Co-chairmen of 9-11 commission criticize federal response to storm

Knight Ridder NewspapersSeptember 14, 2005 

— WASHINGTON—The Bush administration should have realized that Hurricane Katrina was a catastrophe of national proportions and mobilized federal troops and equipment even before the storm struck, the co-chairmen of an independent investigation into the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks said Wednesday.

"Anyone watching that storm knew it was going to affect Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana," said Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana. "This is not a disaster for the mayor of New Orleans to deal with."

"It was a disappointing response," said Thomas Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey.

Kean and Hamilton said they didn't understand why Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff waited until about 36 hours after Katrina had struck to declare an "incident of national significance," triggering a massive federal response.

"It was obvious nobody knew who was in charge," Kean said. "There was no unified command structure ... the mayor is saying one thing, the governor says another. The president is in the state, and the governor learns about it on TV."

Kean and Hamilton made their comments at a breakfast for journalists. Later, they released an assessment of government action on recommendations their Sept. 11 investigating commission proposed last year. The assessment was highly critical of both Congress and the Bush administration.

"A number of our recommendations were in the area of emergency preparedness. Had they been executed, the death toll would have been lower," Hamilton said.

Chief among the failures has been Congress' unwillingness to allocate additional radio frequencies to state and local agencies to cope with disaster. Hamilton said he was dismayed that Congress is considering legislation that would delay allocation of those frequencies until 2009 and said he would call for the expansion to take place this year.

"Do we have to wait for another disaster?" he asked.

The two also criticized the Department of Homeland Security for failing to complete studies ordered by Congress into what infrastructure—ports and other transportation facilities—would be endangered by a terrorist attack or other catastrophe. One report was due April 1, the other June 15, they said.

"Had the studies of dangers to infrastructure been done, it's hard to believe that New Orleans wouldn't have been at the top," Kean said.

Hamilton said federal officials should have known early on that a massive federal response, including U.S. troops and helicopters, would be required to deal with Katrina. "The National Guard doesn't have the helicopters you need," Hamilton said. "These decisions were delayed much, much too long."

Hamilton said he was "encouraged" by President Bush's statement Tuesday that he was responsible for any federal failings in the Katrina response. "That's an extraordinary statement for this administration," he said.

But he doubted that dismay over the response would have much political impact in next year's mid-term elections. "You can hardly lose an election in the House of Representatives unless you murder someone on the Capitol steps," he said. "You have to be pretty stupid to lose re-election." Hamilton served 34 years in the House.

Kean said he feared that government officials might have been influenced by early news reports that the storm had skirted New Orleans and that the city had emerged largely unscathed. "I have a feeling everybody went `whew,'" he said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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