FEMA Failure: It Was Chertoff’s, Not Brown’s Fault

According to today’s Miami Herald, federal documents reviewed by Knight Ridder show that it was Michael Chertoff, not Michael “Brownie” Brown, who did not mobilize the Federal Emergency Management Administration soon enough. Apparently, it was well within Chertoff’s purview to mobilize the federal relief effort as early as Aug. 27 — well before Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. Brown couldn’t have done it without Chertoff’s direct order, which only came 36 hours after the hurricane hit.

While critics assailed Brown’s failure, it was actually Chertoff who didn’t move to avert disaster:

But Chertoff — not Brown — was in charge of managing the national response to a catastrophic disaster, according to the National Response Plan, the federal government’s blueprint for how agencies will handle major natural disasters or terrorist incidents. An order issued by Bush in 2003 also assigned that responsibility to the homeland security director.

A memo Chertoff issued Aug. 30 to the secretaries of defense, health and human services, and other key federal agencies demonstrated that he might have been confused about his own role and the role of his department:

“As you know, the President has established the `White House Task Force on Hurricane Katrina Response.’ He will meet with us tomorrow to launch this effort. The Department of Homeland Security, along with other Departments, will be part of the task force and will assist the Administration with its response to Hurricane Katrina.”

No explanation for Chertoff’s nonaction has been forthcoming from the Bush admin:

White House and homeland security officials would not explain why Chertoff waited about 36 hours to declare Katrina an Incident of National Significance and why he didn’t immediately begin to direct the federal response from the moment on Aug. 27 when the National Hurricane Center predicted that Katrina would strike the Gulf Coast with catastrophic force in 48 hours.

Chertoff’s hesitation and Bush’s creation of a task force both appear to contradict the National Response Plan and previous presidential directives that specify what the secretary of homeland security is assigned to do without further presidential orders. The goal of the National Response Plan is to provide a streamlined framework for swiftly delivering federal assistance when a disaster — caused by terrorists or Mother Nature — is too big for local officials to handle.

A former FEMA director under President Ronald Reagan, Gen. Julius Becton Jr., who was FEMA director from 1985-1989. expressed shock at the inaction that Chertoff’s memo suggested.

It showed that Chertoff ”does not have a full appreciation for what the country is faced with — nor does anyone who waits that long,” said

”Anytime you have a delay in taking action, there’s a potential for losing lives,” Becton told Knight Ridder. “I have no idea how many lives we’re talking about. . . . I don’t understand why, except that they were inefficient.”


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