designated the storm a catastrophic event, it would have triggered a faster response under provisions of the National Response Plan.
The report also found fault with the National Response Plan itself. Investigators said key officials misunderstood their roles and responsibilities under the plan.
“As a result, the federal response generally was to wait for the affected states to request assistance,” the report said.
“In the absence of timely and decisive action and clear leadership responsibility and accountability, there were multiple chains of command, a myriad of approaches and processes for requesting and providing assistance and confusion about who should be advised of requests.”
However, the report was not entirely critical. Investigators applauded the Coast Guard and Department of Defense for taking action ahead of the storm’s arrival to prepare for a major disaster. The U.S. Postal Service and the National Finance Center also were mentioned for their forethought and response to the disaster.
“Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the benefits of applying lessons learned from training exercises and experiences with actual hurricanes as well as the dangers of ignoring them,” GAO Comptroller General David Walker said in a statement.
Many of the report’s recommendations echoed earlier reports from the GAO that investigated government responses to hurricanes Hugo and Andrew in the early 1990s. They also reaffirmed many of the conclusions from a FEMA exercise called “Hurricane Pam,” conducted between 2004 and 2005, that identified and anticipated many of the problems — widespread flooding, extensive evacuations, thousands of homeless in need of shelter, and disposal of tons of debris — experienced during Hurricane Katrina.