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Report: Disaster preparation was lax

Deaths and the suffering of thousands of Hurricane Katrina's victims might have been avoided if the government had heeded lessons from the 2001 terror attacks and taken a proactive stance toward disaster preparedness, a House inquiry concludes.

But from President Bush on down to local officials there was largely a reactive posture to the catastrophic Aug. 29 storm - even when faced with early warnings about its deadly potential.

A 520-page report, titled A Failure of Initiative, was released Wednesday as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff testified before a Senate committee conducting a separate investigation of the government's Katrina response.

"The preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina should disturb all Americans," said the report, written by a Republican-led special House committee chaired by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va.

"Passivity did the most damage," it said. "The failure of initiative cost lives, prolonged suffering, and left all Americans justifiably concerned our government is no better prepared to protect its people than it was before 9/11, even if we are."

The hard-hitting findings allocated blame to state and local authorities and concluded that the federal government's single largest failure was in not recognizing Katrina's likely consequences as it approached. That could have prompted a mobilization of federal assets for a post-storm evacuation of a flooded New Orleans, the report said, meaning aid "would have arrived several days earlier."

It also said Bush could have speeded the response by becoming involved in the crisis earlier and says he was not receiving guidance from a disaster specialist who would have understood the scope of the storm's destruction.

"Earlier presidential involvement might have resulted in a more effective response," the inquiry concluded.

The inquiry into one of the nation's worst natural disasters looked at everything from the evacuation to the military's role to planning for emergency supplies, and in each category found much to criticize. The House study is the first to be completed in a series of inquiries by Congress and the Bush administration into the massive failures exposed by Katrina.

Katrina left more than 1,300 people dead in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, hundreds of thousands homeless and tens of billions of dollars worth of damage. Bush has accepted responsibility for the federal government's shortfalls, but the storm response continues to generate finger-pointing.

The House panel spent five months investigating the failures. It interviewed scores of federal, state and local authorities, sorted through more than 500,000 pages of documents and held nine public hearings spotlighting sometimes feeble explanations by officials.

ON THE WEB

Highlights from Congress' 520-page report, titled A Failure of Initiative, can be found at sptimes.com/links.

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