Put to Katrina’s Test
It was conceived as the solution to confusion and bureaucratic logjams that hampered responses to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- a 426-page master plan to coordinate government agencies in a disaster.
When it was unveiled amid fanfare in January, the Department of Homeland Security’s National Response Plan promised “vastly improved coordination among federal, state, local and tribal organizations to help save lives” from storms, floods, earthquakes or terrorist assaults.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. Nov. 4, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 04, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 118 words Type of Material: Correction
Hurricane response -- An article in the Sept. 11 Section A about Hurricane Katrina and how officials reacted to the disaster, quoting a White House official, reported that President Bush and White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. had telephoned Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco on Aug. 31 and urged her to invite the federal government to take command of the Louisiana National Guard’s response to Katrina. A spokesman for Blanco says that the telephone calls were placed by the governor, not by the White House, and that Card and Bush did not press the governor to accept federal control. The article should have reflected the governor’s version of events as well as the White House’s.
Hurricane Katrina turned out to be its first real-world test -- but the plan broke down soon after the monster winds blew in.
Its failures raise unsettling questions about the federal government’s readiness to deal with future crippling disasters. An examination of how the plan was administered during the crucial early hours of this natural disaster reveal more confusion than coordination and repeated failures of leadership.
The plan on paper was not always apparent on the ground. Cooperation among government agencies faltered at almost every level, right up to the White House.
* The Federal Emergency Management Agency, responsible for supervising relief and rescue operations, failed to position adequate equipment to carry out the dual assignments. FEMA was especially short of helicopters from the outset. It was forced to concentrate on rescue missions and gave short shrift to ferrying supplies to trapped evacuees.
* Coordination with private relief agencies broke down and led to maddening delays. Water, food, clothing and medical supplies backed up in distant warehouses.
More than 50 civilian aircraft responding to separate requests for evacuations from hospitals and other agencies swarmed to the area a day after Katrina hit, but FEMA blocked their efforts. Aircraft operators complained that FEMA waved off a number of evacuation attempts, saying the rescuers were not authorized. “Many planes and helicopters simply sat idle,” said Thomas Judge, president of the Assn. of Air Medical Services.
* Military cooperation was stymied. In advance of the storm, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson offered the governor of Louisiana hundreds of National Guard troops. They were poised to fly into Louisiana on Monday, Aug. 29, just as the levees were about to give way. Instead, red tape and paperwork at National Guard headquarters in Washington delayed their arrival until Friday. Deployment orders had not been not properly filled out, the New Mexico National Guard was told.
* Telephones and radios failed everywhere, complicating efforts to monitor field conditions and coordinate response. FEMA officials were caught by surprise. Better communications was supposed to be a highlight of the plan, but it took up to six days to get working telephones to some FEMA employees on the ground.
In the face of rising criticism, FEMA officials pointed to bright spots. “There’s the perception that we didn’t do anything. But we had a life-saving mission, which we met, and we had a life-sustaining mission, which we met,” said Marty Bahamonde, who helped coordinate a FEMA emergency response team.
Before the Storm
In the calm before the storm, preparations got off to a promising start. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff convened interagency meetings, created an operations center in Baton Rouge, La., and dispatched FEMA Director Michael D. Brown as his representative on the ground.
Food, water, blankets and personnel were pre-positioned on the fringes of the expected severe-impact zone.
President Bush activated the National Response Plan on Saturday, Aug. 27, two days before the hurricane struck, when he declared a federal emergency in Louisiana. Under the plan, this made the Department of Homeland Security “responsible for coordinating federal resources utilized in response to major disasters.”
Then, on Monday, 140-mph winds slammed into New Orleans, a storm so fierce that no amount of planning was likely to prevent flooding, deaths and substantial destruction.
That day, Bush declared the region a federal disaster area, releasing more federal funds and resources.
And on Tuesday, more than 24 hours after surging waters breeched levees in New Orleans, Chertoff declared Katrina the nation’s first “incident of national significance” as outlined in the response plan. This committed the federal government to a major and long-term relief effort.
