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Chertoff Denies Neglecting Disaster Planning

Times Staff Writers

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Monday rejected accusations that he had neglected preparedness for natural disasters because he was preoccupied with terrorism, but he is likely to face tough questioning today from the Senate about his role in the government’s flawed response to Hurricane Katrina.

“I want to tell you, I unequivocally and strongly reject this attempt to drive a wedge between our concerns about terrorism and our concerns about natural disasters,” Chertoff said in a speech to emergency response managers, declaring that he has always considered dealing with natural disasters a central part of his mission.

The secretary, whose department was created in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, is expected to be pressed hard by Republicans and Democrats when he appears before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The Bush administration has maintained that the storm -- one of the most destructive in U.S. history -- took federal officials by surprise and overwhelmed their response plans. But Senate investigators have documented a stream of warnings and internal communications that spelled out in detail what Katrina was likely to do to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

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In one example obtained from Senate investigators, the transcript of a conference call hours before the storm hit Aug. 29 shows that Chertoff and President Bush were told by Max Mayfield, head of the National Hurricane Center, that “the greatest potential for large loss of life is ... in the coastal areas from the storm surge.”

Other warnings that circulated widely through the Homeland Security Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is part of Homeland Security, predicted that the levees protecting New Orleans would fail and that huge areas of the city would be flooded for weeks or months.

Chertoff’s appearance before the Senate committee, like his speech Monday, is part of a rapidly unfolding struggle to assign responsibility. Political jockeying to cast or escape blame is mingling with nonpartisan efforts to learn lessons from Katrina that might reduce the toll of future natural disasters.

Last week, Michael D. Brown, who was forced out as head of FEMA because of the agency’s slow reaction to Katrina, told Congress the problems were rooted in what he said was the Homeland Security Department’s obsessive focus on terrorism.

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It was in part as a response to Brown that Chertoff insisted preparation for natural disasters had not been neglected.

Frances Townsend, Bush’s assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism who is preparing a White House report on Katrina, likewise defended the administration Monday.

“I reject outright the suggestion that President Bush was anything less than fully involved,” she said, speaking to the same conference Chertoff addressed. She criticized those who would “rewrite history by pointing fingers or laying blame.”

She also reminded the emergency managers that state and local officials also bear responsibilities in disasters. Townsend said the review she was preparing for the administration would be complete by the end of the month and would include more than 100 recommendations.

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In his speech, Chertoff outlined plans to improve and streamline his department’s systems for dealing with disasters. They include improved communications and the creation of a permanent, full-time unit numbering as many as 1,500 new federal workers who would be prepared to take the lead in any emergency.

The Katrina debate was further fueled Monday by testimony before the Senate committee by officials from the Justice Department, Homeland Security’s inspector general’s office and the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. They chronicled what one senator called an “infuriating” catalog of wrongdoing in the dispersal of $85 billion in federal aid.

The government’s effort to rush money and aid to stranded residents resulted in gargantuan fraud, the witnesses said -- ranging from victims receiving duplicate $2,000 debit cards to scam artists making money off fraudulent charitable websites.

The Justice Department’s Hurricane Katrina fraud task force reported that U.S. attorneys in 23 districts so far have charged 212 individuals, and that $8 million has been returned to FEMA and the American Red Cross by those not entitled to the funds.

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Of the 2.5 million applications that resulted in emergency assistance from FEMA, up to 900,000 were fraudulent, witnesses said. Hotels charged more than their posted rate for rooms to house the homeless, including a New York hotel that billed the government $438 a night.

Website fraud was also investigated by the FBI. In one example, a defendant now on trial in Florida created a website called AirKatrina.com that claimed to be flying humanitarian aid into Louisiana and bringing out individuals in need of medical care. In two days, government investigators said, AirKatrina.com collected almost $40,000 in donations from around the world. There were no aid drops or rescues, prosecutors charge.

And two FEMA officials working in New Orleans are being prosecuted on charges of accepting bribes and suggesting that a local contractor inflated the headcount for a $1-million meal-service contract at the camp housing relief workers in Algiers, La. A councilman in St. Tammany Parish has been indicted on charges of extortion and money laundering after being accused of demanding a kickback of 50% of the value of a debris disposal contract he arranged.

Given the enormity of the Katrina disaster and the pressure to respond quickly, some fraud and abuse may have been inevitable.

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But the inadequate response of the government may be harder to explain, senior administration officials may find, in the face of evidence that they had repeated and detailed warnings of what lay ahead.

At noon on Aug. 28, hours before Katrina hit land, Bush, Brown and Chertoff heard the National Hurricane Center’s Mayfield predict via video teleconference call the potential for a large number of fatalities from storm surge, according to documents compiled by Senate investigators.

At 2:49 p.m. that day, according to the documents, a report reached Assistant Homeland Secretary Robert Stephan that Katrina “will likely lead to severe flooding and/or levee breaching, leaving the New Orleans metro area submerged for weeks or months.”

At 6:39 p.m., the report landed on the desk of Brig. Gen. Matthew Broderick, director of the department’s operations center.

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At 8:31 p.m., according to the timeline, the document was forwarded to every senior official in the department.


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