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Chertoff Grilled About U.S. Katrina Response

February 15, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: Questions about what went wrong in the response to Hurricane Katrina were at the top of the agenda on both sides of the capital today.

Before a Senate investigative committee Michael Chertoff, head of the Homeland Security Department and the man in charge of the effort, faced criticism from both sides of the aisle. The committee is chaired by Maine Republican Susan Collins.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: After landfall, the department far too often appeared to be frozen with indecision and nearly paralyzed by ineffective communications. Key decisions were either delayed or based on faulty information. As a result, the suffering of Katrina’s victims was worsened and prolonged.

KWAME HOLMAN: The committee’s top Democrat, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: With all the information coming in to your department’s operations center on the day that Katrina struck New Orleans, that the city was flooding and people were trapped or drowning, how could you as secretary of homeland security go to bed that night not knowing what was happening in New Orleans and get up the next morning and proceed not to New Orleans to oversee the response but to Atlanta for a conference?

KWAME HOLMAN: Chertoff acknowledged his and his department’s missteps and says he’s working on improvements.

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: I also have the responsibility to fix what’s wrong. Probably the worst element of this catastrophe personally is not criticism I’ve received or criticism the department has received by committees and commentators, but the vision of people who did have their suffering unnecessarily prolonged because this department did not perform as well as the vision of its performance suggested it should have been able to do.

KWAME HOLMAN: Michigan Democrat Carl Levin asked Chertoff how he could have missed multiple reports that New Orleans’ levees had been breached on the morning after Katrina hit.

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Something’s not working well in your shop if you are not notified of that. You have all of these communications systems right at your hand. You indicated you can be contacted within seconds. They’re with you all the time. And yet you will go to bed ten hours later without apparently being aware of the most significant event that had happened in New Orleans following land fall, which is the breach of those levees.

Who is responsible for not getting you that information from your ops center to you? Have you found out?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: I think it’s a combination. Some of these messages never got to the operations center. Some of them did but there were conflicting stories so there was an effort made to as certain what the truth was. Was there really a breach? How significant –

SEN. CARL LEVIN: Should there have been that effort made?

MICHAEL CHERTOFF: There was an effort and it should have been made. The problem is it wasn’t made — the effort did not proceed the way it should have proceeded.

KWAME HOLMAN: Chertoff’s testimony came as a Republican-run House investigative committee was releasing its 520-page report calling the federal government’s response to Katrina “a national failure, an abdication of the most solemn obligation to provide for the common welfare.” The committee said Chertoff executed his responsibilities “late, ineffectively, or not at all” before and after Katrina hit.

The report also said that Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin failed to complete a mandatory evacuation, helping lead to hundreds of deaths.

Only five Democrats participated in the committee’s investigation; two of them released a separate report today calling for Chertoff’s resignation and for an independent inquiry of the Katrina response.

The Senate investigative committee plans to release its report by mid-March.