KR Report: ‘Confused’ Chertoff Delayed Federal Katrina Response

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By: E&P Staff

In a major scoop, three reporters with Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau report that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, not ex-FEMA chief Michael Brown, was the ?federal official with the power to mobilize a massive federal response to Hurricane Katrina.?

In a damning allegation, they suggest that Chertoff ?may have been confused about his lead role in disaster response and that of his department.?

The reporters — Jonathan S. Landay, Alison Young and Shannon McCaffrey — say this is based on federal documents they reviewed this week.

?Even before the storm struck the Gulf Coast,? they report, ?Chertoff could have ordered federal agencies into action without any request from state or local officials.? Brown, they add, had only limited authority to do so until about 36 hours after the storm hit, when Chertoff designated him as the “principal federal official” in charge of the storm.

?As thousands of hurricane victims went without food, water, and shelter in the days after Katrina’s early morning Aug. 29 landfall, critics assailed Brown for being responsible for delays that might have cost hundreds of lives,? they write.

?But Chertoff — not Brown — was in charge of managing the national response to a catastrophic disaster, according to the National Response Plan, the federal government’s blueprint for how agencies will handle major natural disasters or terrorist incidents. An order issued by President Bush in 2003 also assigned that responsibility to the homeland security director.?

But according to a memo obtained by Knight Ridder, Chertoff didn’t shift that power to Brown until late afternoon or evening on Aug. 30, about 36 hours after Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi. ?That same memo suggests that Chertoff may have been confused about his lead role in disaster response and that of his department,? the reporters observe.

Clark Hoyt, Knight Ridder’s Washington editor, told E&P today: “This story evolved from a continuing line of reporting on accountability for the government’s slow and initially ineffective response to Hurricane Katrina. It’s our job, whether covering the origins of the war in Iraq or the federal government’s slow response to the disaster on the Gulf Coast, to examine official decisions and performance. That’s what we’ll continue to do.”

In their article, the KR reporters quote from the key Aug. 30 Chertoff memo: “As you know, the President has established the ‘White House Task Force on Hurricane Katrina Response.’ He will meet with us tomorrow to launch this effort. The Department of Homeland Security, along with other Departments, will be part of the task force and will assist the Administration with its response to Hurricane Katrina.?

On the day that Chertoff wrote the memo, more than a day after the hurricane hit and with New Orleans already under water, Bush was in San Diego presiding over a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Chertoff’s Aug. 30 memo for the first time declared Katrina an “Incident of National Significance,” a key designation that triggers swift federal coordination. ?The following afternoon,? the article continues, ?Bush met with his Cabinet, then appeared before TV cameras in the White House Rose Garden to announce the government’s planned action.

?That same day, Aug. 31, the Department of Defense, whose troops and equipment are crucial in such large disasters, activated its Task Force Katrina. But active-duty troops didn’t begin to arrive in large numbers along the Gulf Coast until Saturday.

?White House and homeland security officials wouldn’t explain why Chertoff waited some 36 hours to declare Katrina an incident of national significance and why he didn’t immediately begin to direct the federal response from the moment on Aug. 27 when the National Hurricane Center predicted that Katrina would strike the Gulf Coast with catastrophic force in 48 hours. Nor would they explain why Bush felt the need to appoint a separate task force.

?Chertoff’s hesitation and Bush’s creation of a task force both appear to contradict the National Response Plan and previous presidential directives that specify what the secretary of homeland security is assigned to do without further presidential orders. The goal of the National Response Plan is to provide a streamlined framework for swiftly delivering federal assistance when a disaster — caused by terrorists or Mother Nature — is too big for local officials to handle.?

Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, didn’t dispute that the National Response Plan put Chertoff in charge in federal response to a catastrophe.

?The Department of Homeland Security has refused repeated requests to provide details about Chertoff’s schedule and said it couldn’t say specifically when the department requested assistance from the military,? the reporters note. ?Knocke said a military liaison was working with FEMA, but said he didn’t know his or her name or rank. FEMA officials said they wouldn’t provide information about the liaison.

?The Chertoff memo indicates that the response to Katrina wasn’t left to disaster professionals, but was run out of the White House, said George Haddow, a former deputy chief of staff at FEMA during the Clinton administration and the co-author of an emergency management textbook.

“‘It shows that the president is running the disaster, the White House is running it as opposed to Brown or Chertoff,’ Haddow said. Brown ‘is a convenient fall guy. He’s not the problem really. The problem is a system that was marginalized.’

?A former FEMA director under President Reagan expressed shock by the inaction that Chertoff’s memo suggested. It showed that Chertoff ‘does not have a full appreciation for what the country is faced with — nor does anyone who waits that long,’ said Gen. Julius Becton Jr., who was FEMA director from 1985-1989.?

Chertoff’s Aug. 30 memo is posted at www.krwashington.com.

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