Skinner: FEMA lacked common IT system during Katrina

IT shortcomings contributed to the federal government's failures in responding to Hurricane Katrina, according to a new report from Homeland Security Department Inspector General Richard Skinner.

The 218-page report concludes that the department's Federal Emergency Management Agency deserved much of the criticism it received in the media regarding its handling of the disaster. It also said most of the new department's emphasis has been preparing for and responding to terrorist attacks rather than all types of disasters.

Another reason for the faulty response following Katrina is that FEMA was in the process of adjusting its operations to comply with the newly developed National Response Plan, the report concluded.

In addition to difficulties with communication networks damaged or destroyed by the storm, FEMA was hampered by lack of a common IT system to collect and distribute information during the response and recovery efforts.

For example, FEMA lacked assessments of what help was needed and what responsive actions were happening and by whom, the IG said.

"DHS should establish a common information management system to consolidate and publish disaster information including incident reports, contact information, duty logs and resources," the report said. "During Hurricane Katrina, this information was fragmented and dispersed among multiple systems."

Furthermore, FEMA's IT systems for ordering and tracking disaster-relief resources, such as food, water, ice, generators, medical supplies and vehicles, have been inadequate since 1998.

"FEMA lacks standardization in resource ordering, has an inefficient and ineffective system for tracking a request, and the same information is entered into at least three tracking systems that are not linked," the report stated.

In addition, FEMA does not have a centralized database to coordinate employee training so those with appropriate training are assigned to specific tasks. The agency uses several incompatible systems to track courses for specialized training, according to the report.

The IG recommended that FEMA implement a consolidated records system to maintain accurate, up-to-date information on training completed by FEMA workers.

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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