Chertoff may get bulk of blame for faulty response

Homeland security chief has responsibility over much-maligned FEMA

Katrina's Wake

September 03, 2005|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Michael Chertoff, a tough-talking ex-prosecutor, drew generally high marks after he took over as head of the struggling Department of Homeland Security earlier this year.

But now, as he confronts a natural disaster for the first time, Chertoff's reputation may be about to get a sharp downgrade. By most accounts, the federal response to Hurricane Katrina has been somewhere between clueless, as the mayor of New Orleans termed it, and "not acceptable," as President Bush said yesterday.

When Bush toured the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast, Chertoff was at his side. And Chertoff will be the public face of the administration this weekend, with appearances scheduled on all the networks' Sunday talk shows.

Criticism of the government's handling of the storm's aftermath has centered, to a large degree, on the Federal Emergency Management Agency, long responsible for helping Americans cope with natural disaster. But that criticism lags, to a certain extent, behind the post-9/11 reality of how the government is supposed to work.

Yesterday, for example, Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, who joined Bush for a portion of his tour, released a statement calling on the president to appoint "a Cabinet-level official to direct the national response to this tragedy."

There already is such an official: Chertoff, whose department now includes FEMA - no longer an independent agency - and thus has overall responsibility for managing the federal government's disaster response.

The senator's statement was, in effect, a vote of no confidence in Chertoff's performance. It may not be the last.

Members of both major parties, from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist on down, are already calling for investigations into what Republican Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine and Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut describe as "the lack of preparedness and inadequate response to this terrible storm." Collins and Lieberman announced the first of what will likely be multiple congressional probes.

Chertoff shares Bush's dissatisfaction with the results of the government's response, said Russ Knocke, his spokesman.

"No one is satisfied," Knocke said.

Michael Lindell, of Texas A&M University's Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center, said that Chertoff doesn't deserve a "passing grade" for his work over the past week. Like other emergency management specialists, Lindell said the federal government had failed to make adequate plans for a natural disaster forecast days in advance.

Preparing for catastrophes, both man-made and natural, is why the Homeland Security Department was created, as part of Washington's response to the 9/11 attacks.

Chertoff, 51, gave up a lifetime appointment as a federal appellate judge to head the struggling department in February, calling the campaign against terrorism "the greatest challenge of our generation."

The New Jersey native was running the Justice Department's criminal division on Sept. 11, 2001. He lost close friends in the attacks, a factor, he has said, that added motivation to his work in crafting the government's aggressive pursuit of terrorists and terrorist suspects.

But his law enforcement background did not prepare him for Katrina, said David Godschalk, an urban planing professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who specializes in disaster mitigation.

"He doesn't have the emergency management experience," Godschalk said.

Former Sept. 11 commission member Tim Roemer also questioned Chertoff's qualifications for dealing with the consequences of a catastrophic storm.

"Certainly the Department of Homeland Security has gotten good grades for the response and reorganization in the last few months under Secretary Chertoff," Roemer said. "But planning and strategy is very different from reacting and implementing a plan to save people."

Knocke, the spokesman, said Chertoff's post-9/11 experience at the Justice Department prepared him for his current responsibilities. But that experience is inadequate, said one 20-year employee of FEMA, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job.

The FEMA employee blamed the slow federal response on the inexperience of Chertoff and his top advisers. He said the first thing Chertoff should have done was establish FEMA liaison officers for each state, and a local leader to closely monitor and respond to their needs.

When the complaints began about the lack of food and water in New Orleans, Chertoff should have ensured that every bus that arrived in the city to rescue residents also carried supplies for the thousands of people who would have to wait hours or days for transportation.

Those practices had been standard at the agency, said the employee, who added: "We have been sitting here for three days, and we have been so frustrated. Some of us are just in tears."

Knocke said that a renewed federal mobilization is under way, and "the American public is going to be extremely proud" of that effort.

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