Homeland Security head cites 'many lapses' in Katrina response

Thursday, February 16, 2006

WASHINGTON -- Acknowledging delayed aid and fumbled coordination, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Wednesday the federal response to Hurricane Katrina fell far short of providing immediate help to the Gulf Coast that could have saved lives.

Chertoff's Senate testimony came the same day a House panel released a scathing report concluding that deaths, damage and suffering could have been decreased if the White House and federal, state and local officials had responded more urgently to Katrina.

"There are many lapses that occurred, and I've certainly spent a lot of time personally, probably since last fall, thinking about things that might have been done differently," Chertoff told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee about the Aug. 29 storm.

He called the hurricane "one of the most difficult and traumatic experiences of my life."

Katrina was one of the costliest and deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history, killing more than 1,300 people, causing tens of billions of dollars in damage and forcing hundreds of thousands from their homes.

The House report -- called "A Failure of Initiative" -- found ample fault with state and local officials, including delays in ordering early evacuations in New Orleans. But it also criticized President Bush for failing to get more deeply involved as the crisis unfolded.

In a sampling of 63 communications to the White House that the report documents, at least eight were dated before Katrina's Aug. 29 landfall. The documents show that presidential advisers were warned about potential disaster as early as Aug. 27.

"Earlier presidential involvement might have resulted in a more effective response," the inquiry concluded. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the report Tuesday.

Chertoff, who took over Homeland Security a year ago Wednesday, oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which coordinated the federal response. He promised the senators he would repair many of the shortfalls by the start of the 2006 hurricane season June 1.

"Our logistics capability in Katrina was woefully inadequate," he said. "I was astonished to see we didn't have the capability most 21st-century corporations have to track the flow of goods and services."

Republican and Democratic senators alike lectured Chertoff for his department's lackluster performance.

Committee Chairwoman Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Homeland Security's response "must be judged a failure." She called it "late, uncertain and ineffective."

Federal disaster responders "ran around like Keystone Kops, uncertain about what they were supposed to do or uncertain how to do it," said Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the panel's top Democrat.

Lieberman needled Chertoff on why the security chief was in Atlanta at a bird flu seminar on Aug. 30, the day after Katrina hit, instead of rushing to the disaster scene.

"How could you go to bed that night (Aug. 29) not knowing what was going on in New Orleans?" Lieberman asked.

Chertoff maintained he did not realize that New Orleans levees had been breached until the next day. The levee failure resulted in massive flooding over most of the city, stranding people on rooftops and rendering much of New Orleans uninhabitable.

"When I went to bed, it was my belief ... that actually the storm had not done the worst that could be imagined," Chertoff said.

The lack of urgency was the core of the House panel's conclusions in a report detailing "a litany of mistakes, misjudgments, lapses, and absurdities all cascading together, blinding us to what was coming and hobbling any collective effort to respond."

The 520-page report added, "Government failed because it did not learn from past experiences, or because lessons thought to be learned were somehow not implemented."

In one memo that reached the White House shortly after midnight Aug. 30, a FEMA official reported levee breaches, submerged houses, hundreds of people on rooftops and bodies floating in the water. Others, two days later, described a shooting of a National Guardsman at the Superdome and a hostage situation at Tulane Hospital that turned out to be false.

Still, the House findings noted, "the enormity of Katrina seemed not to have been fully understood by the White House until at least Tuesday, Aug. 30."

Chertoff said he would do things differently if he had the chance -- including, most notably, giving onsite responsibility for the relief effort to someone other than former FEMA director Michael Brown. Brown, who quit under fire days after Katrina hit, has accused Chertoff and White House officials of ignoring his warnings on the day of the storm.

Collins told Chertoff "I remain perplexed" about his decision to designate Brown as disaster coordinator.

Chertoff said there was "no reason to doubt his commitment" at the time.

"If I knew then what I know now about Mr. Brown's agenda, I would have done something different," Chertoff added.

Responding, Brown maintained in an e-mail to The Associated Press that Chertoff "hamstrung" him from responding faster by confining him to Baton Rouge instead of sending him to disaster sites. He also said the House report supports his position that Homeland Security "has decimated FEMA to the point it can't do its job."

The hearing highlighted the searing emotions that Katrina evokes nearly six months after it slammed into the Gulf Coast. At one point, a member of the audience loudly heckled Chertoff, calling a FEMA decision to discontinue paying for hotel rooms for evacuees "un-American."

Chertoff sat stoically during the outburst.

The Senate is preparing its own conclusions, due in March, about the storm response, as is the White House in a report expected by the end of this month.

Meanwhile, Congress increased the borrowing power of the federal flood insurance agency in an attempt to meet unprecedented claims from Katrina and other hurricanes last year.

And White House reconstruction coordinator Don Powell announced $4.2 billion in grants that will probably be used to help uninsured Louisiana homeowners whose properties inside flood plains were destroyed. The money is part of an anticipated $18 billion spending plan for the Gulf Coast.


Associated Press writers Hope Yen and Tom Raum contributed to this report.


On the Net:

House Committee on Hurricane Katrina: http://katrina.house.gov/

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee: http://hsgac.senate.gov/

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