Michael Chertoff was a bigger impediment to a competent federal response to Hurricane Katrina than was Michael Brown.
The federal official with the power to mobilize a massive federal response to Hurricane Katrina was Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, not the former FEMA chief who was relieved of his duties and resigned earlier this week, federal documents reviewed by Knight Ridder show.
Even before the storm struck the Gulf Coast, Chertoff could have ordered federal agencies into action without any request from state or local officials. Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown had only limited authority to do so until about 36 hours after the storm hit, when Chertoff designated him as the “principal federal official” in charge of the storm.
…Chertoff – not Brown – was in charge of managing the national response to a catastrophic disaster, according to the National Response Plan, the federal government’s blueprint for how agencies will handle major natural disasters or terrorist incidents. An order issued by President Bush in 2003 also assigned that responsibility to the homeland security director.
But according to a memo obtained by Knight Ridder, Chertoff didn’t shift that power to Brown until late afternoon or evening on Aug. 30, about 36 hours after Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi. That same memo suggests that Chertoff may have been confused about his lead role in disaster response and that of his department.
White House and homeland security officials wouldn’t explain why Chertoff waited some 36 hours to declare Katrina an incident of national significance and why he didn’t immediately begin to direct the federal response from the moment on Aug. 27 when the National Hurricane Center predicted that Katrina would strike the Gulf Coast with catastrophic force in 48 hours. Nor would they explain why Bush felt the need to appoint a separate task force.
Chertoff’s hesitation and Bush’s creation of a task force both appear to contradict the National Response Plan and previous presidential directives that specify what the secretary of homeland security is assigned to do without further presidential orders. The goal of the National Response Plan is to provide a streamlined framework for swiftly delivering federal assistance when a disaster – caused by terrorists or Mother Nature – is too big for local officials to handle.
The Department of Homeland Security has refused repeated requests to provide details about Chertoff’s schedule and said it couldn’t say specifically when the department requested assistance from the military.
The Chertoff memo indicates that the response to Katrina wasn’t left to disaster professionals, but was run out of the White House, said George Haddow, a former deputy chief of staff at FEMA during the Clinton administration and the co-author of an emergency management textbook.
“It shows that the president is running the disaster, the White House is running it as opposed to Brown or Chertoff,” Haddow said. Brown “is a convenient fall guy. He’s not the problem really. The problem is a system that was marginalized.”
A former FEMA director under President Reagan expressed shock by the inaction that Chertoff’s memo suggested. It showed that Chertoff “does not have a full appreciation for what the country is faced with – nor does anyone who waits that long,” said Gen. Julius Becton Jr., who was FEMA director from 1985-1989.
“Anytime you have a delay in taking action, there’s a potential for losing lives,” Becton told Knight Ridder. “I have no idea how many lives we’re talking about. … I don’t understand why, except that they were inefficient.”