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Lawmakers Question US Security Readiness in Hurricane Response

A few days before the fourth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, members of Congress are raising new questions about America's defenses against possible new terrorist attacks. The subject was discussed during a congressional hearing Wednesday, and at a Capitol Hill news conference by Democratic lawmakers critical of the slow government response to hurricane Katrina.

Democratic House leaders appeared with police, firefighters and emergency workers to underscore continuing security weaknesses they say the Bush administration and congressional Republicans have failed to address.

The news conference had been planned before hurricane Katrina, and was aimed at marking the fourth anniversary of the September 2001 al-Qaida terrorist attacks.

Democrats used the occasion to link emerging details of the government's response to the natural disaster, with the issue of remaining gaps and vulnerabilities to terrorism.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi pointed to communications difficulties that hampered an efficient response in the Gulf coast as one example:

"How could it be that four years after September 11, we still do not have real-time communication among first responders? This was a deficiency on September 11th, it is a deficiency and continues to be, in the Gulf states," she said.

Democrats also responded to recent remarks by some Republican leaders implying local officials should shoulder more of the blame.

Congressman Bennie Thompson from Mississippi, one of the Gulf states hit hard hurricane Katrina, says the government failed to devote resources and attention to disaster preparedness:

"This is the government's responsibility in a situation like this. Let's not pass this burden off to a mayor or a governor. They are part of it. But the ultimate responsibility for the citizens of America rests with this government of ours," said Mr. Thompson.

Chris Hinkle, a firefighter from Montgomery County, Maryland, says criticism of the government efforts is well-founded.

"The biggest thing we have seen with this response to that hurricane was an untimely response,” said Mr. Hinkle. “The resources were not put in place ahead of time, even though everybody knew it was coming. It seemed like the response was very slow, and kind of behind the curve."

Questions about the hurricane response spilled over into a hearing of a House subcommittee focusing on efforts to protect potential civilian targets from terrorist attacks.

Peter Lowy is Chief Executive Officer of The Westfield Group, a real estate company owning and operating large shopping malls and airport concessions around the world.

"It is clear from the country's response to the devastation in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama that we are not adequately prepared for the aftermath of a terrorist attack,” he noted. “The events of the past week have clearly demonstrated that Congress must aggressively pursue its oversight of the government's planning and execution."

At the same hearing, Bill Millar, who heads the American Public Transportation Association, said Congress must provide far more than the $150 million appropriated in 2005 for transit, passenger and freight rail security, recommending a figure of $2 billion for the next fiscal year.

Democrats say they will continue to press the Bush administration on more funding to strengthen anti-terror measures at ports, airports, and in transit systems as well as power and chemical plants.