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US Homeland Security Chief Admits Mistakes in Hurricane Response

In Washington, the head of the Department of Homeland Security has acknowledged mistakes in the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the U.S. Gulf coast region last year. Secretary Michael Chertoff's testimony before Congress Wednesday comes as a congressional report takes aim at the Bush administration for failures in responding to one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.

The 520-page report, released by a Republican-led House committee, blames officials from the White House down to the local government level in failing to move quickly to prepare for and respond to Hurricane Katrina.

Congressman Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, led the House probe. He says the nation should have been better prepared for the disaster, coming as it did just years after the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"The failure of all levels of government to respond more effectively to Katrina demonstrates that whatever emergency response improvements have been made after 9/11, we are still not fully prepared," he said.

The report is notable for its critical tone, as House Republicans have been reluctant to pursue other investigations of the Bush administration.

The report takes particular aim at Michael Chertoff, the head of the Homeland Security Department, which was formed after the 2001 terrorist attacks, saying he failed to activate a national plan to spur a streamlined and swift relief response.

But Democrats say the report does not go far enough, arguing it does not address the needs of thousands of hurricane victims who remain homeless.

Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, a Georgia Democrat, also sought to pin blame on the Republican majority in Congress.

"As a result of the President's failure to act, Secretary Chertoff's failure to act, and the failure of Congress to act, it appears we are about to see a new underclass of Katrina homeless victims in America," she said.

The criticism of the Homeland Security Department and its secretary was echoed by lawmakers on the Senate side of the Capitol.

The chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, said the agency's response to Katrina was "late, uncertain and ineffective."

"The response of DHS must be judged a failure," she said.

Democrats offered their own criticisms of the agency.

"This is just so dysfunctional, or non-functional, it is frightening," said Senator Mark Dayton, a Minnesota Democrat.

Testifying before the Senate panel, Chertoff acknowledged his agency made mistakes during the Katrina disaster.

"I am responsible for the Department of Homeland Security, and I am accountable and I accept responsibility for the entire department, the bad and the good," he said. "I also have the responsibility to fix what is wrong."

Chertoff, who also testified before a House committee, said his agency was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the storm. He vowed to improve the department's capabilities to assist and rescue victims in any future national disaster and more streamlined communications between emergency officials.

Katrina left more than 1,200 people dead, hundreds of thousands homeless and tens of billions of dollars in damage when it swept through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama at the end of August.

Chertoff vehemently denied accusations by the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, that the Department of Homeland Security was focused more on preventing terrorist attacks than responding to natural disasters.

The hearing was briefly interrupted by a protester in the audience who was apparently upset by FEMA's decision to end a program that paid for hotel rooms for hundreds of homeless evacuees.

"They are being evicted! They are being thrown on the ground," the protester said.

While FEMA will no longer pay for evacuees' hotel rooms, it says it will provide them with funds to use for hotel stays or other housing.

In a separate development, the House of Representatives has approved and sent to President Bush a bill raising the borrowing authority of the government's flood insurance program to $21 billion to cover the claims from Katrina and other storms.