Interoperability, data sharing lacking in Katrina response

The federal government's ineffective response to Hurricane Katrina was partly a failure of technology, according to a critical report released this week by a House Select Committee chaired by Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.).

The blistering 379-page report details a broad range of shortcomings in federal, state and local preparedness and response, including a lack of effective logistics, medical and communications systems.

"The preparations for and response to Hurricane Katrina shows we are still an analog government in a digital age. We must recognize that we are woefully incapable of storing, moving and accessing information, especially in times of crisis," the executive summary of the report stated.

Despite the push for information-sharing within the federal government following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Homeland Security Department has not reached that goal, the report said.

"The federal government is the largest purchaser of information technology in the world, by far. One would think we could share information by now. But Katrina again proved we cannot," the report said.

The committee report describes major problems in preparedness and response, for federal, state and local governments, in preparing for the catastrophe and in staging rescue and recovery activities. A portion of the blame goes to technology.

Communications breakdowns immediately following the disaster contributed to widespread chaos and uncertainty in the response. Lack of radio contact between affected jurisdictions severely hindered rescue and response efforts. The National Communications System, which gives priority over phone networks to emergency officials during an emergency, met many challenges during the crisis. But there were gaps in coverage that delayed response and slowed delivery of relief supplies.

The logistics IT systems of the Federal Emergency Management Agency were overwhelmed by the crisis, the report said.

"FEMA management lacked situational awareness of existing requirements and of resources in the supply chain. An overwhelmed logistics system made it challenging to get supplies, equipment and personnel where and when needed," the report said.

The storm swept away millions of pages of patient medical records from hospitals, nursing homes and doctors offices. A lack of electronic patient medical records contributed to difficulties and delays in medical treatment of evacuees, the report said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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