For the first time, a nonpartisan government investigation Wednesday put principal blame on Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, not lower-level officials, for the fumbled response to Hurricane Katrina.
The Government Accountability Office, an independent agency of Congress, said in its preliminary report that Chertoff had failed to move quickly to mobilize resources despite advance warnings that Katrina was likely to be a devastating storm. And, the report said, Chertoff’s failure to name an individual to spearhead the response was a prime factor in the delays and confusion that followed.
Until now, Chertoff had not been a target of direct criticism, though the Federal Emergency Management Agency and most other federal units responsible for responding to Katrina are under his jurisdiction.
In particular, the GAO faulted Chertoff for not immediately designating Katrina a “catastrophic event,” a technical step that would have permitted federal officials to take the initiative in the emergency. Federal agencies instead had to wait for state and local agencies to request specific kinds of assistance, said David M. Walker, who as comptroller general heads the GAO.
Such requests from overwhelmed local agencies were slow in coming and often uncoordinated.
For months, officials at all levels of government -- and often along partisan lines -- have blamed each other for poor response to the hurricane, which claimed more than 1,300 lives and caused billions of dollars in damage.
At a news conference releasing the report, Walker said the lack of a single federal decision-maker meant there were “way too many layers, way too many players ... way too many pieces of turf.”
Homeland Security press secretary William R. “Russ” Knocke called the report “premature and unprofessional” and said “catastrophic event” declarations were reserved for disasters in which federal officials had little warning or time to pre-position supplies.
The GAO is continuing its investigation and is expected to issue a final report, including a response from Chertoff, this year. But its initial findings were sharply critical.
The department Chertoff has headed since early 2005 was assembled after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks from 22 separate agencies and made responsible for border security, emergency response and other functions.
In the GAO report, the first by an independent agency, Walker said all levels of government had failed to prepare and abide by disaster plans. “Unfortunately, many of the lessons emerging from the most recent hurricanes in the gulf are similar to those GAO identified more than a decade ago,” after Hurricane Andrew, he said. “In 1993, we recommended that the president designate a senior official in the White House to oversee federal preparedness for, and response to, major catastrophic disasters.”
Walker said in the report that Chertoff failed to establish a clear chain of command. “Neither [Chertoff] nor any of his designees
“In the absence of timely and decisive action and clear leadership responsibility and accountability, there were multiple chains of command, a myriad of approaches and processes for requesting and providing assistance, and confusion about who should be advised of requests,” he said.
In the days and weeks after the hurricane, local, state and federal officials each tried to deflect blame for what went wrong with disaster response.
The director of FEMA at the time, Michael D. Brown -- who reported to Chertoff -- was initially praised by President Bush for his handling of the federal response, but later resigned after reports of his agency’s failings led to heavy criticism. Brown argued that much of the failure was actually the responsibility of Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin -- both Democrats.
In congressional testimony in October, Chertoff said shortcomings in FEMA’s planning, not state and local officials’ failures, were to blame for much of what went wrong with the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina.
Walker, who said the devastation in some parts of the Mississippi Gulf Coast rivaled that of the late-2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, praised the military’s role in responding to the crisis. The Pentagon’s resources, his report said, “should be an explicit part of future major catastrophic disaster plans.”
Meanwhile, Nagin gave a vivid example of the problem in testimony Wednesday before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is holding hearings on Katrina. The panel pressed Nagin on why -- in thousands of pages of documents reviewed by committee investigators -- there was no request from his office for food and water to relieve evacuees at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
“We had people trapped on roofs, et cetera ... and they didn’t know about it?” Nagin replied. “That’s just impossible.”
House and Senate hearings on Katrina have been hobbled by controversy. House Democrats, urging an independent inquiry similar to that of the Sept. 11 commission, are boycotting their chamber’s effort, though Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) pledged to “follow the facts wherever they go.”
“The theory of putting FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security was that you would have the resources of the whole department,” said Davis, who appeared at the GAO news conference with Walker. “In Katrina, FEMA needed the resources of the whole government.... They needed access to the top. It’s not clear with the individuals involved that they could pick up the phone and get the White House.”
On the Senate side, weeklong hearings continue today with testimony from Gulf Coast governors. Committee Republicans have tended to emphasize the failings of state officials in hurricane response; Democrats have focused on the federal government’s lapses.
Nagin, speaking to the Senate committee, described as “ridiculous” the tangled relationship between state and federal officials over aid. At a meeting between Bush and Louisiana officials four days after Katrina, he said, “there was an incredible dance going on between the federal government and the state government on who had final authority.
“And it was impeding, in my humble opinion, the recovery efforts,” he said.
More disturbing, he said, was when Chertoff and FEMA’s Brown came to New Orleans the next day. The mayor was flown to a staging area for federal relief efforts, where Bush had spoken the day before. As Nagin left the plane, he said, he was stunned to see that many of the items city officials had been requesting -- water, toilets, portable lights, even food -- were on the airstrip, undelivered.
“I was so flabbergasted,” he said. “The city was touch-and-go concerning stability.”