The NYT reports today that the White House was briefed on the New Orleans levy breach 24 hours before what was previously stated. A lower level FEMA official apparently had heard about a breech, hopped a ride on a helicopter to get a first hand view and then reported the information up through his leadership. This fact will likely kick the congressional investigations into higher gear, especially with the news that Brown will not get the full cover as a presidential advisor and will answer congressional questions. Three observations:
(1) Whenever something disastrous happens, two types of investigations are possible. The first assigns responsibility, the second makes recommendations for improvement. I think both are always necessary; people should be held accountable for their mistakes and "lessons learned" should be sent to those who might benefit. However, with Congress's partisan makeup, these two investigations really need to be separate for anyone to actually be able to learn something from the failings.
(2) I hate to say that Org structure is strategically important, but I really think it is. FEMA and DHS botched this whole effort because they have a Byzantine command and control structure with little understanding of who is accountable for what. The Coast Guard, on the other hand, was able to respond because it is decentralized and has an understanding of accountability which drives impactful action.
(3) Once you have accountability nailed down, DHS needs to build process. This is pivotally important for us going forward because the same command and control process that botched the Federal Katrina response will be the one dealing with a wmd attack, influenza pandemic, etc. We need to know who is accountable for what and how information and decisions are passed to and from the accountable owner.