WASHINGTON—Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who largely monitored Hurricane Katrina by phone as it churned toward the coast, then flew to Atlanta as New Orleans flooded, faced pointed questions Wednesday about whether he was too detached in responding to the nation's worst natural disaster.
In his first appearance before a congressional panel probing the disaster response, which left thousands of victims stranded without food, water and rescue from floodwaters, Chertoff sought to portray himself as both intensely engaged—yet not in charge.
While acknowledging during aggressive questioning that the National Response Plan and a presidential directive put him in charge of preparing for and managing catastrophic disasters, Chertoff said that in practical terms it was really former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown's responsibility to manage Katrina. FEMA, once a stand-alone Cabinet-level agency, is a division within the Department of Homeland Security.
"Michael Brown was designated, for all intents and purposes, as the battlefield commander on the ground," Chertoff said. He said he expected that Brown would understand that the priorities were to save lives, rescue people, get them food, water, medical assistance and shelter and would "execute those priorities in an urgent fashion."
Chertoff said he saw his role as assisting Brown if needed, but that his conversations with Brown before and immediately after Katrina struck indicated that the situation was in hand. Over time, however, Chertoff said he became increasingly concerned about whether the federal response was moving forward in an urgent manner.
Brown, whom Chertoff ultimately ordered back to Washington, resigned as FEMA director on Sept. 12 amid a barrage of blame. The same congressional panel questioned Brown three weeks ago.
Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., pressed Chertoff on whether he used all the powers available to him to save lives, pointing to a section of the National Response Plan on how a catastrophe is supposed to be managed.
The section states: "Only the Secretary of Homeland Security or designee may initiate implementation" of the catastrophic response plan, which among other things calls for deploying all federal resources to the disaster site unless it can be credibly established that a specific resource is not needed.
The section makes clear that in a catastrophic event, the federal government must be proactive in its response.
This section gives Chertoff significant power to take action, Shays said.
"I have a feeling that makes me very uneasy that the Department of Homeland Security is dysfunctional," Shays said.
Chertoff said the plan gives him no special powers that the FEMA director didn't already have when President Bush declared a federal emergency the Saturday before Katrina struck on Aug. 29.
Chertoff also deflected an aggressive string of questions by Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., about why Chertoff waited to designate Brown the "principal federal official" in charge of the response until nearly 36 hours after the storm hit.
According to the National Response Plan and a 2003 Presidential Directive, the secretary of Homeland Security is the principal federal official responsible for handling major and catastrophic disasters. It's the secretary's responsibility to coordinate the federal government's resources in responding to these events.
Only after Buyer left his seat and directly approached Chertoff at the witness table with a section of the plan did Chertoff acknowledge that he was the principal federal official until he transferred that title to Brown.
But Chertoff said the title made no difference and that, as director of FEMA, Brown had full authority to take action without it.
Michael Greenberger, a law professor and director of the University of Maryland's Center for Health and Homeland Security, disputed that Brown had adequate authority prior to Chertoff's designating him the principal federal official.
"I think to this day Michael Chertoff still doesn't know what the National Response Plan calls for," Greenberger said. "Look, if Michael Brown was supposed to be effectively the principal federal official in charge of this, the National Response Plan would have made the PFO the FEMA director."
Chertoff said he's examining what went right and what went wrong in Katrina and will be making changes. He said FEMA needs to upgrade communications and its abilities to track the flow of emergency supplies. And he said more needs to be done to plan for catastrophic events. As part of that, he's working to identify people in disaster-prone areas to serve as principal federal officials "in-waiting," allowing them to get to know state and local emergency managers before a crisis.
The House Select Committee investigating Katrina has 11 members—all Republicans. Democrats have boycotted official membership on the committee as they continue to seek the creation of an independent commission, similar to the Sept. 11 commission.
Still, four Democrats who represent affected coastal areas attended as guests: Reps. Charlie Melancon and William Jefferson of Louisiana, Gene Taylor of Mississippi, and Cynthia McKinney of Georgia.
Citing a Knight Ridder report that Chertoff flew to Atlanta on Aug. 30, the day after Katrina struck, to attend a previously scheduled briefing on avian flu, Melancon asked: "Given the dire warnings about Katrina, why didn't you cancel the trip?" Chertoff said he was aware that if Katrina struck New Orleans, it could be an "overwhelming blow." But he said he felt he could go because Brown was on the ground and in charge.
Shays, after the hearing, said he thinks Chertoff will likely be asked to come before the committee again.
"I was left with the feeling that his answers seemed to be a bit inconsistent and very convenient depending on what the issue was."
To read the National Response Plan and its Catastrophic Incident Annex, which describes how a catastrophe is to be handled, go to: www.dhs.gov/interweb/assetlibrary/NRP(underscore)FullText.pdf.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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