Michael Brown stepped down as the director of FEMA Monday, but a new report from Knight Ridder walks responsibility for the Katrina debacle a little bit higher up the chain of command. While Brown has taken much of the blame for the federal government's slow response in New Orleans, Knight Ridder says that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff failed to give Brown the authority he needed to mobilize a massive federal response to Katrina until 36 hours after the storm struck land.
Who had the authority in the meantime? Michael Chertoff.
Knight Ridder says that "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." But according to a memo Chertoff wrote to other Cabinet secretaries and agency heads, the Homeland Security secretary didn't hand over that power to Brown until late afternoon or evening on Aug. 30 -- a day and a half after Katrina struck. And even then, he suggested that a to-be-launched White House task force would lead the response to Katrina and that the Department of Homeland Security would merely "assist" in that effort.
Chertoff appears not to have understood that he had the lead role in the federal government's response, Knight Ridder says. Both the National Response Plan and long-standing presidential orders give the Department of Homeland Security authority to act in the face of a national disaster without waiting for further direction from the president. The Department of Homeland Security defends Chertoff's actions, but it won't say much about what they were: So far, the department has refused to release details about the secretary's schedule during the early days of the crisis.
Former Federal Emergency Management Agency officials tell Knight Ridder that they were shocked by the slow response from Homeland Security and puzzled by Chertoff's hesitation while awaiting marching orders from above. "It shows that the president is running the disaster, the White House is running it as opposed to Brown or Chertoff," George Haddow, a deputy FEMA chief during the Clinton administration, tells Knight Ridder. Haddow says that Brown is a "convenient fall guy," but that the problem is "a system that was marginalized."
But Mike Byrne, who served as the director of the National Capital Region Coordination for Emergency Response under former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, says that the system isn't the problem. He tells Knight Ridder that the new National Response Plan isn't all that different from the old version, and he doesn't understand why things didn't work this time around. "Our history of responding to major disasters has been one where we've done it well," Byrne says. "We need to figure out why this one didn't go as well as the others did."
Yes, we do, but will we? Republicans in Congress are resisting Democrats' attempts to create a 9/11 Commission-style independent panel to investigate what went wrong in the wake of Katrina; Tom DeLay says that the Republican-controlled House and Senate are "more than capable of looking at it" themselves. And with Bush taking "responsibility" for anything that might have gone wrong, they may ultimately decide that there's no reason for them to look too hard.