Key planner criticizes Homeland Security

Emergency plan designer says agency's response to Katrina was too slow

Katrina's Wake

September 07, 2005|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The retired admiral who played a key role in drafting the Homeland Security Department's catastrophic emergency plan said the agency was too hesitant in executing it in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Retired Adm. James Loy, who until February was acting secretary of the department, said in an interview yesterday that the need for an immediate federal response was "pretty evident" but that the department did not act fast enough to take the lead.

The National Response Plan, completed last December, makes the secretary of Homeland Security the top authority in a catastrophic emergency. Loy said the plan, which he still believes is a "very good product," was supposed to resolve the question of who's in charge. But "turf protection crap" got in the way, he said.

An internal memo obtained by the Associated Press suggests a lackadaisical attitude also might have played a role. The memo shows that the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, waited until after Katrina was striking the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29 to ask his boss to send 1,000 Homeland Security employees to the region and suggested that they be given two days to get there.

Brown also said in the memo that one of the duties of those employees was to "convey a positive image" of the government's disaster response, according to the AP report.

Brown's boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, also did not act with great urgency. He waited until Aug. 30 - a day and a half after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast - to invoke the National Response Plan to take control of the disaster.

In doing so, Chertoff declared the situation an "incident of national significance," which put him in charge of the overall effort - trumping the authority of state and local officials and FEMA, which was folded into Homeland Security after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Once Chertoff made the declaration, he designated FEMA's Brown as his top man on the ground.

The plan was designed to cut through bureaucratic red tape, but its execution got bogged down in it, said those who watched the response up close.

The problem, said Loy, was that the plan was tested on what will probably turn out to be the largest natural disaster in the country's history. "There was no crawl before you walk," he said.

The plan allowed Brown to call the shots on how state and federal resources should be used, including the Defense Department. Instead, Loy said, the federal government used a slow "bureaucratic licensing process," in which it waited until local and state governments were overwhelmed before stepping in and waited again before asking the Pentagon, "the ultimate resource provider," to help.

"For God's sake," Loy said, the Defense Department gets "$450 billion a year to do what the federal government needs to get done."

The Pentagon has been careful to act only when invited, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday went out of his way yesterday to note that "the way it's arranged under our constitution ... the state and local officials are the first responders."

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco did not ask for help from the National Guard until Thursday and still refuses to share authority over the Guard with the federal government. She is also creating her own base of emergency management power by enlisting former FEMA director James Lee Witt to run emergency operations for her.

Loy said the execution of the new national plan was also impeded by mixed messages. FEMA's Brown is Chertoff's man on the ground, Loy said, and yet everyone from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore were holding news conferences as if they were in charge.

"I would have expected the principal federal official [Brown] would have a once-a-day news conference down there," Loy said, adding that there's ample guidance in the national plan. "Heck, we even developed a public affairs index to the plan."

Yesterday, Maryland Democrat Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California both called for Brown to be fired. And Mikulski is co-sponsoring a bill with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to take FEMA out of Homeland Security and make it a Cabinet-level agency.

In response to the criticism of a lack of control on the ground, Chertoff recently designated Vice Adm. Thad Allen, chief of staff of the Coast Guard, to run the effort in New Orleans.

Loy, a former Coast Guard commandant, called Allen "one of the most capable officers" he has worked with and one who doesn't wait for an invitation to act. Art Botterell, a former FEMA field operative who now consults for the Homeland Security Department, said the confusion he saw in the response to Katrina was not unprecedented.

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