WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON—Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, the U.S. official with the power to order a massive federal response to Hurricane Katrina, flew to Atlanta for a previously scheduled briefing on avian flu on the morning after the storm swept ashore.
Chertoff's decision to fly to Georgia for a business-as-usual briefing even as residents in New Orleans fought for their lives in rising floodwaters raises new questions about how much top officials knew about what was happening on the Gulf Coast and how focused they were on the unfolding tragedy.
In fact, Chertoff didn't know for sure that New Orleans' life-preserving levees had failed until a full day had passed.
Not until Chertoff was returning from Atlanta on Aug. 30 did he begin writing the memo that declared Katrina "an incident of national significance" and put the full force of the federal government behind the relief and rescue efforts.
Critics charge that the delay in making the designation until about 36 hours after the storm may have been one reason why federal help was slow in coming and why no one seemed to be in charge in the disaster zone.
In a first accounting of Chertoff's activities before and after the storm, Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke portrayed his boss as deeply involved yet not the man in charge.
As the severity of Katrina became apparent on Aug. 26, Knocke said, Chertoff huddled with his staff at Department of Homeland Security headquarters in Washington. Katrina, he said, was a major concern, but not the only thing preoccupying Homeland Security officials.
On Saturday, Aug. 27, Chertoff worked from home and on Sunday, Aug. 28—with President Bush on vacation in Texas—he spent a long day in his office monitoring the storm's progress, Knocke said. On Monday, Aug. 29, as Katrina made landfall, Chertoff was hobbled by a lack of specific information from officials on the Gulf Coast, Knocke said.
Chertoff's team was unable to confirm until midday on Aug. 30 that the levees had breached even though the flooding was being widely reported on television beginning that morning and officials in Louisiana first reported those breaches in the early morning hours of Monday, Aug. 29.
The Homeland Security chief was "extraordinarily frustrated with some of the scattered information we were getting," Knocke said.
Stung by criticism, Chertoff's aides this week attempted to downplay his importance in managing the disaster relief, saying that former Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown was in charge. Brown resigned this week amid intense criticism about the sluggish and meager initial response to Katrina.
At the same time, Knocke said, Chertoff was deeply engaged in preparing for and responding to the powerful hurricane—ordering U.S. Customs helicopters to the Gulf Coast on Monday, Aug. 29, as the storm bore down and receiving a steady stream of updates from FEMA. Part of his time in Atlanta was spent at the FEMA operations center there receiving updates on the storm.
"There was a real sense of urgency," Knocke said.
Nonetheless, congressional critics and others are questioning how well Chertoff carried out his responsibilities under the National Response Plan—the blueprint for how the nation responds to disasters.
"There are a lot of questions that ultimately now put more light on the Secretary of Homeland Security," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the ranking minority member on the House Homeland Security Committee.
Thompson said oversight hearings are needed to resolve them.
FEMA's Brown had arrived in Baton Rouge, La., on Sunday, Aug. 28. By Monday night, Aug. 29, he had called Chertoff and either White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card or his deputy Joe Hagin and said that things were spiraling "out of control," according to an interview Brown gave to The New York Times. Knocke said that Chertoff promised Brown "anything he needed."
Despite Brown's phone call, Chertoff went ahead the next day with his previously scheduled visit to the headquarters for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta with Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt for a briefing on avian flu. The disease has killed 57 people worldwide.
Afterward, Chertoff went to FEMA headquarters in Atlanta for an update and it appears that that's when he realized the magnitude of the crisis.
Still critics on Thursday questioned Chertoff's judgment in turning his attention elsewhere, even as the storm damage mounted.
"In the relative scheme of things it (avian flu) needed to be put on the back burner while New Orleans was going under water," said John Copenhaver, a southeastern regional FEMA director under the Clinton administration
Copenhaver found it incredible that Chertoff didn't know water was flooding into New Orleans until Tuesday, Aug. 30.
"He is the Cabinet official of the department that's supposed to know things like this," Copenhaver said.
With the spotlight now on Chertoff, officials at the Department of Homeland Security this week have begun issuing new versions of events surrounding his role in the botched federal response to Katrina.
What they are saying this week contradicts many of their previous statements and actions.
Knocke said Thursday that Chertoff's Aug. 30 memo, first obtained by Knight Ridder, created "an administrative paper trail" for an incident of national significance. He said that the department had been acting "under the auspices of an incident of national significance" since President Bush issued an emergency declaration on Aug. 27, the Saturday before the storm.
But the National Response Plan says that it's the Secretary of Homeland Security who designates an event an incident of national significance. When asked if Chertoff had made the designation earlier than Aug. 30, Knocke refused to answer the question directly.
After Chertoff made the designation in his Aug. 30 memo, federal troops began to file into New Orleans, bringing much-needed supplies to residents. But many people remained stranded on their rooftops seeking help from passing helicopters and boats.
Knocke acknowledged on Thursday that the National Response Plan—which was redrawn after the Sept. 11 attacks and became effective just this year—could be in line for an overhaul.
"We're also going to have to step back and take a look at the playbook," he said.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2007