Survivors were already waving for help from rooftops and increasingly restless residents displaced without food or water were demanding help outside the Superdome, where they had sought safety before Katrina struck. As the emergency response floundered on television screens around the world, some White House aides suggested state and local officials were to blame. By then, however, it had become a federal problem.
“The moment the president declared a federal disaster, it became a federal responsibility,” said Jane Bullock, who spent 22 years at FEMA under presidents of both parties. FEMA and Homeland Security officials faced what Chertoff soon characterized as “kind of an ultra-catastrophe.”
Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke called it “a nightmare scenario” and said, “No one is satisfied with [the response].”
The hurricane’s advance up the Gulf of Mexico was closely monitored and its wind velocity constantly recorded. In the age of satellites, it could not sneak up on the Gulf Coast.
And its potential flood menace to New Orleans should have been no surprise, either.
Besides years of published warnings, there was the voice of Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. As Katrina approached, he warned in a series of briefings and bulletins that disaster was coming, that the storm surge was especially dangerous, and that low-lying New Orleans could face massive flooding.
On Sunday, Aug. 28, Mayfield briefed senior government officials. The president listened in during a video conference beamed to the Bush ranch near Crawford, Texas.
Mayfield said he told his high-level audience about the effects of a storm surge -- the sudden rise in the water level as a hurricane comes ashore.
The hurricane center director said he could not remember whether he specifically mentioned the menace to levees, but that concern about flooding was on his mind. “There’s no doubt about that,” he said.
At FEMA headquarters, longtime disaster specialists also watched the satellite images of Katrina. Alarm grew.
“This gigantic hurricane is headed like a bullet right toward New Orleans, and we wondered why isn’t there a more organized effort to get people out of the city,” said Leo V. Bosner, an emergency management specialist with FEMA and an employee union president. “We’re saying, ‘What’s the plan? What’s happening?’ ”
In particular, Bosner said he and colleagues wondered why more buses weren’t being provided from nearby states and why the federal government wasn’t pushing the regional officials to get people out sooner.
Bosner said FEMA began responding in the days before Katrina reached landfall by sending urban search-and-rescue teams, medical teams, ice, water and other commodities to the region and putting their employees on a state of preparedness. But that, he said, was typical of what the agency does for “an ordinary disaster.”
“We could see that this [preparation] was not going to be enough,” said Bosner, a 26-year FEMA veteran. “Somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 stuck there in the city are going to be in this thing’s path.”
The floods came Monday, Aug. 29.
According to the plan, private relief agencies like the Red Cross would play a key role along with first-responders to “sustain life, reduce physical and emotional distress and promote recovery ... when assistance is not available from other sources.”
But federal and state officials hesitated, and blocked the Red Cross from taking food and other supplies to stranded victims.
Devorah Goldburg, a spokeswoman for the relief agency, said Louisiana officials argued that an influx of food and other supplies might make it harder to persuade residents to evacuate. “Every day we were in touch with state officials offering to go in,” she said. “They said they don’t want us in there.”
The plan also expected all levels of government to work closely with local healthcare facilities. But days after the Katrina hit, Charity Hospital of New Orleans was still desperate for help evacuating 250 patients from rooms without electricity or running water.
“The military didn’t help; the state government didn’t help and the federal government didn’t help,” complained Dr. Norman McSwain who said his calls to officials went unheeded.
“We asked for the cavalry to come and the cavalry didn’t show up. I was mad. I was mad as I could be,” he said.
Fading Bravado at FEMA
At first, there was a hint of swagger in the attitude of Brown, the FEMA director, toward Hurricane Katrina. The day the storm tore into the Gulf Coast, Brown told a television interviewer: “We were so ready for this.... We’ve planned for this kind of disaster for many years because we’ve always known about New Orleans and the situation. We actually did catastrophic disaster planning for this two years ago.”
His bravado faded in the days that followed.
