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Chertoff Says He Is Responsible for Katrina Failures
February 15, 2006

Feb. 15 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told a Senate panel today that he is responsible for the federal government's failures in responding to Hurricane Katrina and he promised to "fix what's wrong" with his department before the next hurricane season begins.

Chertoff, who was in his job six months when Katrina struck Aug. 29, said he answers for the performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which his department oversees, and also has the "responsibility to fix what's wrong."

Chertoff called Katrina a storm of "unprecedented magnitude" and "one of the most difficult and traumatic experiences of my life." He said the department must work to improve its communications, particularly between FEMA and the department, and better track movement of recovery supplies.

"I was astonished to see that we don't have the capabilities most 21st century corporations have," he said.

Senators were uniformly critical of the Homeland Security Department's response to the storm, and most said Chertoff should have done more in its aftermath to ease the suffering of Americans who lacked basic necessities. Still, none went so far as Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who said early last month that Chertoff should step down.

Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said Chertoff's job is safe.

President George W. Bush "likens forced resignations to an admission of culpability on his part," Mann said. The president probably has gone as far as he's willing with the resignation of FEMA's former director, Michael Brown, Mann said.

`Had to Replace Brown'

Chertoff today told the Senate panel he realized days after Katrina struck that Brown should be replaced "at least in Louisiana."

Brown, in testimony before the panel on Friday, blamed Chertoff for FEMA's problems in responding to the storm and said he thought conversations with Chertoff during the storm response were "wasting his time."

Chertoff today said Brown's decision to bypass his superiors at the Department of Homeland Security was "astonishing." He added: "If I had known then what I know now about Mr. Brown's agenda, I would done something different."

Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman said Brown should have been replaced. "Somebody didn't tell the president he's got a FEMA director that is in way over his head," Coleman said. "This was the perfect storm of poor leadership."

Reviews Ending

Congressional review of the government's response to Katrina is winding down. The Senate panel has held more than 20 hearings and may issue its report next month. A special House committee released its report today. The administration's review is expected later this month.

Katrina, one of the deadliest U.S. disasters on record, killed about 1,200 people. The Bush administration to date has sought $105 billion for repairs and reconstruction.

Katrina forced 770,000 out of their homes, the greatest displacement since the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s, Chertoff said today. The storm destroyed or made uninhabitable 300,000 homes, he said.

Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who chairs the Senate panel, told Chertoff his department's response was a "failure," "plagued by indecision and delay." Its inability to prepare for a storm with days of warning bodes ill for its ability to prepare for unexpected terrorist attacks, she said.

"The federal department that was supposed to lead, direct and coordinate the federal response to Katrina, was time and again late, uncertain and ineffective," she said. "The list of critical tasks done either late or not at all is staggering."

House Criticism

The House committee report faults Chertoff for not declaring the hurricane an incident of national significance when the National Weather Service forecast its severity two days before it hit. That designation would have triggered a plan to name an experienced federal leader to prepare for and respond to the storm.

Chertoff also waited too long to convene a board of experienced advisers even though White House officials pressured Matthew Broderick, the Homeland Security Department's director of operations coordination, to do so, the report says.

`Aware of Risk'

Chertoff defended some of the department's actions before the storm, emphasizing that a federal emergency was declared in Louisiana ahead of Katrina, one of the few times that had ever been done before a hurricane's landfall.

"We were acutely aware of Katrina and the risk it posed," he said.

The Senate panel opened hearings on Katrina in September and Chertoff's appearance before it today was his first. Earlier witnesses have testified to government failures in responding to the storm and in its aftermath.

Collins has said the panel's report will recommend the creation of emergency operation teams made up of personnel from the Defense, Homeland Security Health and Human Services and other departments who would focus on specific regions of the country.

To contact the reporters on this story:
Jeff Bliss in Washington at  jbliss@bloomberg.net
Nicholas Johnston in Washington at  njohnston3@bloomberg.net.