The Miami Herald and other Knight-Ridder papers are running this story on their front page.
The federal official with the power to mobilize a massive federal response to Hurricane Katrina was Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, not the former FEMA chief who was relieved of his duties and resigned earlier this week, federal documents reviewed by Knight Ridder show.
Even before the storm struck the Gulf Coast, Chertoff could have ordered federal agencies into action without any request from state or local officials. Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown had only limited authority to do so until about 36 hours after the storm hit, when Chertoff designated him as the “principal federal official” in charge of the storm.
As thousands of hurricane victims went without food, water and shelter in the days after Katrina’s early morning Aug. 29 landfall, critics assailed Brown for being responsible for delays that might have cost hundreds of lives.
But Chertoff – not Brown – was in charge of managing the national response to a catastrophic disaster, according to the National Response Plan, the federal government’s blueprint for how agencies will handle major natural disasters or terrorist incidents. An order issued by President Bush in 2003 also assigned that responsibility to the homeland security director.
But according to a memo obtained by Knight Ridder, Chertoff didn’t shift that power to Brown until late afternoon or evening on Aug. 30, about 36 hours after Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi. That same memo suggests that Chertoff may have been confused about his lead role in disaster response and that of his department.
White House and homeland security officials wouldn’t explain why Chertoff waited some 36 hours to declare Katrina an incident of national significance and why he didn’t immediately begin to direct the federal response from the moment on Aug. 27 when the National Hurricane Center predicted that Katrina would strike the Gulf Coast with catastrophic force in 48 hours. Nor would they explain why Bush felt the need to appoint a separate task force.
Chertoff’s hesitation and Bush’s creation of a task force both appear to contradict the National Response Plan and previous presidential directives that specify what the secretary of homeland security is assigned to do without further presidential orders. The goal of the National Response Plan is to provide a streamlined framework for swiftly delivering federal assistance when a disaster – caused by terrorists or Mother Nature – is too big for local officials to handle.
According to the National Response Plan, which was unveiled in January by Chertoff’s predecessor, Tom Ridge, the secretary of homeland security is supposed to declare an Incident of National Significance when a catastrophic event occurs.
“Standard procedures regarding requests for assistance may be expedited or, under extreme circumstances, suspended in the immediate aftermath of an event of catastrophic magnitude,” according to the plan, which evolved from earlier plans and lessons learned after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “Notification and full coordination with the States will occur, but the coordination process must not delay or impede the rapid deployment and use of critical resources.”
Should Chertoff have declared Katrina an Incident of National Significance sooner – even before the storm struck? Did his delay slow the quick delivery of the massive federal response that was needed? Would it have made a difference?
“You raise good questions,” said Frank J. Cilluffo, the director of George Washington University’s Homeland Security Planning Institute. It’s too early to tell, he said, whether unfamiliarity with or glitches in the new National Response Plan were factors in the poor early response to Katrina.
“Clearly this is the first test. It certainly did not pass with flying colors,” Cilluffo said of the National Response Plan.
You can read the memo (PDF) here.
While it’s clear that Michael Brown had troubles of his own making and will probably go down in history as the butt of jokes (i.e. a take-off on the UPS slogan, “Hey, New Orleans, what can Brown do for you? Not much!”), there are some other questions that need to be asked at the top, too.