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House Lawmakers Discuss the Katrina Report

February 15, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: For a closer look now at the findings of the House Select Committee that investigated the preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina, I’m joined by its chairman, Republican Tom Davis of Virginia, and one of five Democrats who participated informally in the deliberations, Louisiana Democrat Charlie Melancon. He and a Democratic colleague released their own addendum to the report today. Welcome to you both.

Congressman Davis, this is I would say a blistering report. And you called it a failure of initiative and a failure of leadership. What were the most vivid examples of that in your findings after your investigation that led you to that conclusion?

REP. THOMAS DAVIS: I mean, the results are very, very clear. There was no unified command between the state, local and federal government. We had a plan and, in fact, they had run preliminary tests on something called Hurricane Pam. None of this was implemented.

Michael Brown, who was the agent on the ground for the federal government, really was doing his own thing the old way and wasn’t acting in response to their emergency plans that they had outlined. And as a result of that, a lot of things went wrong.

There was bad communications up and down the chain of command at the federal level. And in some cases they were relying on CNN and Fox News to be able to get information in making decisions on that.

MARGARET WARNER: Who do you hold to blame for that or accountable for that?

REP. THOMAS DAVIS: Well, I think, you know, ultimately you’ve got to look at the federal government. There were bad decisions made across the board. The Weather Service predicted this hurricane over 50 hours in advance. For years this had been predicted and everybody knew what could happen if a major Category 3, 4, 5 storm hit the area.

And it was like after it hit, nobody understood how bad it was going to be. There weren’t enough supplies on the ground. We didn’t have enough people to keep law and order. Ultimately I think this goes up the chain of command to the executive branch.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And, Congressman Melancon, though you didn’t sign this report you did participate in the whole investigation. Do you share the views of the committee report?

REP. CHARLIE MELANCON: Yes I do. I have to commend Chairman Davis. I think he did a great job. The timeframe was short. Even though we’ve asked for an independent commission, I think that the job that the committee did, bipartisan-wise, they should be commended. Their chairman should be commended.

There’s more that we would like to know. There’s questions that are unanswered but our tenure expires here in the next several days. And with the timeframe we had, we’ve laid the ground work. If there’s a need or oversight decides, they can go forward and use that as a basis from which to go forward.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Melancon, let me continue with you. And there were a lot of things that you ticked off in the report that went wrong and Congressman Davis cited some of those. There seemed to be an umbrella criticism which was that there was a national response plan but it was followed — it was, quote, executed late, ineffectively or not all. And under that category there were a lot of things, a lot of criticisms for the Department of Homeland Security and even the Secretary Chertoff.

What were the responsibilities of the department? Are you saying there was actually a plan that if executed properly would have averted a lot of this disaster?

REP. CHARLIE MELANCON: Well, last year there was I think a million dollars spent to have a practice or a demonstration that was referred to as Hurricane Pam. Hurricane Pam laid out scenarios for the worst case disaster that they thought could happen on the Gulf Coast and particularly in the metropolitan area around New Orleans. It occurred. It was worse than anybody ever envisioned it was.

But the problem was with Hurricane Pam, they had the exercise. They did the drill, and then there was no follow-up by the agency to implement any of the recommendations or put it into an action plan so that they could effectively respond.

MARGARET WARNER: By the agency you mean Homeland Security.


MARGARET WARNER: All right. And, Congressman Davis, your assessment of the performance of the Department of Homeland Security which was set up to essentially deal with things like this.

REP. THOMAS DAVIS: Well, it was inadequate. First of all, although everybody said they understood this was going to be the most severe storm in history, we did not have enough supplies on the ground. We didn’t have enough people on the ground once the storm hit. So they underestimated the impact. And that was mistake number one.

Secondly, the federal government wasn’t talking to itself very well — the communication between Washington and there. But more importantly the state, local and federal government never got a unified command to make decisions on evacuations and the like.

New Orleans evacuated. This was the best evacuation they had ever had as a city. But, once again, they didn’t get everybody out. And everybody that stayed behind then created a problem.

MARGARET WARNER: But I mean, if I may interrupt, what particular –let’s say it’s three days before the hurricane and, okay, there’s been a failure of planning along the year. But what could Secretary Chertoff have done at that point?

