DHS’s Chertoff Had Powers He Didn’t Exercise

Remarkable restraint: Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff had broad powers to circumvent state authorities in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina’s landfall on the Gulf Coast. Question is, why didn’t he exercise them?

According to Chris Strohm, writing for GoveExec.com, DHS could have bypassed state and local authorities to stage material and relief supplies in the critical days leading up to the storm.

The federal government has been criticized during the past week for being slow to respond to the hurricane’s impact, especially with regard to the situation in New Orleans, where levees broke on Tuesday, flooding the city, killing thousands and leaving tens of thousands stranded for days with no food, water or medical care.

Homeland Security officials have said in their defense that they pre-positioned resources before the hurricane struck, but had to wait for the states to request federal assistance before they could fully move into the affected regions.

During an interview on CBS’ Face the Nation last Sunday, Chertoff offered up another in what is becoming a long list of ultra-banal quotes:

“I think that the lesson of this hurricane, which we will clearly look at as we go over an after-action evaluation, is going to be very valuable moving forward. This was an ultracatastrophe, but we have to be prepared even for ultracatastrophes, even things that happen once in a lifetime, or once in a generation.”

The government’s National Response Plan gives DHS broad authority to respond to catastrophes, even if it means bypassing state and local governments. What isn’t clear is whether Chertoff fully used that power.

The 426-page NRP was approved last December and put into action for the first time in response to the hurricane. It includes a section titled the “Catastrophic Incident Annex,” which outlines how the government can rapidly deploy “key essential resources” during a crisis, including medical teams, urban search and rescue teams, transportable shelters, medical supplies, food and water.

From the NRP:

A catastrophic incident results in large numbers of casualties and/or displaced persons, possibly in the tens of thousands. A detailed and credible common operating picture may not be achievable for 24 to 48 hours (or longer) after the incident. As a result, response activities must begin without the benefit of a detailed or complete situation and critical needs assessment ….

Federal support must be provided in a timely manner to save lives, prevent human suffering and mitigate severe damage. This may require mobilizing and deploying assets before they are requested via normal NRP protocols ….

Standard procedures outlined in the NRP regarding requests for assistance may be expedited or, under extreme circumstances, temporarily suspended in the immediate aftermath of an incident of catastrophic magnitude, pursuant to existing law. Notification and full coordination with states occur, but the coordination process should not delay or impede the rapid mobilization and deployment of critical federal resources.

Appears Chertoff had the power and certainly the responsibility to act, but he still didn’t get the job done. He’s no James Lee Witt, that’s for sure.


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