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Get it right next time, Chertoff Days of warnings won't be a luxury Homeland Security gets if terrorists strike

The scary part about the latest investigation into governmental failure to deal properly with the disaster it knew was coming when Hurricane Katrina neared the Gulf Coast is that there will be a next time, and we might not see it coming.

The independent General Accountability Office faulted Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for not putting somebody immediately in charge, and making sure everybody knew who that was. The result was a badly fumbled response fractured by competing layers of turf and bureaucracy, a focus on fingerpointing while real needs still went unmet, and days of confusion while New Orleans battled floods and people died.

There is, in fact, more than enough blame. In the absence of a federal "catastrophic event" declaration by Homeland Security that would have established clear leadership, local and state officials seized their own chances to screw up. The needed requests for assistance were slow to come from Louisiana's governor, and New Orleans' mayor presided over poor local evacuation and policing. For those who want partisan blame distributed -- a far less useful approach than assessing shortfalls in competent governance -- there's a portion for both sides.

But the real need is to learn from this disaster. Katrina slowly approached the coast, and governments that had days to prepare still weren't ready for its havoc. What happens if a terrorist nuclear device detonates suddenly in an American city? What happens if the earth quakes again, as it did beneath San Francisco without warning in 1906?

That's why Chertoff -- and, by extension, the entire Department of Homeland Security -- has to stay on the hot seat. It's their job to be ready for effective emergency response, if they can't ferret out and stop at least the man-made disasters before they happen. That response can't even hope to be effective if it's grounded in confusion.

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