WASHINGTON -- On paper, the federal government has never been more prepared to deal with a catastrophe. But the floods of New Orleans showed that having a plan to get a bottle of water to a disaster victim and actually getting that bottle of water into the victim's hands in the midst of unfolding chaos are two very different things.
Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration has spent four years reorganizing the government's domestic disaster response. It created a Department of Homeland Security to coordinate emergency efforts, a Northern Command to unify control of military forces and equipment, and a detailed, 426-page National Response Plan to tell every government agency what to do.
Although it was a natural disaster rather than a terrorist attack on a US city, Hurricane Katrina and the flood that followed presented the first real operational test of the administration's new homeland security system.
''The results are not acceptable," President Bush acknowledged while touring the disaster zone Friday.
And yesterday, even as thousands of National Guard troops began the process of restoring order to the devastated area, criticism mounted that it took the government too long to stabilize the city and bring relief to the flood's victims.
Homeland security specialists attributed the delay to a series of holes in the federal plan. They mentioned the failure to require that local officials buy proper equipment, the lack of preparation for an evacuation, and the officials' sluggish reaction.
''It's not as if people didn't know this could happen," Paul Light, a professor of organizational studies at New York University, said. ''The Department of Homeland Security is doing a terrific job developing planning scenarios, ideas, and directives for preparedness. But the follow through, the grant money, the actual movement toward preparedness at the local level is a real weakness."
New Orleans authorities issued a mandatory evacuation order before the storm, but more than 100,000 people stayed. Emergency plans did not address that many were too poor or sick to get out without help, and there was no system for removing them. The plight of the New Orleans victims suggests that, even with advance warning of a terrorist strike, the homeland security system would have trouble evacuating a significant portion of those at risk.
''There are some clear lessons to be learned about our ability to move large numbers of people where we might have some indication of a future problem, be it natural or man-made," said P. J. Crowley, a former Clinton administration-era National Security Council official.
Police, trying to keep order and direct people to safety, could not communicate with one another. Congress has spent billions on homeland security grants, but pork barrel politics dispersed it thinly around the country, and local officials often chose to upgrade ordinary equipment rather than focusing on things that could be used in an emergency, such as satellite radios.
''Every nickel we spent in New Orleans is now under six feet of water," said James Carafano, a homeland security specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation. ''When something serious happens, you need a national response. Spreading the money around, and making sure that everyone gets something, is a stupid idea."
And days after the storm moved on, food, water, ice, and medical supplies were still only trickling into the city because of late-arriving military supply trucks. No one brought in such basics as portable toilets, refrigerator trucks to store rotting cadavers, or water purification tablets. Officials later said they had to concentrate on search-and-rescue missions rather than bringing in sanitary items -- though the lack of sanitary items has contributed to the spread of disease.
The days of delay and chaos stood in stark contrast to how planners envisioned the federal government, with its new homeland security mission, would handle things.
On Wednesday, one day after the levees broke, the Bush administration invoked the National Response Plan, the centerpiece of its efforts to establish clear lines of authority in a national disaster. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, designated to lead the operation, pronounced himself ''extremely pleased" with the federal response.
Yet on the ground, little help was arriving. Days after the levee broke, desperate crowds begged for help with no official presence in sight. Looters roamed freely. Airlifts of water and food were sparse.
The delays in the arrival of substantial federal aid had led New Orleans's mayor, C. Ray Nagin, to boil over by Friday: ''I keep hearing that this is coming, that is coming," he told reporters. ''And my answer to that today is . . . where is the beef?"
Buffeted by complaints throughout the week, emergency planners protested that they had prepositioned massive amounts of supplies and aid in the region. But despite years of warnings that a levee break could flood New Orleans, their contingency plans did not prepare for the secondary flood that followed the storm.
''The act of flooding and the continued challenge of dealing with water levels that can be anywhere from three to four to eight feet have dramatically impeded our ability to actually get these supplies into New Orleans," Chertoff said.
Still, several homeland security specialists said some of the criticism was unfair. The United States government had never grappled with a disaster anywhere near this scale before. And while its response has not been perfect, some argued, it was still far better than it would have been a decade ago, before the post-9/11 changes.
''This took the National Response Plan, which was released with little hurrah, and breathed real life into it," said Frank Cilluffo, a former special assistant for homeland security to Bush. ''There have been a whole lot of firsts at the federal level."
And there were successes. Some 80 percent of the city's residents evacuated ahead of time, probably reducing the number of casualties from the flood significantly. Despite the war in Iraq, half of each state's National Guard was kept in the country specifically for this contingency, even if much of their heavy equipment was abroad.
Moreover, some said, the government could not parachute in more supplies, troops, and doctors without causing unintentional problems. Supply drops in places like Somalia and Kosovo sometimes hit and killed people with palettes. And it's difficult to find and airdrop supplies to scattered individuals.
''This is a disaster area, there's no infrastructure, no roads, no communications," said Carafano. ''I hear people asking, 'Why don't you just parachute in the 82d Airborne?' But everybody you throw into that area becomes someone else you have to support and a further strain on the system. People have been really unrealistic. . . . The much better answer is to focus on getting people out."
In a CNN interview on Thursday, Michael Brown, the Federal Emergency Management Agency director, echoed that warning: ''I had to be very careful about getting rescue teams in there, because otherwise we would face an even higher death toll," he said.
The impact of changes to FEMA enacted by the Bush administration are certain to be part of postcrisis hearings promised by Senate Republicans. Prior to the changes, the agency was a stand-alone body whose head reported directly to the president.
Under the massive government reorganization after the 2001 terrorist attacks, FEMA became part of the new Department of Homeland Security. It is still designated as the lead agency for responding to an emergency, but its preparedness function was given to another division of the new department. Its new emphasis was counterterrorism, not natural disasters.
During the Clinton administration, the director was a professional emergency manager, James Lee Witt. The current director, Brown, had no experience in emergency management before coming to FEMA.
Witt did not respond to an interview request, but in March 2004 he testified before Congress that ''the ability of our nation to prepare for and respond to disasters has been sharply eroded.
''I hear from emergency managers, local and state leaders, and first-responders nearly every day that the FEMA they knew and worked well with has now disappeared," Witt testified.