"Dedicated to exposing the lies and impeachable offenses of George W. Bush"

Whitewashing Katrina
Washington Post
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 16, 2006; Page A03

Lawmakers proposed a variety of ways yesterday to restructure the nation's disjointed disaster response system in reaction to the final House investigation of Hurricane Katrina, but the document's findings were quickly swept up in divisive election-year politics and the complex task of rebuilding the devastated Gulf Coast.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the panel that authored the 520-page report, "A Failure of Initiative," released yesterday, said that Congress and the White House are ready to debate proposals to restructure national emergency plans, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the federal flood insurance program, and laws that spawned a bungled $2 billion-plus effort to temporarily house evacuees.

But Democrats from hard-hit Louisiana and Mississippi, backed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said such changes, while needed, would do nothing to hold Bush administration officials accountable or speed help to 2 million victims of the Aug. 29 storm. Democrats renewed calls for an independent investigation, and accused the GOP of corruption, citing FEMA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers relief contracts with firms tied to associates of President Bush.

Bush's Katrina reconstruction coordinator, Donald E. Powell, appeared at a news conference at the Capitol late yesterday with Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D), New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D) and 12 other Louisiana leaders. Powell pledged an additional $4.2 billion in federal housing reconstruction aid -- bringing the total for the state to $12 billion -- drawing thanks and praise.

"On behalf of the people of Louisiana, I have to say a very special thank you," Blanco said, adding that the money would provide as much as $150,000 for all owners of destroyed houses, including insurance and FEMA assistance. "President Bush, we know you're committed, we know you hear, we know you care."

The partisan political maneuvering underscored the limitations of yesterday's House report, which chronicled "a national failure" at all levels of government and in the private sector before and after Katrina, including the inability of state and city leaders to fully evacuate New Orleans and the sluggish reaction by top Bush aides and the Homeland Security Department to the catastrophic flooding of the city.

The investigation produced 90 findings and 13 areas of failure that were praised as comprehensive by Democrats, who declined to participate, predicting a GOP whitewash. But they said it made few specific recommendations, such as removing Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, and did not explore key White House and Pentagon decisions.

Yesterday, Chertoff, called to testify before a separate Senate investigative panel, again defended himself from the House committee's conclusion that he exercised his duties as the nation's top disaster official "late, ineffectively or not at all," and repeated his general acceptance of responsibility for his department's performance.

"The idea that this department and this administration and the president were somehow detached from Katrina is simply not correct," Chertoff said, calling the storm "one of the most difficult and traumatic experiences of my life." But, he added, "there are many lapses that occurred."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), top Democrat on the Senate panel, faulted Chertoff for going to Atlanta for a pandemic-flu meeting on Aug. 30, the day after his department's operations center received reports of catastrophic levee breaks. Bush was on vacation in Crawford, Tex., Vice President Cheney was fly-fishing in Wyoming, and Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend were on vacation in Maine.

Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) also criticized Chertoff for saying Sept. 3 that the combination of a hurricane and flood destroying New Orleans "exceeded the foresight of planners and maybe anybody's foresight." In fact, such a scenario was studied by FEMA in 2004 and was part of repeated warnings by the National Weather Service and Homeland Security analysts in the days before Katrina hit.

"I have been through this 'fog of war' stuff in 9/11 and vividly remember it there," Chertoff said. "I have held people accountable, and I believe we have a process now that will be better."

Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.) cited roofing, water removal, temporary housing and federal agency construction contracts worth $618 million issued to Kellogg Brown & Root and the Shaw Group, firms that have hired lobbyist Joe Allbaugh, a former FEMA director and Bush's 2000 campaign manager. "You got, I think, a political scandal of enormous proportions," Dayton said.

Chertoff responded indirectly, "There's a lot to work on in FEMA."

Amid Chertoff's testimony, a D.C. man, the Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., president of Hip Hop Caucus, protested FEMA's removal of 12,000 families from an expensive subsidized hotel program. Most are going to a FEMA rental-assistance program. "Mothers and children are being thrown in the streets while trailers sit in the ground," he said.

Asked by senators about reports that trailers are going unused while hotels are being cleared, Chertoff said that hotel companies "are a little impatient . . . with tourism coming up," and that at the same time city and parish leaders have objected to putting trailer compounds in their communities.

He said mobile homes will be "stored properly . . . used in the area and for other purposes."