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A louder drumbeat for independent Katrina probe

Disaster experts join calls to assemble a panel outside of government to examine the nation's hurricane response.

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A growing number of top disaster experts are adding their voices to calls for an independent, nonpartisan commission to examine what went wrong, as well as right, with the nation's response to the Katrina disaster.

Washington's plans for such inquiries have moved in a different direction. The White House this week named President Bush's top homeland security adviser, Francis Fragos Townsend, to head an inquiry into the sluggish and chaotic response to hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. House Republicans, meanwhile, are planning an investigation led by the Government Reform Committee. On Wednesday, congressional Democrats said such an inquiry would lack credibility because of Republicans' ties to the White House, and they renewed their call for an independent panel.

The disaster experts - mostly from academia - are staying clear of politics, but they insist that for a commission to be effective it must be made up not of politicians and lawyers but of people in the various fields of disaster response, from emergency management to federal policy.

"This is too important to make this a matter of partisan politicians. We must call and continue to call for an independent panel of experts who have subpoena power, who can collect the data and do interviews as necessary," says Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "That's the only way we're going to derive lessons learned and actionable guidance."

Independent commissions have a mixed history of success in reforming institutions, forming both public policy and influencing public opinion.

In the early 1980s, a commission funded by the Carnegie Foundation produced "A Nation at Risk," a report on the failures in the US educational system. It served as a wake-up call to many Americans and started a public-policy debate about improving education that continues today.

Other commissions have had less success. In 2001, the Bush administration created a high-profile Commission for Strengthening Social Security to find ways to address the long-term shortfalls in the system. Its findings did not resonate with the public, and the administration subsequently distanced itself from the commission, according to a study on the effectiveness of commissions by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore.

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