Homeland Security chief defends Katrina response
Chertoff testifies as critical House report is released
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff laid out changes he says need to be made before the 2006 hurricane season:
Incident command centers for FEMA and DHS will be integrated so that they will have access to the same information simultaneously and won't have to pass information back and forth, which Chertoff said "makes no sense."
Improve FEMA's logistics capability, which Chertoff called "woefully inadequate."
Contractors supplying relief supplies will have to have systems in place to track shipments.
Systems for managing claims for people affected by disasters will be upgraded and new financial management tools put into place.
Local officials will be allowed to hire their own firms to remove debris after a storm rather than going through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which local officials have complained is more expensive and less efficient.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff took responsibility at a Senate hearing Wednesday for his department's inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina, which "unnecessarily prolonged" the suffering of people along the Gulf Coast.
But Chertoff flatly rejected the accusation that either DHS or the White House were disengaged as the storm deluged New Orleans and leveled much of coastal Mississippi.
"The idea that this department and this administration and the president were somehow detached from Katrina is simply not correct," he said. "We were acutely aware of Katrina and the risk it posed."
Chertoff was testifying before the committee the same day a House report was to be released accusing him of missteps in his response to the storm, which claimed 1,322 lives.
The report, written by a committee of Republicans, takes Chertoff to task for waiting until two days after the storm hit to activate a national response plan and for appointing Michael Brown, then-director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to lead the federal response effort despite Brown not being trained to take on that role. (Full story)
"If I knew then what I know now about Mr. Brown's agenda, I would have done something different," Chertoff said. Brown quit his post following widespread criticism after the storm, later blaming Chertoff and others of dragging their feet and ignoring his warnings about massive flooding.
Chertoff disputed Brown's claim that Chertoff knew Monday night, after Katrina hit, about New Orleans' levees being breached.
"When I went to bed, it was my belief -- and it was somewhat fortified by things I saw on TV -- that, actually, the storm had not done the worst that had been imagined," Chertoff said. He added that in a status briefing Monday evening he heard reports of breaches but was told "nothing has been confirmed."
Chertoff also said that the weekend before Katrina hit, President Bush declared a state of emergency in Louisiana and Mississippi, a step that only once had been taken before a hurricane's landfall.
He said that declaration authorized a full federal response, and he had been assured by Brown and officials dealing with the emergency on the ground that they had what they needed to respond.
But the secretary also told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has been investigating the government's response to the hurricane, that "you can't escape the fact, when you talk about Katrina, that this was a storm of unprecedented magnitude."
"Not because it was a surprise, because I don't think it was a surprise that a storm like this could happen. But because in terms of prior experience, at least as far as I know, nobody in living memory recalls a set of challenges as difficult as those presented by this hurricane," he said, noting that Katrina affected a geographic area larger than Britain.
The committee's Republican chairwoman, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, told Chertoff that the Department of Homeland Security's "alarming and unacceptable" response to Katrina raised serious questions about how well it could deal with a terrorist attack.
"If our government failed so utterly in preparing for, and responding to, a disaster that had been long predicted and was imminent for days, we must wonder how much more profound the failure would be if a disaster were to take us by complete surprise," she said.
Chertoff, who took over as DHS secretary a year ago, said that a month before the storm made landfall August 29, he had warned publicly that "we were not where we needed to be in terms of preparedness."
He said he planned to launch a program to improve the department's capabilities on October 1, when money became available at the start of the new fiscal year.
"Unfortunately, Katrina didn't wait until October 1," he said.
Chertoff also said that in a video teleconference August 28, the day before the storm hit, he was assured by emergency management and National Guard officials from the states affected by the storm, as well as experts from FEMA, that the resources needed to deal with Katrina were either in place or on the way.
Chertoff said he specifically asked Brown if there was anything else he needed from DHS, telling him all the resources of the department were at his disposal. He said Brown responded that "everybody has been through this drill before. We are all engaged and working."
But Chertoff "certainly had reservations," which prompted him to accompany Bush on a September 1 trip to the Gulf Coast to make his own assessments, he said. It was during that trip that Bush said, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."
Chertoff removed Brown as head of the relief effort the next day. Brown resigned as FEMA chief two weeks later.
Before beginning his testimony, Chertoff sat expressionless as Collins bluntly critiqued his department's response to Katrina, calling it a "failure."
"The department's overall lack of preparedness for this catastrophe prevented both decisive action before the storm hit and an effective response in its immediate aftermath," Collins said. "After landfall, the department far too often appeared to be frozen with indecision and nearly paralyzed by ineffective communications."
"As a result, the suffering of Katrina's victims was worsened and prolonged."
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