Despite pre-positioning of some manpower and supplies, FEMA had failed to provide sufficient emergency aircraft, boats and vehicles to get residents out of New Orleans and to deliver enough food, water and medical supplies to those who were stranded.
Moreover, it did not have adequate backup communications available when the storm knocked out power lines and telecommunications systems. FEMA workers waited days to receive working satellite phones.
And FEMA created logjams with its own bureaucracy.
On the day the levees failed, the FEMA chief issued a news release urging fire and emergency services departments outside the area “not to respond” to calls for help from counties and states affected by the hurricane “without being requested and lawfully dispatched by state and local authorities under mutual aid agreements.”
There were also coordination problems.
A sense of chaos spread from the ground in Louisiana to FEMA headquarters in Washington, which was “a zoo” at the height of the disaster, recalled a longtime FEMA official in the agency’s Washington office.
“Everything is being done by the seat of the pants,” said the official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “It’s like reinventing the wheel. We’re starting from scratch as though no planning had even been done before.”
But Knocke, the Homeland Security spokesman, insisted that the federal response to Hurricane Katrina relied on long-standing plans and had been much smoother than the response to the Sept. 11 attacks. He said there were no turf wars “about who’s in charge.”
Because of the National Response Plan, Knocke said, “there is no confusion, no chaos, there’s just immediate action and results.”
But that’s not how it looked on the ground.
The Superdome, and later the New Orleans Convention Center, became familiar symbols of FEMA failures and shortcomings.
When FEMA faltered, the next line of defense should have been its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security.
Chertoff, 51, knows something about responding to major disasters. The former prosecutor was running the Justice Department’s criminal division when the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. He lost friends in the attack, which he said spurred him to help craft the government’s aggressive pursuit of terrorists.
Chertoff gave up a lifetime appointment as a federal judge when he took over the young Cabinet department in February. He oversees 180,000 employees operating within 22 agencies, focused heavily on terrorist threats.
Under the National Response Plan, the Homeland Security secretary is deemed the “principal federal official” -- the overall manager -- for all major natural disasters.
He became a familiar figure in shirtsleeves in the disaster zone. But at times he has seemed a step behind events.
New Orleans began to flood on Monday. It was a day later when Chertoff described the situation as urgent. By then, the city was 80% underwater.
“We’re racing the clock in terms of possible injury,” he said. “We’re racing the clock in terms of illness, and we’re racing the clock to get them food and water.”
Yet, it wasn’t until after 5 p.m. that evening that Chertoff declared the hurricane an “incident of national significance” -- a decision that triggered a heightened response and committed the government to a long-term rescue and relief effort.
Chertoff later said he belatedly had learned the levees had broken.
“It was midday Tuesday that I became aware of the fact that there was no possibility of plugging the gap and that essentially the lake was going to drain into the city,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He said the breakdowns in communications would be scrutinized after rescue missions have been completed.
Chertoff sometimes seemed out of touch to some reporters and TV viewers. Two days after the levees failed and amid a rising tide of public criticism over disaster victims who needed water and food, he declared in Washington that he was “extremely pleased with the response that every element of the federal government, all of our federal partners, have made to this terrible tragedy.”
On Thursday, he assured the public that everything was under control in New Orleans. As he spoke, CNN and Fox News split their screens to show him simultaneously with live scenes from the city with survivors chanting for help, shouting angrily into the cameras or staring listlessly.
“Everybody is confident of the ability to maintain order,” he said. “The fact of the matter is the Superdome is secure.”
TV reports followed his statement with more scenes of exhausted evacuees and images of dead bodies on the street.
That afternoon, National Public Radio asked Chertoff about the thousands of people camped around New Orleans’ Convention Center who said no food or supplies had arrived.
Chertoff said that sounded to him like nothing more than a rumor. “I have not heard a report of thousands of people in the convention center who do not have food and water,” he said.
Chertoff subsequently blamed his lack of awareness on local officials.
“It was disturbing to me when I learned about it, which came as a surprise,” he said on CNN. “You know, the very day that this emerged in the press, I was on a video conference with all the officials, including state and local officials. And nobody, none of the state and local officials or anybody else, was talking about a convention center.”
