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Report: U.S. wasn't ready for disaster

In the days after Hurricane Katrina's landfall, many federal emergency officials found themselves scrambling to read for the first time a new national plan that outlined how to respond to disasters.

The "National Response Plan," a massive document written in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, had never been used before.

According to disaster management experts and reviews of the federal response to Katrina, the national plan - a document finalized in late 2004 - led to delays, confusion and a duplication of efforts. Among the problems:

Agencies and responders did not know where they fit into the organizational structure.

Employees spent too much time getting required signatures and paperwork.

Key decisionmakers were not familiar with certain terms and policies.

"I don't know if (Homeland Security Secretary Michael) Chertoff even read the plan or knew what his responsibilities were," said Kathleen Tierney, a professor at the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

A White House review of the Katrina response released Thursday was less scathing than a congressional report released last week. But it still painted a bleak picture.

"Emergency plans at all levels of government - including the 600-page "National Response Plan' that set forth the federal government's plan to coordinate all its departments and agencies and integrate them with state, local, and private sector partners - were put to the test and came up short," according to a summary distributed by the White House.

The 228-page report compiled by White House Homeland Security adviser Frances Townsend outlined 11 "critical actions" that should be taken before another hurricane season starts June 1 and another 125 other recommendations to be implemented by the Bush administration. Those include a 90-day review of the plan, and training on the plan for all responders.

"Do they need to re-create another plan or do they just need to make sure they understand it?" said George Shaw of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at George Washington University. "These big plans that sit on a shelf don't help at all. Written plans don't mean anything."

Katrina, a powerful Category 3 hurricane, killed more than 1,300 people along the Gulf Coast, displaced hundreds of thousands of others, and caused tens of billions of dollars in damage.

Chertoff was criticized for waiting 36 hours after Katrina to declare it a "disaster of national significance" - requiring the national plan to be implemented and a command center to be opened.

"DHS owns the plan," said Eric Holdeman, director of emergency management in King County in the Seattle area. "They did not follow the plan. They did not implement it quickly."

Before the terrorist attacks, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had a federal disaster plan it had used for years. But FEMA was absorbed into the department after the attacks, a maneuver that some say has meant less attention to disaster relief, more focus on terrorism and less money for preparedness and mitigation.

RAND Corp. was awarded a no-bid contract to help the Department of Homeland Security write a national plan after the 2001 terrorist attacks. It was designed to unify federal agencies, add components to deal with terrorism and eliminate the need for plans for different disasters, such as plane crashes, oil spills and earthquakes.

But the contractor's first draft was rejected by state and local emergency responders who complained that RAND had not incorporated lessons from previous disasters. RAND's role was later diminished and government officials eventually wrote the document, which carries the motto "One team, one goal . . . a safer, more secure America."

"It needs to be an evolving document," said Craig Fugate, director of Florida's Division of Emergency Management. "We need to learn quickly and apply it to the next storm."

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.