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Published: Friday, 1/27/2006

The storm that won't die

THE Bush Administration's refusal to release documents detailing what happened in the days just before and after Hurricane Katrina's assault on the Gulf Coast region is more troubling evidence of this administration's reluctance to operate openly.

Ironically, the administration doesn't need to worry that handing over the documents will harm its reputation. Millions of Americans already think the government did an abysmal job of minimizing the loss of life and property damage from the storm.

Making it more difficult for investigators is that the Bush Administration has also rebuffed requests to release any communications, including e-mail, involving staff members.

This time it isn't just Democrats who are the administration's critics. A Republican congressman from Connecticut, Rep. Christopher Shays, who is on the House investigating committee, summed up the view of many when he described the administration's response as "pathetic." Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, also objected when White House officials said they couldn't testify about communications.

With the start of the next hurricane season barely four months away, it's important that authorities gain a clear understanding as to why the Katrina crisis was so mishandled.

But with the administration's stonewalling and claiming executive privilege, it's hard to know for sure what they have learned. The administration's refusal to turn over the storm-related papers to congressional committees investigating the response suggests it has forgotten that this is an open, democratic society.

Moreover, the administration is not showing itself as much of a friend to the devastated Gulf Coast region. The Bush White House has already told Louisiana Republican Rep. Richard H. Baker that it won't back his bill to create a federally financed reconstruction program that would rescue homeowners and mortgage lenders.

The administration wants Louisiana to use community development funds instead. With at least $100 billion in damage and many residents in the region still not settled, it's hard to imagine that community development funds will be adequate.

The administration should cooperate with the investigating congressional committees, and with an independent investigating commission, if one is established. Mr. Bush has less than three years in office, but hurricanes will always be with us. Our top priority should be trying to guarantee that whatever went wrong last summer never happens again.

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