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Under Proposal, Disaster Duties Shared With Homeland Security

By Eric Lipton


Acknowledging the multitude of Hurricane Katrina failures, the Bush administration advocated on Thursday giving federal agencies from the Pentagon to the Department of Justice a greater role in the nation’s disaster response playbook.

If adopted through both legislation and executive order, the recommendations would reverse some of the steps taken after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to centralize responsibility for responding to natural disasters or terrorist attacks at the newly created Department of Homeland Security. And the plan could require the White House to play a larger coordinating role in future disasters.

Frances Fragos Townsend, President Bush’s domestic security adviser, said that enlisting help from federal agencies made sense.

“There’s a lot of expertise resident in the federal government,” Townsend said at a White House briefing, where she released the report she and her staff had prepared.

But some critics worry that diffusing responsibilities among agencies could leave no one clearly in charge and not produce results.

“This may simply be rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” said Michael Greenberger, a law professor and domestic security expert at the University of Maryland.

The Homeland Security Department and its Federal Emergency Management Agency will continue to be the lead federal player in disaster response efforts, according to the blueprint proposed by Townsend. But the Pentagon may take over the commanding role during catastrophes “of extraordinary scope and nature,” like a nuclear attack or “multiple simultaneous terrorist attacks causing a breakdown in civil society,” the report says, citing examples even more extreme than Hurricane Katrina.

More routinely, the military will be expected to provide logistical support, including sending troops to deliver supplies or rescue victims.

The Justice Department, which now shares responsibility for disaster law enforcement efforts with the Homeland Security Department, would be primarily charged with that even in less severe disasters. The reassignment was attributed to the slow and disorganized response to lawlessness in New Orleans.