Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff defended his actions before and after Hurricane Katrina, telling lawmakers Wednesday he relied on Federal Emergency Management Agency experts with decades of experience in hurricane response.
"I'm not a hurricane expert," Chertoff said several times in responding to criticisms from members of a special House panel set up to investigate the dismal federal response to Katrina, which killed more than 1,200 people, flooded New Orleans and forced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands.
...Lawmakers grilled Chertoff about why he stayed home Saturday before Katrina made landfall on Monday, why he made a previously scheduled trip to Atlanta on Tuesday, and why he didn't act more decisively to speed up the federal response.
Chertoff said he relied on former FEMA Director Michael Brown as the "battlefield commander" and focused his efforts on making sure FEMA had all the resources it needed. He said he stayed in telephone contact with the office while at home and during the trip to Atlanta.
"I don't think there was a lack of a sense of urgency," he said.
...[Former FEMA head Michael] Brown blamed state and local officials in Louisiana for the slow response to Katrina when he testified before the committee last month. Chertoff disagreed.
"From my own experience, I don't endorse those views," he said.
After the levees broke in New Orleans, Chertoff said he became increasingly frustrated with the federal response and decided by the end of the first week to replace Brown with Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen. A week later, he relieved Brown of his duties and ordered him back to Washington.
...The investigation is being conducted by a special committee appointed by House GOP leaders. Democratic leaders, insisting on an independent investigation, have refused to cooperate in what they contend is a too-soft probe of the Bush administration by GOP lawmakers.
Several Democratic congressmen from the affected areas have attended the hearings and questioned witnesses. They were joined Wednesday by Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Georgia, who blasted what she called a lack of leadership in the Bush administration's response to Katrina.
Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, objected when McKinney asked Chertoff why he should not be charged with negligent homicide because of the federal response.
When questions "are over the top and not constructive, I don't believe the secretary should waste his time by answering," Bonilla said.
Chertoff did answer, however, declaring the President Bush "was deeply and personally engaged in the process from before the hurricane; I was deeply and personally involved in the process from before the hurricane."
Earlier, Chertoff told the committee that FEMA was overwhelmed by Katrina and must be retooled to improve preparation and response to natural disasters.
"There are many things that did not work well with the response," Chertoff said, adding later, "We are not where we need to be as a nation in the area of preparedness."
Chertoff said Katrina demonstrated that FEMA's system for moving supplies into disaster areas is not adequate and that communications systems must be made to work even in the worst disasters. He said the agency also must learn how to identify issues and target resources when state and local officials are overwhelmed by a storm.
FEMA struggled to locate food, ice, water and even body bags in the days following Hurricane Katrina, a frantic effort punctuated by bureaucratic chaos, infighting and concerns about media coverage, according to memos obtained Monday by The Associated Press.
"Biggest issue: resources are far exceeded by requirements," wrote William Carwile, the top Federal Emergency Management Agency official in Mississippi in a Sept. 3 e-mail to a state official. "Getting less than 25 percent of what we have been requesting from HQ daily."
The memos underscore how FEMA was overwhelmed and underprepared for Katrina. The e-mails - 25 pages in all - represent a partial response to a request for documents by a House panel investigating the government's slow response to the storm...
Excerpts of other emails follows. There don't appear to be any big smoking guns in them, despite the worrisome second paragraph above. I'll update this if I find the full text of the memos, or leave a link in the comments.
It does, however, have this:
As Katrina approached, FEMA officials bristled at pressure from the White House to activate a group of strategy advisers as outlined in the National Response Plan that was issued by Homeland Security in January.
"This is the job of long-term recovery ... in the NRP and FEMA is the lead," wrote FEMA deputy chief of staff Brooks Altshuler in an Aug. 28 e-mail to Rhode, which was forwarded to Brown.
The BBC will be showing a doc called "The Hurricane That Shook America", and they promote it in Fema 'knew of New Orleans danger'.
There appear to be two slightly newsworthy bits of info:
a key briefing officer within Fema sent a message directly to Mr Brown early on the day before Katrina hit, warning him of potentially disastrous flooding in New Orleans, which could trap more than 100,000 people.
I'm pretty sure Brown knew that was a possibility. The question is what details were provided and the major question is what happened after the floodwalls/levees failed. Was there specific information in the memo that Brown did not act on? Recall he wanted a mandatory evacuation. Perhaps the memo should have been sent to Blanco, and a few days before the storm.
Walter Maestri, head of emergency preparedness for Jefferson Parish, told the BBC that Fema officials promised emergency teams from the area that they would supply food, water, medical provisions, and assistance with transporting evacuees from the city - all within 48 hours of the emergency.
In the event, these emergency teams were left without the help they asked for.
Is that news?
Ivor van Heerden, an expert on hurricanes from Louisiana State University, told the BBC that local officials had taken the predictions of the Pam exercise rather more seriously than their federal counterparts.
Covered by Sixty Minutes a few weeks ago.
As for the headline of their story, obviously everyone knew the levees weren't built for a Category 5 storm.
