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Wednesday, September 14, 2005
Chertoff's Turn in the Grinder

Josh has a big, big post up which looks at at a very important Knight-Ridder article entitled "Chertoff delayed federal response, memo shows."

Although the article doesn't absolve Michael Brown from all culpability for FEMA's failures, it does distribute some of the blame higher up the agency food chain by pointing out that Brown had been waiting on his boss to give him full authority to act until 36 hours after the storm hit.

Even before the storm struck the Gulf Coast, Chertoff could have ordered federal agencies into action without any request from state or local officials. Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown had only limited authority to do so until about 36 hours after the storm hit, when Chertoff designated him as the "principal federal official" in charge of the storm.


Chertoff's Aug. 30 memo for the first time declared Katrina an "Incident of National Significance," a key designation that triggers swift federal coordination. The following afternoon, Bush met with his Cabinet, then appeared before TV cameras in the White House Rose Garden to announce the government's planned action.
Knight-Ridder's reporters did some fine reporting on this story, but got a significant piece of it wrong. Although Chertoff as DHS secretary had the power to fully mobilize federal disaster response resources, that power also resided with the president. From Page 7 of the National Response Plan (PDF, 2mb):

For Incidents of National Significance that are Presidentially declared disasters or emergencies, Federal support to States is delivered in accordance with relevant provisions of the Stafford Act (see Appendix 3, Authorities and References). (Note that while all Presidentially declared disasters and emergencies under the Stafford Act are considered Incidents of National Significance, not all Incidents of National Significance necessarily result in disaster or emergency declarations under the Stafford Act.) (emphasis added)
Bush declared a State of Emergency in Louisiana on August 26 and in Mississippi a day later, meaning that from that point forward, all FEMA resources could have been put into action.

But not by Brown. According to the Knight-Ridder piece, Chertoff's redundant declaration of an Incident of National Significance on August 30 also "designated [Brown] as the 'principal federal official' in charge of the storm." Until that point, he himself had had that role. However, as indicated by the fact that he felt the need to declare Katrina a Incident of National Significance, he wasn't aware of the powers and responsibilities he had. He'd had the power to act for four days and did nothing.

He didn't even know that he was supposed to take the initiative. From the K-R article:

That same memo suggests that Chertoff may have been confused about his lead role in disaster response and that 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," Chertoff said in the memo to the secretaries of defense, health and human services and other key federal agencies.


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.
It appears Bush's handlers were looking to have him take credit for the federal response by having it credited to the "White House Task Force" rather than DHS or FEMA. This would make sense in light of Bush's reported determination not to repeat his father's failure to take Hurricane Andrew seriously enough in 1992. By taking ownership of the relief efforts he could turn the disaster to his benefit. It might have worked had he moved a lot more quickly.

Whether Chertoff's failure to put the federal disaster response machinery in operation was due to deference to Bush, his own ignorance, or a combination of both, it is nonetheless a failure of monumental proportions.

On a side note, the K-R article also features DHS spokesman Russ Knocke attempting to defend the federal relief efforts.

Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, didn't dispute that the National Response Plan put Chertoff in charge in federal response to a catastrophe. But he disputed that the bureaucracy got in the way of launching the federal response.

"There was a tremendous sense of urgency," Knocke said. "We were mobilizing the greatest response to a disaster in the nation's history."

Knocke noted that members of the Coast Guard were already in New Orleans performing rescues and FEMA personnel and supplies had been deployed to the region.
Although this reflects very well on the CG, it's meaningless in terms of DHS/FEMA, because the very nature of the CG means it doesn't have to wait for authorizations before acting. There's no time for bureaucracy when a ship is in distress; the CG just goes out and tries to rescue people. Hiding behind these brave and tireless people is yet another craven and dishonest dodge on the part of administration officials.