Who's to Blame for Delayed Response to Katrina?

In New Orleans, those in peril and those in power have pointed the finger squarely at the federal government for the delayed relief effort.

But experts say when natural disasters strike, it is the primary responsibility of state and local governments -- not the federal government -- to respond.

New Orleans' own comprehensive emergency plan raises the specter of "having large numbers of people ... stranded" and promises "the city ... will utilize all available resources to quickly and safely evacuate threatened areas."

"Special arrangements will be made to evacuate persons unable to transport themselves," the plan states.

When Hurricane Katrina hit, however, that plan was not followed completely.

Instead of sending city buses to evacuate those who could not make it out on their own, people in New Orleans were told to go to the Superdome and the Convention Center, where no one provided sufficient sustenance or security.

'Lives Would Have Been Saved'

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said "80 percent" of the city was evacuated before the storm hit, but Bob Williams says that's not good enough.

Williams dealt with emergency response issues as a state representative in Washington when his district was forced to deal with the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980.

"If the plan were implemented, lives would have been saved," Williams said.

There's no question the federal government plays a major role in disaster relief. But federal officials say in order to get involved, they must first be asked to do so by state officials.

As one FEMA official told ABC News, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco failed to submit a request for help in a timely manner.

Shortly before Katrina hit, she sent President Bush a request asking for shelter and provisions, but didn't specifically ask for help with evacuations. One aide to the governor told ABC News today Blanco thought city officials were taking care of the evacuation.

Nonetheless, some experts argue that the federal government should have been more proactive.

"If the city and the state are stumbling or in over their head, then it's FEMA's [Federal Emergency Management Agency's] responsibility to show some leadership," said Jerry Hauer, director of public health preparedness at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Both the president and Congress have vowed to investigate questions of blame. It may already be safe to conclude that there will be plenty of it to go around.

ABC News' Dan Harris filed this report for "World News Tonight."

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