Report: Hurricane Katrina no wake-up call for preparedness

Congress wants to address Americans’ apathy and cynicism about disaster preparedness in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a Congressman said today.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Hurricane Katrina and the House Government Reform Committee, invited Paul Light, a professor at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, to Washington, D.C., to talk about a report Light wrote about Americans’ opinions on preparedness.

The report contains the results of two surveys that found that Americans have lost confidence in their local governments, businesses and police departments in the wake of Katrina. Fire departments and charitable organizations, including the American Red Cross, managed to keep pre-Katrina levels of confidence.

The surveys, conducted in July and October, found that Americans felt more prepared for disasters before the rapid succession of hurricanes in late August and September than after them.

Only two indicators changed markedly, Light said. People now want more money to prepare for disasters, and they believe they know what to expect in an emergency. Unfortunately, they expect a chaotic government response.

Forty percent of those surveyed said the federal government was responsible for its lack of hurricane response. Of that group, 74 percent said the government doesn’t make preparedness a top priority, and 87 percent said it is too disorganized and mismanaged to be prepared.

The disorganized, “every which way but loose” reaction of federal, state and local governments to Katrina was a harbinger of the chaos a terrorist attack would cause, Light said.

“A significant biological or terrorist attack will make New Orleans look like a calm withdrawal,” he said.

“This underscores the troubling post-Hurricane Katrina reality,” particularly the division between the creation and implementation of preparedness policies, Davis said. The country must think ahead to prepare for the next emergency, not simply react to the next Katrina, he said.

Light recommended that Congress should give President Bush the authority to create a Citizens Preparedness Directorate within the Homeland Security Department or as a freestanding agency with direct presidential access. The country needs a separate, single voice for citizen preparedness, and DHS’ new Preparedness Directorate focuses on readying the government, not the public, he said.

Davis declined to comment on how the proposed directorate would interact with the new Preparedness Directorate. Neither man knew how a new Citizens Preparedness Directorate would interface with the existing Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate, which currently oversees preparedness activities.

Federal lawmakers should also give the chief executive more power to improve recruitment, retention and training of preparedness specialists and reform personnel systems and the federal appointments process to rapidly place qualified employees where they’re needed, Light said.

State and local governments should establish local command centers and make the public as aware as possible of emergency management functions, Light recommended. Most importantly, he said, state and local governments must provide clear information on where the public should get information after a disaster.

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