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Chertoff Puts the Onus on FEMA

The Homeland Security secretary tells a House panel that local and state officials were not at fault for government lapses in addressing Katrina.

October 20, 2005|Mary Curtius | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — FEMA's lack of planning, not the failures of state and local officials, was to blame for much of what went wrong with the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told a congressional committee Wednesday.

The assessment by the most senior administration official to face lawmakers since the hurricane struck in late August contrasted sharply with testimony earlier by Michael D. Brown, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Brown had blamed what he termed the "dysfunction" of Louisiana state and local officials for hobbling the relief effort.

"From my own experience, I don't endorse those views," Chertoff said. He told lawmakers that he found the region's governors and mayors to be responsive as the crisis unfolded.

Chertoff testified as Capitol Hill continued to wrestle with how to pay the massive costs of rebuilding the Gulf Coast, and as FEMA kept a close eye on Hurricane Wilma, which was projected to hit Florida this weekend.

Chertoff, who took his post in February, calmly defended his record -- including his decision to work from home during part of the weekend before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast -- during often hostile questioning from a special House panel investigating the government's response.

He denied Brown's contention that FEMA was "emaciated" after it was folded into the newly created Department of Homeland Security in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Brown had testified that once it was subsumed into the department, FEMA suffered budget cuts and a "brain drain" of officials.

Chertoff said that from fiscal 2001 to fiscal 2005, "FEMA's core funding increased from $349 million [annually] to $447 million" and its number of employees swelled from 2,057 to 2,445. "I would take issue with the idea that FEMA had been cut," he said.

The sheer scope of the damage Katrina inflicted overwhelmed FEMA and exposed flaws in its structure and management, Chertoff said. The agency's balky response to the hurricane stemmed from these problems, not from a lack of funding, he said.

Chertoff said he was taking steps to "retool" FEMA, citing his establishment of emergency reconnaissance teams that can immediately move into disaster areas to assess the situation and prioritize relief efforts.

Despite disputing Brown's claim that the agency had suffered a "brain drain," he identified the need to "replenish its ranks at the senior level with experienced staff'" as a problem he was starting to remedy.

Chertoff denied that there had been a lack of urgency at the highest levels of the federal government as Katrina approached the Gulf Coast.

The hurricane's destructive potential "was of humongous concern to me," Chertoff said, as he worked from home two days before Katrina hit. He added that he had focused on making sure that supplies were being put in place and that Brown had the help he needed.

"If we fell down, it was largely in the area of planning," Chertoff said.

Republicans and Democrats assailed Chertoff for not going to FEMA's headquarters in Washington the Saturday before Katrina hit land Monday, Aug. 29 -- and for taking a long-scheduled trip to Atlanta that Tuesday, after the levees protecting New Orleans failed and the city was flooded.

He also was criticized for not traveling to the region until four days after the hurricane struck, for not monitoring Brown more closely and for failing to push the then-FEMA chief to intensify rescue and relief efforts for those who were stranded.

Rep. Stephen E. Buyer (R-Ind.) at one point leapt from his seat on the dais and rushed to the witness table where Chertoff sat, shoving an organizational chart in front of him that showed he was supposed to have been in charge of the federal government's relief efforts in Katrina's aftermath.

Chertoff responded that he was aware of the flowchart and acknowledged that he had ultimate responsibility for FEMA's operations.

The harshest criticism came from Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney of Georgia, one of four Democrats who sat in on the panel informally Wednesday. She asked Chertoff why he shouldn't be charged with negligent homicide for the government's failure to rescue patients in nursing homes and hospitals who died because of the flooding.

Chertoff responded that the scenes of suffering he watched on television were "heart-wrenching" and that he grew increasingly frustrated as the days passed and rescue operations seemed to falter.

"There are many things that did not work well with the response," Chertoff said.

Chertoff said he learned about the levee breaks the day after they occurred, then could not track down Brown for hours to find out what response he was mounting.

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