By Glenn P. Corbett

Within days, the ravages of Hurricane Katrina propelled the Gulf Coast monster to the very top of the disaster charts. In terms of lives lost in a storm, it likely will be second only to the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, when at least 5,000 were killed. Katrina will, however, be the most expensive catastrophe in American history.

Katrina will also be at the crest of one other list: the tally of worst emergency management debacles. In one unbelievable episode after another, the American public was stunned to see how the lack of coordination among local, state, and federal officials unzipped a supposed and anticipated “seamless” response. This was the “Big One” that many had planned for, yet the response folded like a cheap tent. The American public’s confidence in our nation’s ability to handle disasters has crumbled.

There is plenty of blame to go around. There were failures at all levels of government. Just like the toxic sludge “gumbo” that now inhabits large sections of New Orleans, the problems that conspired to create such a dire situation are a volatile mix of technical, political, and sociological shortcomings. As in all disasters, it was a chain of interconnected events that led to tragic conclusions. In this case, however, the links are big, and they are numerous.

In September 1999, I was at FEMA headquarters in Washington attending a committee meeting of America Burning: Recommissioned. As it so happened, Hurricane Floyd was moving toward the East Coast and threatening states up and down the coastline as we met in a FEMA conference room. We were invited to observe a top-level emergency teleconference meeting between state leaders and James Lee Witt, the FEMA Director.

I stood in awe. I watched as Director Witt moved northward up the coast, talking to each governor or state representative on the large television screen in the “situation room.” The Director asked each person what they needed and what their problems were. We saw weather experts, including an individual who seemed to be a specialist in storm surges. I thought to myself that this was one of the most organized meetings I had ever seen, especially one dealing with a looming crisis.

I wasn’t alone in my observations. A Republican U.S. senator from a southern state sitting near me mentioned how impressed he was with FEMA, despite the fact that he had considered the agency such a failure only a few years earlier. I’m sure we all left the meeting thinking that FEMA had turned a corner and was something to be proud of. James Lee Witt had made the agency run like a well-oiled machine, and it showed.

The FEMA of 1999 is no longer. During the first Bush Administration, FEMA had started moving away from its critical core mission of disaster mitigation-spending a few dollars now to save a lot later. Project Impact, Witt’s flagship program, which encouraged cities to implement mitigation strategies, has nearly disappeared from the FEMA Web site and mindset.

FEMA was dealt a body blow after 9/11, when it was swallowed whole by the Department of Homeland Security. FEMA lost its cabinet level positioning, tumbling down the pecking order. It is likely to lose all of its preparedness functions. It has tilted toward terrorism issues and away from natural disasters. It doesn’t help that its last two leaders-Joseph Allbaugh and Michael Brown-were political appointees with no emergency management experience.

FEMA has hit rock bottom, its stature falling faster than the barometric pressure over New Orleans. It is bittersweet, then, that one of our own has been appointed Acting Director of FEMA. R. David Paulison, former chief of the Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue Department, has been given the nearly impossible task of pulling FEMA out of the political muck, trying to restore credibility and bring back some semblance of pride and dignity for the organization. While the entire fire service is rooting for him, he is being asked to perform a miracle. He needs our support.

What went wrong along the Gulf Coast? Did anything go right? Do we need to investigate what happened? Should we start asking questions? Who should ask the questions? We need only look at the 9/11 investigations for some guidance.

In the wake of September 11, we learned quite a lot about our nation’s intelligence failures, giant gaps in our airline security, and shortcomings in our national defense. For the fire service, we learned about communication breakdowns and command and control weaknesses that likely cost firefighters their lives at the World Trade Center.

We learned these things because we needed to know. We learned these things despite the fierce resistance of government and powerful individuals and organizations. We learned these things because we needed to make positive changes.

We need to find out what happened along our Gulf Coast. We need to probe broadly and deeply into the conditions that led to the disaster and the way we responded to Katrina. We need to drill down to the layers of truth that lie under this national quagmire. We need a Katrina Commission.

Congress has already begun to hold hearings into Katrina, with individual committees soliciting testimony within their areas of oversight. Generally, while this will prove to be a useful start, such hearings suffer from being disjointed and superficial. What we really need is a comprehensive and coordinated investigation, staffed with subject matter expert commissioners, not politicians.

Already, there is opposition to a Katrina Commission. Part of the opposition is based in partisan politics, part in the cost of such a commission, and part in Congress’ unwillingness to cede control of such an inquiry.

We owe it to the American taxpayer, who will foot the bill for the recovery and rebuilding efforts. We owe it to the emergency responders, who were expected to do the impossible. Most importantly, we owe it to those who died needlessly.

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