White House Blames System for Katrina Response

A new White House report on Hurricane Katrina found "significant flaws" in the Homeland Security department's national response plan for dealing with emergencies.

"Hurricane Katrina was a deadly reminder that we can and must do better, and we will," Frances Townsend, President Bush's Homeland Security adviser, wrote in a letter to him accompanying the report.

"This is the first and foremost lesson we learned from the death and devastation caused by our country's most destructive natural disaster: No matter how prepared we think we are, we must work every day to improve," she said.

Bush met with his Cabinet today to discuss the report on the response to Katrina, which the president himself has called inadequate. Offering 125 recommendations for handling future disasters, the report focuses on lessons learned.

"We will learn from the lessons of the past to better protect the American people," Bush said after the meeting. "I wasn't satisfied with the federal response."

Townsend said that would be addressed. "We can improve the response," she said. "We can make it faster and more efficient, and that's the focus of the 125 recommendations, which are really broken into 17 different areas."

The report looks at the handling of Katrina and the aftermath as a systemic failure rather than pointing fingers at individuals. It concluded that inexperienced disaster-response managers and a lack of planning, discipline and leadership contributed to vast federal failures during Hurricane Katrina.

The report also said that the response "fell far short" of expectations across a spectrum of agencies big and small.

"We are not as prepared as we need to be at all levels within the country: federal, state, local and individual," the report said.

Levee Breaches

In an interview on "Good Morning America," Townsend said the system "wasn't dependent on any one person."

"It was a failure of various aspects of decision-making that needed to happen real time and quickly to get federal response efforts," she said.

Hurricane Katrina killed 1,321 people, including 1,072 in Louisiana, displaced about 2 million people, and caused more than $150 billion in damage. Many feel that if the Federal Emergency Management Agency had acted sooner -- as opposed to taking 30 hours -- in calling for an evacuation after New Orleans' levees had broken, some of the devastation could have been avoided.

"If it were that simple, it would have been easier," Townsend said. "There were numerous reports about the levees. Most of them were inconsistent."

It wasn't clear, she said, whether Lake Pontchartrain's levees experienced a "breach or an overtopping" or how extensive the breach was, and that attention was turned toward saving lives.

Role of the Military

The report's recommendations call for the military to take a greater role when state and local resources become incapacitated.

"When we talk about integrated use of the military, we're not just talking about active forces," Townsend said. "We also have to make maximum use of the state National Guards."

That was one area of the Katrina relief effort Townsend praised, saying the National Guard -- more than 50,000 troops responded -- "performed magnificently."

Ports Debate

Recently, the Homeland Security department has come under fire for another issue: a deal that would let a company from the United Arab Emirates run operations at six U.S. ports.

Townsend emphasized that the Arab company would run the commercial operations only.

"Port security is done by the U.S Coast Guard, Customs and Border Patrol," she said. "They're done by our men and women who do this every day. Regardless of who has the commercial responsibility in the ports, we do port security and we will continue to do port security whether this deal goes through or not."

Townsend said she was completely comfortable with this deal.

"Absolutely, I think it's been scrubbed," she said. "[Homeland Security Secretary Michael] Chertoff has personally looked at it."