From "Missing in Action":
Louisiana ranks third in the nation in the number of indicted officials per capita. Just the past generation has seen a governor, an attorney general, a federal judge, a state Senate president and a swarm of local officials convicted of assorted crimes.
Police Superintendent Eddie Compass didn't say why he suddenly resigned. But it comes after his department announced that about 250 New Orleans police officers - 15% of the force - could face punishment for leaving their posts without permission during Katrina.
Before Katrina, New Orleans was a crime-ridden city with a murder rate 10 times the national average. Only one in four murders result in a conviction, largely because retaliation against potential witnesses is common. Yet New Orleans had only three cops per 1,000 residents, a ratio less than half that of Washington, D.C.
Some of the officers who did not desert their posts actually stayed and joined the looters. In an MSNBC report aired shortly after Katrina hit, Martin Savidge, reporting from a Wal-Mart being looted, interviewed police officers claiming to be arresting suspects even as those cops loaded shopping carts with merchandise...
Mike Brown may deserve criticism for his performance. But given the corruption and malfeasance in the Pelican State, and the lack of preparedness and chaotic response of local officials, his observation that "Louisiana was dysfunctional" may not be far off the mark.
Note that one of the reasons those cops left there posts might be because they never existed in the first place.
WASHINGTON - Former FEMA director Michael Brown was warned weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit that his agency's backlogged computer systems could delay supplies and put personnel at risk during an emergency, according to an audit released Wednesday.
An internal review of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's information-sharing system shows it was overwhelmed during the 2004 hurricane season. The audit was released a day after Brown vehemently defended FEMA for the government's dismal response to Katrina, instead blaming state and local officials for poor planning and chaos during the Aug. 29 storm and subsequent flooding.
Blort! My opinion meter pegged with that last bit.
In an Aug. 3 response, Brown and one of his deputies rejected the audit, calling it unacceptable, erroneous and negative.
"The overall tone of the report is negative," wrote FEMA chief information officer Barry C. West in an Aug. 3 letter that Brown initialed.
"We believe this characterization is inaccurate and does not acknowledge the highly performing, well managed and staffed (informational technology) systems supporting FEMA incident response and recovery."
As a computer pro, I need a bit more information to judge what's going on. However, the report mentions "backlogged" systems. That would appear to be a human or human-resources problem, and not one specific to the actual computer systems.
Yesterday, Christopher Shays (R-CT) bashed Michael Brown. Now:
[He says] that while Brown made mistakes, so did others. "He can't be the scapegoat. First responders are local and state, and the governor and mayor did a pathetic job of preparing their people for this horrific storm," Shays said on NBC's "Today" show
Will he discuss Chertoff's and Bush's roles as well? Let's find out.
This is easy enough for some to check, and hopefully someone will leave a comment. From the transcript of Michael Brown, former head of FEMA:
[REP. STEPHEN BUYER (R-IN)]: ...Three days before Katrina made landfall, you were on CNN telling people to get out of New Orleans. Is that true?
BROWN: I don't recall if it was CNN. I was just doing show after show getting that message out.
BUYER: But is it true that you were telling people in advance then to get out of New Orleans, advance of the governor and the mayor of New Orleans?
BROWN: As I recall my interviews, I basically said I didn't care what the governor -- or regardless of what the governor or mayor were saying, if I lived in New Orleans, I would be evacuating.
BUYER: Is it true that shortly after you were on television asking people of New Orleans to evacuate, the governor of Louisiana went on television to say to ignore what you had said, that this is strictly voluntary? Do you know whether or not that is true?
BROWN: The sequence of events as I recall them is that I was in the FEMA studio doing those interviews. I made that statement. I had been trying to reach the governor that morning, was told by my office that they had -- the operations center -- they had finally gotten a hold of her. So I talked to her either in the studio or the operations center and told her what I had said and, you know, Are you going to order mandatory evacuation?
And her response was that she didn't know yet. She was going to talk to the mayor and they were going to issue some sort of proclamation or statement.
BUYER: So you're not aware of whether the governor of Louisiana went on TV to tell her people of Louisiana to ignore what you had said?
BROWN: I don't know that she said ignore. I do know that she went on television and said, you know, I would encourage people to leave.
So, what is it?
Former FEMA director Michael Brown blamed others for most government failures in responding to Hurricane Katrina on Tuesday, especially Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. He aggressively defended his own role.
Brown also said that in the days before the storm, he expressed his concerns that "this is going to be a bad one" in phone conversations and e-mails with President Bush, White House chief of staff Andy Card and deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin.
And he blamed the Department of Homeland Security _ the parent agency for the Federal Emergency Management Agency _ for not acquiring better equipment ahead of the storm.
His efforts to shift blame drew sharp criticism from Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike.
"I'm happy you left," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. "That kind of look in the lights like a deer tells me you weren't capable of doing that job."
Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., told Brown: "The disconnect was, people thought there was some federal expertise out there. There wasn't. Not from you."
... "My biggest mistake was not recognizing by Saturday that Louisiana was dysfunctional," two days before the storm hit, Brown said...