REP. THOMAS DAVIS: They could have, (a) they could have pre-positioned a lot more ice, food, that kind of thing, water on the ground for emergency use. We could have had different evacuation centers than they had.

People just came up to the convention center because it was on high ground. There were really — you didn’t have any meals or water or anything that were supplied there. The whole infrastructure was completely overwhelmed.

So we didn’t have enough elements on the ground; we didn’t have enough troops on the ground either to maintain law and order. Now, part of this would be under unified command where the state, locals and federal would work together.

But at the end of the day with a storm of this size the federal government has got to take the lion’s share of the credit or blame for what happens. In the local jurisdictions the lower parishes did a pretty good job of evacuating people. But Orleans Parish did not. Some of the hardest people to get out, people without public transportation and the like did not get out and it created a huge problem.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Melancon, the report says that Secretary Chertoff should have declared this, a quote, incident of national significance at least the latest by Saturday before the storm hit and convened a special group under that. What difference would that have made?

REP. CHARLIE MELANCON: I think first of all if you go back to the Saturday, no declarations were made and Mr. Chertoff was at home working. Vice President Cheney was out in Wyoming. The president was in Crawford.

Even though the media nationwide was broadcasting the intensity of the storm as it started to build, well, Friday afternoon is when they got to the point that it said this is going to be a very dangerous storm, and all the satellite photos indicated and showed that. That’s when I think the government should have engaged. That’s when DHS and FEMA should have engaged, they should have started the process of pre-positioning troops, equipment, water, food, medical supplies, Medevac, whatever, and be prepared for it. That didn’t happen.

And it wasn’t until the day after the storm, if I recall correctly, the Tuesday that the declaration was made. And at that point in time, knowing what we know now, they probably should have made a declaration of catastrophic event which, as I appreciate it, would have triggered all agencies responding with everything they had without having to go through any bureaucratic red tape or processing.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Congressman Davis, the report also says that the president himself could have been involved, should have been involved sooner. It might have been a, quote, more effective response. In what way should he have been involved and what difference would that have made?

REP. THOMAS DAVIS: The federal government pre-positioned a record amount of supplies and elements on the ground. It just wasn’t enough. This storm was as bad as everybody said it would be.

And I also think from a presidential point of view, it would have been I think more helpful if he had come in earlier. When the president says get something done, it seems to get done faster than if Michael Brown says get something done in terms of moving all of the elements and all of the assets of the federal government to move very, very quickly.

REP. CHARLIE MELANCON: And, if I could, I think if you take a look at it and with all due respect to the president, I don’t know that he got briefed to the extent that he should have been from FEMA on up, from the DOD on up.

You know, it’s a matter of whether these people understood the intensity of the storm, the catastrophic occurrence that took place, or whether they just thought it was another hurricane and they get down there and start cleaning the streets and —

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Melancon, let me follow up on one thing. One big difference when you all called for and what the Republican report does is that you’re calling actually for Secretary Chertoff to resign. Why? And then I want to hear from Congressman Davis about why he doesn’t agree.

REP. CHARLIE MELANCON: Well, my people back home aren’t comfortable whatsoever. They’re nervous already because we don’t have the levees that are needed. We’re three months away from hurricane season. They don’t have their homes. They’re not back in there. Their entire lives are shattered. A lot of them don’t have jobs. The families are separated. They’ve been living out of hotels or little trailers or whatever.

They need to have, I think, instilled in them some confidence that their government is there to help them. This is a helping hand thing. It’s not a handout. And what we need and what has transpired thus far is not going to take care of the problems.

And so one of the things and if you look at the report, the ineffectiveness, the non-response whatsoever that goes right up to the top management, if I ran a corporation and I ran it as badly as this exercise got run, I would think that my board of directors were to run me off before now.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Davis.

REP. THOMAS DAVIS: Well, look, I think that Secretary Chertoff has done a very good job in areas of prevention which is what we want Homeland Security to do, but as a first responder agency it just has a long, long way to go.

And one answer instead of just firing Chertoff and some of the changes he’s making over in some of the other areas of the department might be to relieve this particular responsibility, this first responder responsibility that you see in FEMA, and move it somewhere else where it will probably get a little bit better response.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Congressman Davis and Congressman Melancon, thank you both.