Experience matters

February 16, 2006

Accepting responsibility yesterday for the gross failure of his agency during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath was the very least Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff could do.

Compared with the shameful performance last week in which Michael D. Brown, the FEMA director in charge of Katrina preparedness and response, blamed everyone but himself, Mr. Chertoff's willingness to take his lumps provided a striking contrast.

But the Katrina catastrophe was aggravated because both men came to the task with grievous shortcomings in their rM-isumM-is.

Mr. Brown was a political hack who got the Federal Emergency Management Agency job, despite a total lack of disaster relief experience, because he was a buddy of the president's buddy. But Mr. Chertoff, who gave up a lifetime seat on a federal appeals court to take over the fledging Homeland Security Department a year ago and join the cause of combating terrorism, also lacked any background in emergency management.

That inexperience contributed to Mr. Chertoff's failure to replace Mr. Brown, who had revealed himself as a malcontent and insubordinate before Katrina struck. The secretary's lack of operational expertise also inhibited him from taking charge of FEMA's inept response to Katrina until nearly two weeks after the storm flooded New Orleans.

And so much has gone wrong since then. For example, 4,400 Katrina evacuees were kicked out of New Orleans hotels this week after FEMA stopped paying their bills. Meanwhile, FEMA has at least 22,000 unused mobile homes gathering dust. And the Government Accountability Office estimates taxpayers have lost hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent claims FEMA paid to scam artists posing as Katrina victims.

The easy answer would be to dispatch Mr. Chertoff in the same unceremonious manner used for Mr. Brown. But more turmoil at the top seems the worst prescription for an unwieldy new department - and no help to FEMA, which has not found a new director.

With hurricane season due again in June, the Bush administration's top priority should be working with Congress to strengthen its emergency preparedness and ensure the nation is as ready as possible to deal with whatever blows its way.

Mr. Chertoff called this "one of the most difficult and traumatic experiences of my life." His life? He's been exposed to some valuable lessons - let's hope they make a difference.

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