Back in 2006, former Congressman Tom Davis led the select bipartisan committee to investigate the preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina.
The report — titled “A Failure of Initiative” — gave a harsh assessment of the government’s preparations — or lack there of.
Five years later, Davis tells Federal News Radio that the government has made progress but there were just so many mistakes.
“Katrina was an unforgiving storm” Davis said. “This was a storm where there was no room for error, and there were plenty of errors at all levels of government.”
The most glaring error looking back? Davis says that most problems resulted from a lack of chain of command. While the mayor, governor and White House were all communicating, no one was in charge.
“At the end of the day, nobody was accountable,” Davis said.
The problems in the response were further complicated by politics, Davis said. Citing the federal response to a similar hurricane in Florida the year before Katrina, Davis said that the political elements at play then; namely the President’s brother was governor of the state (Jeb Bush), and Florida’s role as a crucial election state, meant that it received a much more prompt, cohesive response. While Davis did not blame the situation in New Orleans on politics, he did say that the military response was the only cohesive one.
“When the military got there it changed because these are people that are mission oriented. Before that everybody was just process oriented or regulation oriented, nobody wanted to step out of the box,” Davis said.
Another problem in the response efforts was a lack in planning for potential problems. While the government can’t forsee and respond promptly to every situation, in New Orleans there were some elements for which the government should have been prepared, Davis said.
“In this case, the levees were going to break. That was a pre-existing condition. Once the storm hit what you needed then was to be able to get people out of there,” Davis said. “Get them to high ground, get them food, get them water. Yet you had none of those contingencies in place. It broke down entirely.”
The biggest tragedy, Davis said, is that the city is still struggling.
“Even when everything is working right, things are going to go wrong, people are going to get hurt. Having said that, a lot of other things went wrong that exaggerated the damage,” Davis said. “It’s a great failing on our part that even now, when the emergency is gone under two administrations, it’s not gotten the attention in needs.”