Chertoff’s aide, Knocke, said his boss was asking very pointed questions about the response. “He was appalled at the situation at the Superdome,” he said.
New Orleans needed four things: communications, transportation, supplies and people to deliver them. And, increasingly, as its police force struggled to maintain order under desperate circumstances, it needed someone to enforce the law. In most major disasters, components of the U.S. military step in to fill some or all of those roles -- most often, National Guard units, which report to the governor of each state but frequently active-duty military forces as well.
This time -- for a variety of reasons -- the troops were held up. The troops were ready, but a combination of confusion at the local level and hesitance and indecision at the federal level blocked the military units from coming to the city’s rescue.
The National Response Plan designates National Guard troops as the military’s first responders to a crisis, with active duty troops available if state and agencies become overwhelmed. As the storm bore down on the Gulf Coast, the governors of Louisiana and Mississippi mobilized about 6,500 Guard members and planned to send them to the hardest-hit areas immediately after the storm passed through. The National Guard stockpiled humanitarian supplies at Camp Beauregard, north of New Orleans.
When the New Orleans levees broke, Louisiana’s small National Guard force was quickly overwhelmed. The storm incapacitated and depleted local police, fire crews and medical staff. The undermanned Guard troops endured shortages of trucks and military policemen as they tried to rescue survivors from the floodwaters and deliver humanitarian supplies.
Supplies stopped arriving in the city. The 18-wheel trucks designated for the relief effort couldn’t drive along the flooded highways.
“We couldn’t get things in. I knew the New Orleans Police Department was there but I didn’t know how [much] manpower they had,” said Lt. Col. William J. Doran III, who runs the Louisiana Emergency Operations Center.
Doran defended the size of the National Guard force mobilized for the hurricane, and said the state didn’t initially ask for support from active duty military forces because they didn’t realize until Saturday, Aug. 27, that the fast-moving storm would hit New Orleans. They expected to “see it come near us, but not a direct hit.”
Then it was too late.
After the levees broke, governors from around the country pledged their National Guard troops for the relief mission, yet their efforts were occasionally ensnared in bureaucracy.
On Aug. 29, when Katrina hit, Richardson, the New Mexico governor, telephoned Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, and asked if there was anything his state could provide.
“She said, ‘We need truck drivers and National Guard,’ ” Richardson recalled. He told her, “I’ll get moving on it.”
Richardson said he immediately authorized his Guard commander to send 200 troops to Louisiana. Then “red tape and paperwork” intervened, Richardson said. Instead of hours, it took four days.
“My National Guard commander ... tried to get approval from the Guard bureau in Washington, and it wasn’t until Thursday night that he got it,” he said. “They kept saying they needed a definition of the mission in their orders. I said how about, ‘Helping people.’ I kept bumping into my National Guard commander and he kept saying, ‘No, they haven’t left yet.’ ”
A spokesman for the National Guard bureau in Washington declined to address Richardson’s allegation. He said there are specific, formal procedures in place that governors have to follow to send National Guard troops to other states.
And Top Pentagon officials denied that the Iraq war had any impact on the ability of the National Guard to respond to the disaster.
“That’s just flat wrong. Anyone who’s saying that doesn’t understand the situation,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week.
But when the hurricane hit, nearly 35% of Louisiana’s Guard forces and 40% of Mississippi’s were deployed in Iraq. Two brigades, Louisiana’s 256th Infantry and Mississippi’s 155th Armored, each contain hundreds of troops in what the military calls “combat support” roles -- engineers, truck drivers, and logisticians -- who specialize in the tasks used regularly in disaster relief.
As the situation worsened and local officials appeared incapable of organizing an effective response, senior officials gathered at the White House on Wednesday night, Aug. 31, to discuss the possibility of “federalizing” the relief effort, which would have given the Pentagon command over the National Guard troops in the affected states.
Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales suggested that Bush invoke the 1878 Insurrection Act, which gives the president the authority to use the military to maintain law and order in national emergencies, Pentagon sources said.
At that meeting and later sessions, Rumsfeld expressed misgivings about such a draconian measure, and argued that federalizing the National Guard would not speed up the flow of troops into the area.
Pentagon officials said they were confident that by week’s end, approximately 40,000 National Guard troops from dozens of states would be in the disaster region.
“There was already a significant flow of Guard troops. Changing the nature of the operation wasn’t going to get people there any faster,” said Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita.
There were political hurdles as well. Both governors Blanco of Louisiana, a Democrat, and Gov. Haley Barbour or Mississippi, a Republican, opposed federalizing the Guard. Not since the civil rights era had a president invoked the Insurrection Act over the objections of a sitting governor.
By Friday, senior U.S. officials agreed it could be perceived as a federal invasion of two U.S. states. But it was getting late.
“It was three or four days past D-Day. The worst had already happened. People who were going to die were dead,” said William Banks, a national security expert at Syracuse law school.
Even without federalizing the Guard, the Pentagon had the authority to dispatch active duty troops to carry out non-law enforcement missions. These troops fall under the authority of U.S. Northern Command, or Northcom, a military headquarters established after the Sept. 11 attacks to coordinate the military’s response to domestic emergencies.
Two days before the storm struck, Northcom put liaison officers inside emergency headquarters of the Gulf Coast states, and ordered the Bataan, a Navy amphibious assault ship, to sail behind the storm so that it could move in with supplies right after Katrina blew through.
Military commanders throughout the country were told to “lean forward” in preparing their units for possible deployment. On Aug. 30, a day after Katrina arrived, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard B. Myers told the rest of the joint chiefs to work directly with Northern Command to get troops, ships and helicopters to the Gulf Coast -- a measure intended to cut through layers of bureaucracy.
The next day, active duty troops from the 82nd Airborne Division and 1st Cavalry Division were put on alert. Yet the deployment order never came. Adm. Timothy J. Keating, Northcom’s commanding officer, decided that more active duty troops wouldn’t be useful, Pentagon officials said.
The argument against sending more active duty troops, officials said, was to avoid flooding the local relief effort with soldiers ill-equipped and unauthorized to handle the most essential missions: search and rescue, restoration of law and order and delivery of humanitarian aid.
“You drop in the 82nd Airborne, and you have a bunch of guys on the ground waiting for their equipment to show up,” Pentagon spokesman DiRita said.
At the same time, bureaucracy rendered some active duty military units inside Louisiana powerless to help in the storm’s immediate aftermath. At Ft. Polk in Leesville, a helicopter detachment waited on the tarmac from Monday until Wednesday for approval to fly rescue missions.
“We were packed and ready to go,” said Chief Warrant Officer Clint Gessner, a helicopter pilot with the Ft. Polk unit. “We never got the call. It’s just a sad story, man.”
As Gessner and his fellow pilots watched National Guard helicopters conduct search-and-rescue missions, he said the active duty pilots were unable to fly because commanders wouldn’t sign off on their missions.
“We could have been the first responders,” he said. “It’s easier to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission.”
The Pentagon also decided not to dispatch another unit based at Ft. Polk, a brigade of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, which has the mission of training units about to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan.
On Friday, Sept. 2, Keating, the Northcom commander, and Rumsfeld had discussions throughout the day about whether to deploy more active duty troops to the Gulf Coast. Keating argued against it, officials said, saying he was pleased with the flow of National Guard troops in the disaster area.
But public criticism of federal relief efforts continued to mount. The next morning, six days after Katrina came ashore, Rumsfeld overruled his Northcom commander, telling aides he would recommend that the president dispatch troops to the region as a ready reserve force. Hours later, in his weekly radio address, Bush announced deployment of 7,200 active duty soldiers and Marines.
The White House
Ultimately, the National Response Plan says the president is in charge during a national emergency, but it leaves it up to the White House to decide how to fulfill that duty. “The president leads the nation in responding effectively and ensuring the necessary resources are applied quickly and efficiently,” the plan says.
