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Who's to blame? Disaster experts weigh in

WASHINGTON—Knight Ridder asked a dozen outside disaster experts to evaluate the federal response to Hurricane Katrina and the work of former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown or his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Their assessments came in part after reviewing a videotape and transcripts of emergency briefings in the days before and after Katrina's landfall.

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Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado:

"My hunch from day one was that the problem was with the secretary. But what about the president himself? I am very curious to know who among the highest leadership had read the National Response Plan and actually understood whose responsibility was what."

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Jane Bullock, former FEMA chief of staff and co-author of a disaster management textbook:

"Brown didn't have any clue to be able to plan and anticipate. (Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Michael) Jackson didn't. Chertoff didn't. If you look at any of those tapes or read (the transcripts of) them, it sounds like everybody was doing fine. And they weren't."

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Beverly Cigler, Penn State University public administration professor and co-chair of a Katrina task force of public administration professionals:

"I don't think Chertoff knew he had a National Response Plan, and if he did, he didn't know what was in it or how to use it. Brown certainly looks like he ran a good meeting on the 28th (of August). He was asking the right questions."

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Joe Myers, former Florida emergency management director:

"It was obviously both of them (are to blame) because you've got a plan. They've got to have their game plan worked amongst themselves." Of Chertoff, he said: "If you assume all those responsibilities, you've got assure that proper coordination is happening."

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Gen. Julius Becton, former FEMA director under President Reagan:

"I'm more prone to believe Brown. When you make the director of FEMA have to report to several layers (of bureaucracy) before you get to the guy in charge, that's not good business."

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James Lee Witt, former FEMA director under President Clinton:

"I believe Brown. Look what he tried to warn them of, and nobody listened. I don't think DHS (Department of Homeland Security) is ready to be in that coordinating role, particularly in natural disasters."

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Dennis Mileti, former director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado and author of the book "Disasters by Design":

"In the Clinton administration, FEMA rose to be the envy of the world. ... When this administration stepped in, I would say they fundamentally dissected, disassembled FEMA ... I'm a Democrat and I'd have to give President Bush credit. President Bush declared a presidential declaration before Katrina made landfall. That's unprecedented. That freed up a lot of federal resources. However, it doesn't appear that anyone did much with those resources."

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Kate Hale, Dade County (Florida) emergency management chief during 1992's Hurricane Andrew:

"Obviously there was an inappropriate placement of emergency management into Homeland Security ... which was a throwback to the `80s and `90s when FEMA didn't work. During the eight years or so that the system that James Lee Witt put together survived, there were no major problems. But what you had was a president working one-on-one with a professional emergency manager who had authority and had resources. And the system served this nation very well."

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Jerry Hauer, former New York City emergency management chief and former emergency preparedness chief of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department under Bush:

"I think it's Brown (at fault) more than Chertoff. Somewhere along the line this has become a finger-pointing exercise between Chertoff and Brown, and the bottom line is neither one performed well. Chertoff certainly was lost in the whole arena of things. And Mike Brown did not completely exercise all the assets that he needed."

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Shirley Laska, director of the Center for Hazards Assessment, Response and Technology at the University of New Orleans:

"I believe Brown in his saying that he did complain from the get-go that FEMA was not being recognized as important. When Brown was not heard, he decided to (go) back-door and the only way he knew how was because of his direct connection to Bush."

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Carla Prater, associate director of the Natural Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University:

"It all points back to issues of crony capitalism. It points back to the practice in this administration of hiring people to reward people for political loyalty rather than their competence. ... I don't buy the point of Brown avoiding the chain of command because, of what I've seen, Brown attempted to follow the chain of command. I think that people didn't want to listen because it's not on their agenda."

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Michael Lindell, director of the Natural Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University:

"Brown apparently screwed up, Chertoff screwed up, and both of them were hired by Bush."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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