... "I've overseen over 150 presidentially declared disasters. I know what I'm doing, and I think I do a pretty darn good job of it," he said...
... Rep. William Jefferson, D-La. told Brown: "I find it absolutely stunning that this hearing would start out with you, Mr. Brown, laying the blame for FEMA's failings at the feet of the governor of Louisiana and the Mayor of New Orleans."
In a testy exchange, Shays compared Brown's performance unfavorably with that of former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
"So I guess you want me to be the superhero, to step in there and take everyone out of New Orleans," Brown said.
"What I wanted you to do is do your job and coordinate," Shays retorted.
"I'm happy to be called not a Rudy Giuliani ... a scapegoat ... if it means that FEMA ... is going to be able to be reborn," Brown said.
Criticized by Shays for failing to get better equipment to make communication easier among emergency agencies, Brown blamed those above him.
"We put that money in our budget request and it was removed by the Department of Homeland Security" he said.
Brown said he was "just tired and misspoke" when a television interviewer appeared to be the first to tell him there were desperate residents at the New Orleans Convention Center.
Brown said he learned a day earlier that people were flocking there.
He blamed "a hysteric media" for what he said were unfounded reports of rapes and murders. He characterized blunt-spoken Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, the military coordinator for the disaster, as "a bull in the China closet, God love him."
And he said Americans themselves must play a more active role in preparing for natural disasters _ and not expect more from the government than it can deliver.
Republican Rep. Kay Granger of Texas told Brown: "I don't know how you can sleep at night. You lost the battle."
Brown in his opening statement cited "specific mistakes" in dealing with the storm, and listed just two.
One, he said, was not having more media briefings.
As to the other, he said: "I very strongly personally regret that I was unable to persuade Gov. Blanco and Mayor Nagin to sit down, get over their differences, and work together. I just couldn't pull that off."
Both Blanco and Nagin are Democrats.
In Baton Rouge, La., Blanco's press secretary, Denise Bottcher, responded: "Mike Brown wasn't engaged then, and he surely isn't now. He should have been watching CNN instead of the Disney Channel," Bottcher said...
Another AP report has these bits from the transcript:
"FEMA is a coordinating agency, we are not a law enforcement agency," he said.
"It is inherently impractical, totally impractical, for the federal government to respond to every disaster of whatever size in every community across the country," Brown said.
"It breaks my heart to think about the disasters we respond to as FEMA and to think about the disasters that we also don't respond to," he added.
Brown also mentions a hitherto unknown site:
Ironically, it started with an organization called horsesass.org, that on some blog published a false, and, frankly, in my opinion, defamatory statement that the media just continued to repeat over and over.
They might have been the first site to discuss Brown's resume, and they respond to this news in typical leftie fashion:
That said, listening to Brown's testimony, I think he's saying something very importantÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ something that speaks to the broader ideology of the Bush administration. He's not just blaming the state and local authorities for the chaos in the aftermath of Hurricane KatrinaÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ he keeps repeating that various rescue and relief operations are not and should not be the responsibility of the federal government.
In response, I would just like to point out that the whole purpose of having a Federal Emergency Management Agency is to deal with regional events that are so catastrophic that state and local agencies are unable to respond. If we can't expect that from our federal government, I wonder what purpose the Union serves?
This HuffPost post has a roundup of former FEMA head Mike Brown possibly swinging the election for Bush by doling out cash to victims of the Florida hurricanes.
Note that some of that post appears to be inaccurate; Brown is apparently not staying on as a contractor at FEMA. Please summarize the links and the verifiable facts in the comments.
Former FEMA head Mike Brown is scheduled to testify before Congress today about the response to Katrina, and he spoke to congressional aides about that yesterday.
The AP has miraculously obtained a copy of a memo written by a "Republican staffer" who attended that briefing: "Brown Still On FEMA Payroll". Let's be as cynical as possible, and look at this:
...Brown expressed regrets "that he did not start screaming for DoD (Department of Defense) involvement" sooner. The first substantial numbers of active-duty troops responding to the Gulf Coast were sent on Saturday, Sept. 3 - five days after the storm hit.
Do you think that might have something to do with "Military tells Bush they should take control after disaster"? Is this part of the widespread pitch to change Posse Comitatus?
...Brown took several shots at Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. He said the two officials "sparred during the crisis and could not work together cooperatively."
He also described Blanco as "indecisive" and refusing to cede control of the Louisiana National Guard to federal authorities because "it would have undercut her image politically," according to the memo.
The document also criticized the conference calls with state and federal officials that Brown ran during the crisis, saying that no official notes were taken and that Brown "just assumed that agencies would follow up on taskings resulting from the calls."
Brown defended himself against charges that he learned from television that thousands of refugees gathered at the New Orleans convention center, where adequate food, water and other supplies were lacking and there was rampant violence.
He said that because the convention center was not a planned evacuation site, "there is no reason FEMA would have known about it beforehand," according to the memo.
Brown also admitted he did not ensure that Nagin had a secure communications system during the crisis.