Former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle and former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Lee Witt criticized the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina during the first of a series of discussions hosted by Daschle Wednesday at the Center for American Progress.

Daschle, a visiting professor at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, will speak with a different national leader during each event throughout the series, “Conversations with Daschle.”

Daschle introduced the discussion by comparing the relief efforts of recent emergencies that the United States has faced, particularly the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

“What struck me was the contrast between Katrina and 9/11,” Daschle said. “We were literally dumbfounded and I’ll say angry [about the relief efforts for Katrina].”

Witt, who currently heads the disaster consulting firm James Lee Witt Associates, criticized FEMA and the federal government for what he called their lackluster relief efforts in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. He emphasized the need for the federal government to raise public awareness about disaster management and incorporate the private sector more in relief efforts.

“Today, even an hour makes a difference,” Witt said. “The laws we have today, and the policies we have today, need to be changed.”

Witt also said that the directors of FEMA and other federal agencies must be qualified and capable.

“Leadership in that agency is so critical,” Witt said.

Daschle echoed this sentiment, saying that the federal government must be fully committed to disaster relief, especially now that an avian flu outbreak is a potential threat.

“We need more leadership,” Daschle said.

The calls for leadership at the agency came amidst questions about former FEMA Director Mike Brown, who resigned in September under the pressure of public criticism targeting his leadership in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Witt, who served as FEMA director for eight years under former president Bill Clinton, said that the agency was in disarray when he first arrived.

“[The FEMA employees] looked like the most demoralized public servants ever,” Witt said. “They looked like they were going to a funeral.”

Witt said that he instituted many changed during his tenure, including instituting an “open door policy” in his office and removing what he called the “good ‘ole boy system” for promotion.

“When I left in 2001, I’ll guarantee you you could look at that senior staff meeting [of FEMA] and it looked like America,” Witt said. “We took it into the 21st century as fast as we could.”

Witt said that despite the federal government’s failures after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Gulf region hold hope for the future.

“Right now is the best time in the world for anyone to make, rebuild New Orleans even better than it already was,” Witt said.

The event was co-sponsored by the GPPI and the CAP and was broadcast live on the Internet.

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