Bush has always prided himself on his leadership style, which he has described as akin to a corporate CEO: delegating maximum responsibility to subordinates, but demanding accountability for their performance.
Some officials have grumbled that White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., a canny bureaucratic warrior, and chief political advisor Karl Rove, an assertive policy kibitzer, don’t delegate enough.
In response to Hurricane Katrina, Bush and his aides left most of the management to FEMA, and stepped in to correct problems only after they had a full-blown political crisis on their hands.
When Katrina was heading to the Gulf Coast, most of the top White House staff was on vacation, taking advantage of the president’s five-week stay at his ranch near Crawford, Texas, to get time off from their normally hectic jobs.
Card, a veteran crisis manager who managed the federal response to hurricanes for the president’s father, was relaxing at his lakefront summer home in Maine.
Vice President Dick Cheney, who acted as the administration’s top crisis manager on Sept. 11, 2001, was at his ranch in Wyoming.
Frances Townsend, the White House coordinator for homeland security, was vacationing, too. After Katrina struck, she attended several meetings in Washington, then left on a previously scheduled trip for Saudi Arabia to work on joint counterterrorism projects.
Bush urged Townsend to make the trip despite the crisis at home as a “signal to ... the enemy” that the hurricane had not distracted his attention from terrorists, one aide said.
White House spokesmen declined to say who was in charge of preparing for the hurricane in Washington. They maintain that Bush and his aides can run the government just as well from their summer homes.
“Andy Card is the chief of staff, and he was in close contact with everyone,” spokesman Scott McClellan said. “And the president is the one who’s in charge at the White House.”
Bush and his aides knew that Katrina would be trouble. The president had been briefed by Brown, the FEMA director; and the president monitored an interagency update on the storm via video screen from his conference room at the Texas ranch.
On Saturday, Aug. 27, he declared a federal emergency in Louisiana, before the storm hit.
On Sunday, Aug. 28, he telephoned Blanco to urge her to evacuate New Orleans, McClellan said. And Bush read a brief statement to reporters noting that Katrina had swollen to become a Category 5 hurricane.
“I urge all citizens to put their own safety and the safety of their families first by moving to safe ground,” he said. “Please listen carefully to instructions provided by state and local officials.”
But after Katrina struck on Monday morning, Aug. 29, Bush stuck to his existing schedule for two full days, making visits to Arizona and California for speeches on Medicare and a commemoration of the end of World War II.
By Tuesday morning, Aug. 30, it was clear to the White House that Katrina was “one of the most devastating storms in our nation’s history,” in McClellan’s words. But not until Thursday, Sept. 1, with New Orleans underwater and refugees suffering on the streets of New Orleans, some of whom were dying, did Bush return to Washington -- with a brief detour to view the devastation along the Gulf Coast from the windows of Air Force One.
“It was a sluggish response, almost a White House in slow motion,” said David Gergen, a former advisor to Presidents Reagan and Clinton. “Americans expect not only to see their president on the scene, but a firm hand on the tiller. That wasn’t there. There was nobody in charge.”
White House officials offered no explanation for the delay, although Bush later said he wanted to give his Cabinet members a chance to get on top of the situation first.
“I started organizing on Tuesday when we realized the extent of the storm,” Bush said in a television interview. "[I] said ‘Look, when I get back to Washington on Wednesday afternoon, I want to have a report on my desk and a Cabinet meeting for you to tell me exactly what your departments are going to do.’ ”
Once he returned to Washington, Bush stood in the White House Rose Garden and read a speech that aides later admitted was not the best of his presidency; it had been stitched together in haste, largely from FEMA fact sheets.
Bush described everything the federal government was doing -- or thought it was doing -- to help the victims, listing items that had been pre-positioned in the disaster zone without noting that much of it had not yet been delivered to those who needed them.
