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Chertoff Discusses Response to Katrina Report

February 15, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Secretary Chertoff, welcome.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Good to be here.

GWEN IFILL: As you just heard Charlie Melancon from Louisiana, the Democrat, has called on you to resign as have a few other Democrats and Republicans on this House committee have said that your performance was late, ineffective or not at all. Why shouldn’t you resign?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Of course, my public trust here is really to serve the president and the public. As long as the president believes I can make a contribution, I am — I stand ready to serve and continue to do so and to work to move DHS to I think the objective we all have: A fully integrated all hazards agency that operates from prevention through protection to response.

GWEN IFILL: The House report was 520 pages. The Senate says they’ve had about 20 hearings on this. You’ve clearly done some of your own internal investigation. What would you say – what would you identify now as the major problems that brought about that catastrophe?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: I think they really fall into two categories. One is preparedness. There was, in fact, some planning done. I don’t think that this possibility has been a big secret. I think for 20 years people have known that there was a possibility of a hurricane that would hit New Orleans dead on and cause a huge catastrophe.

But when it actually unfolded, some of the very specific things you need to ask: Where are the buses in the city? How do they get out? How do we move transportation in if we need it? Some of that stuff was not fully considered and planned for. And in the middle of the event it’s often difficult to do planning on the fly, so to speak.

The second thing was a lack of awareness of what was going on, on the ground. Now I was a decision-maker. And I was constantly struggling to get an accurate picture of what the circumstances were in New Orleans. Part of that was a lack of communications equipment. Part of it was not having people trained to go in, in that kind of environment and report back in a calm and collected manner. And the lack of that kind of awareness really makes it hard to reach intelligent decisions in a very fast-moving environment.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Secretary, you talk about lack of awareness. Were you surprised in last Friday’s Senate hearings to hear Michael Brown, the former FEMA chief, say that he wouldn’t bother to talk to you?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Gwen, I’ve been in and out of government for a couple of decades. And I’ve been at all levels. I don’t ever think I had the experience that I had on Friday hearing a subordinate essentially not only admit but boast of the fact that he was insubordinate. I think that was a serious mistake.

And the Sunday before the hurricane I got on a video conference call with about 50 people from the state and from the federal government. I said at the end, look, if there’s anything you need from DHS, we are right here to give it to you. I essentially handed him the keys to the kingdom in terms of assets and support he needed across the entire federal government; that he chose not to use that I think was a very serious mistake. And at that time I thought it was a consequence, just the difficulties of dealing with the situation. His explanation last Friday frankly shocked me.

GWEN IFILL: In spite of your disagreements with Mr. Brown, you have now testified that you would personally take full responsibility for everything that happened with Katrina. What does that mean exactly?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, you know, when I came into the job six months before Katrina. I knew that we had serious issues in what was a very young department. And in July, the month before, I got up and I told Congress we are not where we need to be in preparedness.

And I started to begin to lay out a plan for getting us to a state of preparedness that would be much more effective. The hurricane didn’t wait for me to get that plan underway. But nevertheless, it is my responsibility. And the people there look to my leadership not only on an official level but on a personal level.

I was deeply disappointed and pained and frustrated to see people in the Superdome with I myself calling, you know, regularly saying — When are the buses coming; when are the buses coming — and not have the buses arrive. So I feel both an official and a personal sense of responsibility for this.

The outcome, the only redeeming outcome of this is a very keen sense of the lessons we have to put into effect for this coming hurricane season.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about the future for a moment. I think it was Sen. Akaka today who said that this was not about the size of the disaster but the quality of the response. How would you improve that response?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, we’ve got to make some basic changes at least in the short run in the way FEMA’s business processes operate. That means we’ve got to give them contracts where they’ve got to get into contracts with suppliers that give them real visibility as to where supplies are. They’ve got to build a 21st Century calling system for people who are going to register. They have to have real communication systems. And we are already creating teams that we can insert into a disaster with full communications and with the right training to operate under very difficult conditions.

The second thing, though, is something we’re going to have to do with state and local partners. The fact of the matter is the principal brunt of disaster still falls on state and local first responders. They’re the ones who are there when the incident hits. They have to be fully integrated with us.

Third, we’ve got to get the Defense Department to train and exercise with us. We’ve already talked to Northern Command, they’re putting some of their planners in with our FEMA people regionally.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: We’re going to put some preparedness people out regionally. And the idea is to have cells of trained and exercised people who can work with their state and local counterparts as soon as an incident hits.

GWEN IFILL: Is that the 1500- member response team that you proposed the other day?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: First of all, the number 1500 I think was more of a reporter’s guess than a reality. That was a second issue. Once the immediate response is done, we’ve got essentially victims we have to serve.

And unlike the traditional model where the victims come to us in disaster relief centers, Katrina gave us an example of a situation where the victims evacuate. We have to go out to them.

And that means we have to rely less on volunteers and more on a trained cadre of people around whom we can build volunteers who understand the programs and understand how to get out and reach people much more quickly than we did in Katrina.

GWEN IFILL: Are these new employees you’re talking about adding another layer of employees at FEMA, or are you talking about rearranging people who are already there?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Well, we may add some new employees to FEMA; we may take people who are at FEMA and we may train them for this so that when an incident occurs, we can deploy them in the field. Those are the kinds of specifics that I want to work with, the FEMA officials with in order to figure out what is the most effective way to achieve our goal.

GWEN IFILL: And you believe FEMA should still remain under your aegis in the Department of Homeland Security?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: I’ll tell you, Gwen, that had FEMA not been part of DHS, things would have been worse. It was the fact we were able to step in a couple of days into this incident when it was clear that things were really beginning to fail that allowed us to start to have Coast Guard and TSA and other parts of the department pick up a lot of the slack.

So I think the answer here is not to pull apart what has been put together but is to complete the job of integration that will give us the department that the Congress expected to see when it created it and the public now expects to exist in the future.

GWEN IFILL: And finally today at the hearing that you attended where you testified a gentleman stood up in the audience and he said that he — what about the victims of Katrina? What about the people who are still homeless? In fact, what about the people who no longer can get the federal government to pay for hotel rooms because a court decided this week that FEMA no longer has to pick up that check — what do you say to those people who are now trying to figure out what to do next?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: I want to be real clear. The fact that we’re not paying directly for hotels only means that we are going to give people money directly to find housing. We’re working with them to get them into trailers. We’re working to locate apartments and we are giving them — those who are eligible — financial assistance.

Now we understand that people are still traumatized. What we want to try to do is give them the money and the help to get into a more stable living situation and not have them living out of suitcases in hotels.

We know it’s difficult when people have lost all of their lives to see the possibility of having to make yet another move. But we’ve got to begin to give people a bit of stability, a bit of hope as the difficult but important process of rebuilding New Orleans goes forward.

GWEN IFILL: Secretary Michael Chertoff, thank you very much.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: Thank you, Gwen.