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JEFFREY BROWN: This is New Orleans more then two weeks after Katrina hammered the city. Boats not cars still navigate many streets and teams go house to house searching for the dead.
Yesterday President Bush took partial responsibility for the chaotic response to the disaster. Mr. Bush — who had resisted calls to account as “the blame game” — said the system may still not be prepared.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government. And to the extent that the federal government didn’t fully do its job right I take responsibility. Are we capable of dealing with a severe attack or another severe storm? And that’s a very important question and it’s in our national interest that we find out exactly what went on and — so that we can better respond.
JEFFREY BROWN: Communications after Katrina struck were haphazard or nonexistent. Lines of authority across all levels of government seemed unclear.
On Aug. 31, the federal Department of Homeland Security –
MICHAEL CHERTOFF: President Bush has declared a –
JEFFREY BROWN: — declared Katrina a “incident of national significance,” making the federal government the lead coordinator in the crisis. But mayhem persisted.
WOMAN: All the neighbors floated by, so everybody’s trying to help me save him.
JEFFREY BROWN: State and local officials blasted efforts to save New Orleans.
MAYOR RAY NAGIN: I’ve talked directly with the president. I’ve talked to the head of the homeland security. I’ve talked to everybody under the sun. They don’t have a clue what’s going on down here.
JEFFREY BROWN: Federal officials in charge said some state and local governments had not acted with dispatch.
A presidential visit on September 2 sought to quiet criticisms of the government’s response.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: My attitude is if it’s not going exactly right, we’re going to make it go exactly right.
JEFFREY BROWN: The question of how to make it right persists. Today with Katrina very much on their minds, former members of the 9/11 Commission released a new report card on the status of emergency preparations proposals first made last year.
Thomas Kean was co-chair of the commission.
THOMAS KEAN: What is frustrating to us is many of the same problems we saw in 9/11 in response to that disaster.
JEFFREY BROWN: Commission member Former Congressman Timothy Roemer:
TIMOTHY ROEMER: We have proposed a set of answers that for the last year have been dangling out in the winds. Since that time, we have had a Category Four hurricane named Katrina test those recommendations and the public response and we’ve had inexcusable and unacceptable failure in that system.
SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: The committee will come to order.
JEFFREY BROWN: Congress has opened hearings into the failed initial response to Katrina, though there are calls on Capitol Hill and elsewhere for an independent review board modeled on the 9/11 Commission.
JEFFREY BROWN: And joining us now to look at Katrina and the state of emergency response is Former Congressman Lee Hamilton, who served as vice-chairman of the 9/11 Commission.
JEFFREY BROWN: Congressman Hamilton, let me put the president’s question to you directly: Are we capable of dealing with a severe attack or another severe storm?
Congressman Hamilton, let me put the president’s question to you directly: Are we capable of dealing with a severe attack or another severe storm?
LEE HAMILTON: We certainly are not capable of dealing with a very severe attack at least to the extent that we would like to be. We said repeatedly during the 9/11 Commission hearings that we are safer but not safe.
I don’t think we are as safe as I thought we were prior to Katrina. The fact of the matter is that on key elements you mentioned a moment ago several of them, a unified command, communications, careful planning, and emergency response, we’re falling far short of where we would like to be four years after 9/11.
JEFFREY BROWN: Were you and other members of the commission surprised four years later and after all the work that you’ve done? Were you surprised by what happened after Hurricane Katrina?
LEE HAMILTON: I was surprised and I must say somewhat discouraged as well, because we had heard repeatedly from agency after agency about the steps that had been taken to make the American people more secure.
I understand that a lot of these steps are difficult to take. A lot of hard choices have to be made. A lot of judgments have to be made about what you protect and what you don’t protect and how you do it or how you don’t do it but even so, immediately after Katrina I found myself discouraged that we had not made more progress than I thought we had.
JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned one of the failures sited in today’s report — the absence of unified command. Another one I know you talked about was lack of communications. Are there specific things that flow from your work on the 9/11 Commission that could address those specific things?
LEE HAMILTON: Well, I think so. It’s very clear after 9/11 to us and we mentioned it repeatedly in the report and I think very clear after Katrina that somebody has to be in charge. You cannot run a disaster relief effort by multiple agencies and departments. You can’t do it by committee.
The most important single thing that has to be done I believe as quickly as possible after a disaster has struck is to have a unified command so that the hundreds of decisions — and there are hundreds of them that have to be made quickly about personnel and equipment and rescuing people and alleviating suffering and all of the rest — can be made quickly.
There was not a unified command in New York in 9/11. There was not a unified command quickly enough after Katrina. And it was a major fault but not the only one.
JEFFREY BROWN: And why do you think that the problem persists?
LEE HAMILTON: Because it’s a very difficult problem that calls for a lot of hard choices. Sitting down before the fact and saying the president or secretary or the governor is going to be in charge in the event of a disaster, is not an easy matter, easy to say but not a very easy matter to work out.
And establishing priorities ahead of time is not easy. They all call for hard choices. You choose to protect this; you don’t protect that. You choose to defend against this kind of a disaster and not that kind. And of course, the difficulty here for the policymaker is that they can be wrong, and politicians and policy people don’t like to be wrong.
We on the commission understand that very tough, difficult, hard choices have to be made when you’re putting together a plan or a strategy to deal with the disaster. That, however, is not an excuse not to make those choices. They have to be made and they had to be made ahead of time or you have a disaster that will impact far more people then if you had the plan in place.
JEFFREY BROWN: It’s notable in your report card today that you issued that you cite the lack of progress at all levels of government. So it’s the executive branch, Congress, local government; you also cite the private sector. So this is — you see a continuing widespread problem.
LEE HAMILTON: Well I do indeed. There are many areas of responsibility in dealing with a disaster or trying to prevent a disaster or trying to mitigate a disaster and you have to have effective coordination and cooperation throughout the levels of government and as you suggest, not only in government but with the private sector too. And getting that level of a cooperation and coordination is very difficult to achieve but also essential.
This is a test of leadership really. Hard choices are necessary. They have to be made in order to protect the American people and it’s a test of the system. It’s a test of our political system to be able to do this and I hope we’ll be able after Katrina now to respond positively and make rapid improvements to make the American people more secure.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you say you hope; you said with you were discouraged when you saw what happened. Do you think from all your experience and from what you saw working on the 9/11 Commission do you think things will change now?
LEE HAMILTON: I think so. I think we all have to bear down a little harder — those of us on the outside — and make the policymakers respond. There’s some good things happening. We say the allocation of funds must being allocated on the basis of risk not on the basis of politics.
There’s a good bill moving through the Congress now, already passed the House, a little less good bill in the Senate, but a much improvement over what we have. I think that will be enacted into law.
I think will enact into law before the year is out an allocation of the radio spectrum so that the first responders can communicate with one another. But that has to be done. You must have communication among first-responders at the scene.
So things are happening in many areas that are positive but overall I still think there is not the urgency that we would like to see. Another disaster will strike — we don’t know whether it’s tomorrow or to next day or twenty years from now — but it will strike, and we should have a sense of urgency to get things done.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Lee Hamilton served as Vice Chairman of 9/11 Commission.
Thank you very much for joining us.
LEE HAMILTON: Thank you.