“Right now the days seem awfully dark for those affected,” he said. “I understand that. But I’m confident that, with time, you can get your life back in order, new communities will flourish, the great city of New Orleans will be back on its feet, and America will be a stronger place for it. The country stands with you. We’ll do all in our power to help you.”
But the images on Americans’ television screens -- flooded streets, stranded people, dehydrated and hungry victims -- seemed to conflict with the president’s upbeat words.
Behind the scenes, Bush and his aides knew they had problems. On Wednesday, Card telephoned Blanco and urged her to invite the federal government to take command of the National Guard. Card’s message, a senior official said: “Instead of having three chains of command, let’s have a single chain of command.”
But Blanco resisted an immediate federal takeover, according to officials in both the White House and the governor’s office.
Bush himself called the governor on Wednesday, but couldn’t sway her. For three days, White House aides negotiated with the governor, but the two sides never reached agreement. In the end, the problem was solved in practice by Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, the officer dispatched by Northcom to command its active duty troops, “by sheer force of personality,” the official said. A key factor: Honore is an old friend of Maj. Gen. Bennett Landreneau, commander of the Louisiana National Guard, who works for Blanco.
The White House had another major problem, one aide acknowledged later: It was relying principally on FEMA for its information.
Bush and his aides were getting daily updates from Brown, the FEMA director. But Brown was having a hard time keeping up with information from the disaster area -- and, according to this aide, his reports were determinedly optimistic and can-do. As a result, Bush appeared to know less than television viewers did about what was going on in New Orleans.
In a hastily arranged television interview Thursday morning, Sept. 1, Bush’s message remained: Help is on the way. Then came a blunder. “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees,” he said. That was at odds with decades of explicit warnings. (His spokesman, McClellan, sought to explain the statement by saying Bush was referring to initial reports that Katrina had done little damage, even though Bush’s words gave no hint of that meaning.)
Rove and other aides recognized that the discrepancy was a problem. They were beginning to hear from Republican members of Congress that the president’s message wasn’t playing well. On Thursday afternoon, House Republican leaders held a conference call with their members, and got “an earful” about FEMA’s shortcomings, congressional sources said.
All day Thursday, CNN had broadcast horrifying images of the New Orleans Convention Center; that afternoon, both Brown and Chertoff admitted publicly that they didn’t know about the problem. Some members of Congress were beginning to worry that they might pay a price for inadequate disaster relief at the polls in November of 2006.
Senior officials put the blame on the collapse of communications in the disaster area. “The inability to get good information on the ground in New Orleans” was a major problem, one said. “You can’t make good decisions without good information. We were getting conflicting information on almost an hourly basis about the Superdome and the convention center. When you have three levels of government that can’t speak to each other, that’s a serious problem.”
But the horrifying reports from the convention center, they said, produced an outburst of anger from Bush about the federal response to the crisis.
“This was a surprise to us, to the president,” said one senior official. “What that did was demonstrate that things weren’t working the way they were supposed to .... That obviously was the tipping point for the president, as it was for many Americans.”
“He got Chertoff on the phone and asked: ‘What are you doing about this?’ Chertoff said he knew about it and was on the case.”
On Friday, Sept. 2, four days after the storm, Bush headed for the disaster area on a presidential trip designed to show leadership and concern.
At a meeting that morning, one aide said, the president expressed anger about the convention center. Say that in public, one aide reportedly urged. So Bush went out to the Rose Garden and grimly acknowledged for the first time that all was not well. “The results are not acceptable,” he said.
But the president appeared uncomfortable even with that much self-criticism. A few hours later, in Biloxi, he softened the message. He said he believed the federal government had done everything it could, only to be overwhelmed by nature.
“I am satisfied with the [federal] response,” Bush said. “I’m not satisfied with all the results. ... I’m certainly not denigrating the efforts of anybody. But the results can be better.”
And Bush, who instinctively defends any aide who has been criticized in the media, made a point of praising FEMA chief Brown.
“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” he said.
Behind the scenes Friday, though, Bush and his aides were looking for a way to fix a system that appeared broken.
They called Blanco to ask her to put all National Guard units in Louisiana under federal control; the Democratic governor refused, perceiving -- probably correctly -- that the media and the public would view such a surrender of authority as an admission of failure.
White House aides were angry, and told several newspapers, in the kind of anonymous leak the president often decries, that Blanco was at fault for some of the relief bottlenecks. Bush himself even offered a veiled swipe, saying that the reason aid wasn’t getting through was “strained state and local capabilities.”
When Bush returned to Louisiana on Monday, Sept. 5, the White House didn’t inform Blanco of the visit until that morning; the governor’s aides said she had to scramble to join the president at one of his events in her state.
In public, Bush was still standing by FEMA chief Brown.
On Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 6, Bush met with congressional leaders to let them know he would be asking for another $51.8 billion in relief aid, on top of $10 billion Congress approved the week before. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the House Democratic leader, said she urged him to fire FEMA’s Brown.
According to Pelosi, Bush replied: “Why would I do that?’
“Because of all that went wrong, of all that didn’t go right,” the congresswoman said.
“And he said, ‘What didn’t go right?’ ” Pelosi recounted.
Spokesman McClellan said Pelosi’s account was inaccurate. “I think the president just wanted to know ... what she was most concerned about,” he said.
But Bush was hearing from Republicans, too, that Brown needed to go.
On Friday, Sept. 9, Chertoff ordered Brown back to Washington and handed over management of relief operations to Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen.
Brown was out.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Anatomy of a disaster
The 426-page National Response Plan outlines how local, state and federal agencies should respond to a disaster. The plan’s basic premise calls for local and state officials to handle the initial crisis and for federal assistance to be delivered when regional resources prove inadequate. A look at how federal agencies performed when faced with Hurricane Katrina:
Agency: White House
- Delegates responsibility for disaster response to government agencies.
- Declares federal emergency to allow for federal aid in hurricane relief efforts.
- President and many top White House staff remain on vacation during initial stages of crisis.
- White House blames state and local officials for inadequate response.
- President relies heavily on FEMA’s optimistic and can-do assessments.
- White House considers and rejects federal takeover of National Guard after Louisiana governor objects.
- President doesn’t expect the levee breaches, despite explicit warnings.
Agency: Department of Homeland Security
- Coordinates federal resources and organizes disaster relief efforts in response to major disasters.
- Homeland Security secretary serves as principal federal official and overall manager.
- Ground teams without working telephones or radios. Planes laden with communications equipment arrive late.
- Due to communication breakdown, department chief unaware of broken levees in New Orleans for 24 hours, announces highest emergency declaration two days after first levee breach. Government unable to respond swiftly to levee damage.
- Chief initially unaware of city’s convention center evacuees without supplies.
Agency: Federal Emergency Management Agency
- Supervises relief and rescue operations.
- Support state and local emergency management preparation and response.
- Insufficient equipment and supplies for relief and rescue operations.
- Food, clothing and medical supplies in distant warehouses.
- Shortage of helicopters to conduct rescue missions and ferry sufficient supplies to trapped evacuees.
- Slow coordinating private relief efforts.
- FEMA blocks aircraft responding to evacuation requests from hospitals and other agencies.
Agency: National Guard
- Military’s first responders to a domestic crisis.
- Troops ensure order and deliver communications, transportation and supplies.
- Red tape and paperwork delay troop deployment orders.
- Flooding halts flow of relief supplies by truck.
Agency: U.S. Military
- Active duty troops carry out non-law enforcement missions during domestic emergencies.
- Troops put on alert to respond to hurricane but not sent to disaster area.
- Several days pass before significant numbers of active duty troops arrive in New Orleans.
Sources: Department of Homeland Security’s National Response Plan, Times reports
Graphics reporting by Brady MacDonald
Times staff writers Edwin Chen, Judy Pasternak, Richard A. Serrano and Warren Vieth in Washington, Scott Gold in New Orleans and researcher Janet Lundblad in Los Angeles contributed to this report.