Probes find plenty of blame to go around
Investigators see storm blunders from City Hall to White House
Sunday, February 26, 2006
By Bill Walsh and Bruce Alpert Washington bureau
WASHINGTON -- Even as the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina was still being assessed, a frenzy of finger-pointing and blame-fixing over government delays and failures was well under way. Advertisement
The harshest scrutiny fell first on the public officials who were most visible: New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Gov. Kathleen Blanco and then-Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown. Instant analysis made them the clear scapegoats of the unfolding disaster.
But six months, three federal investigations and dozens of public hearings later, a more complex and nuanced picture of what went wrong and why is emerging. Neither Nagin, Blanco nor FEMA are off the hook. But hindsight puts their failures into a context that shows blame can be spread much wider than it has been.
The report by the House select committee investigating the aftermath of Katrina casts a critical light on the highest levels of the federal government, concluding that officials at the Department of Homeland Security and the White House didn't understand or believe what was happening along the Gulf Coast and were slow to act.
The Senate Homeland Security Committee plans to issue its own report next month, but hearings already have revealed a complicated matrix of people and decisions that contributed to failures in the response. Here is a breakdown of what the investigations have found so far:
The White House
Investigators say the Bush administration failed to act quickly enough to rescue a drowning city. And it wasn't for a lack of warning. The day before the storm, the White House situation room was alerted to the likelihood of catastrophic flooding in New Orleans. Fourteen hours later, the prediction proved true with reports of 8 to 10 feet of water in much of southeast Louisiana. Late that night, a FEMA official in New Orleans sent a frantic message by e-mail that a levee had breached and the city was "under water."
White House officials said they were unable to verify the breach despite the presence of nine Coast Guard helicopters in the air over New Orleans. A Bush aide told House investigators that confirmation "wouldn't have changed anything we would have done" because a breach couldn't be fixed overnight. But the investigators disagreed.
"White House involvement could have spurred earlier evacuation for those trapped by the floods," according to the committee's report, "A Failure of Initiative."
Early engagement by the White House, the report said, also could have expedited Louisiana's request for federal military resources that ended up taking days to arrive.
President Bush has escaped direct criticism. But the House report portrays his advisers as being detached from the unfolding events, possibly explaining the president's comment Aug. 30 that no one "anticipated the breach of the levees."
"The enormity of Katrina seemed not to have been fully understood by the White House until at least Tuesday, Aug. 30," the report says.
Two jaw-dropping disclosures at recent Senate hearings have raised serious questions about the Department of Homeland Security and its beleaguered leader, Michael Chertoff. The first was Brown's testimony that he didn't share information with Chertoff because he considered the agency so inept that it made such conversations a "waste of time."
The second was the admission by the leader of the department's high-tech operations center, Matthew Broderick, that he headed home the night after the hurricane made landfall without warning Chertoff about reports, including an eyewitness account from a FEMA official, that the levees had breached.
Broderick, a retired Marine general, said the reports from the field were conflicting and that he didn't want to pass along "rumors" to Chertoff or Bush. He admitted that he was somewhat confused by televised images of people drinking beer in the relative high ground of the French Quarter. Broderick took full responsibility for the lapse, but Chertoff ended up taking most of the blame. In the view of the House Katrina committee, Chertoff carried out his duties "late, ineffectively or not at all."
Specifically, the House committee faulted Chertoff for waiting 36 hours after the storm hit to declare Katrina an Incident of National Significance. Had he made such a declaration earlier, preferably before Katrina made landfall, the flow of federal assets would have been accelerated, the House concluded.
Chertoff also erred by waiting until Aug. 30, the day after the hurricane made landfall, to name a principal federal official to coordinate rescue efforts, and he compounded the mistake by choosing Brown for the task, according to the House report. Brown, congressional investigators said, hadn't been trained for the job and was openly hostile to Chertoff and the Department of Homeland Security given his belief that FEMA should have remained an independent agency, not made part of Homeland Security in the government's post-Sept. 11, 2001, reorganization.
Homeland Security's slow response added to the death toll and prolonged the misery for the thousands of people trapped on rooftops or at the stifling Superdome and Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, according to the House report.
The military would be destined for a bigger role in future disasters under recommendations from a White House report released last week. The Department of Defense got mixed grades for the handling of its Katrina mission, which resulted in the biggest domestic military mobilization since the Civil War.
The House committee concluded that military efforts "improved the national response to Katrina." But it found problems, including coordination conflicts between active-duty and National Guard units.
One major shortcoming, according to the House and Senate investigations, was that the majority of the 22,000 active-duty troops called on to supplement the work of the 50,000 National Guard members didn't arrive until the weekend after the hurricane struck when evacuees at the Superdome and Convention Center already had been evacuated.
Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, the Pentagon's commander of its Katrina relief efforts, got credit for "making things happen," a John Wayne-type character, according to Nagin, who didn't let bureaucratic obstacles get in the way. Still, even he couldn't overcome the Defense Department's bureaucracy.
For example, delivery of badly needed meals ready to eat was delayed for 24 to 48 hours after the Defense Logistics Agency determined that only Defense Department-approved carriers could transport the food. Gen. Richard Rowe, the northern command's chief of operations, wrote Honore an e-mail message in which he complained of being "somewhat hamstrung by command's desire to wait for RFAs" (requests for assets) when the needs were clear to anyone watching TV.
While some troops and assets, such as helicopters, took too long to be deployed, according to the House report, in some instances troops showed up ahead of schedule and began work already being done by National Guard units. For example, a Marine amphibious unit arrived in Mississippi without transportation, forcing hard-pressed Guard officials to transport the troops and their equipment to New Orleans.
The military had access to equipment, mainly aircraft and communications systems, that Louisiana and FEMA desperately needed, and it provided invaluable help -- But not always. It took the 82nd Airborne Division nearly a week to get the 35th Infantry Division National Guard soldiers a workable radio frequency, according to congressional investigators.
In Louisiana, FEMA continues to be ridiculed for its slow delivery of trailers to evacuees and contracting practices criticized as wasteful. The House committee noted that FEMA had lost valuable staff, expertise and planning capability when it was absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The 2,500-employee agency had about 500 vacancies when Katrina hit, and some of the most experienced hands had left for the private sector. Disaster experience was in short supply at the state level, too. The House report found that "valuable time and resources were expended" providing on-the-job training to state officials at the Emergency Operations Center in Baton Rouge.
FEMA has been much-criticized for failing to deliver food, water and medical supplies, but it moved nearly 24,000 gallons of water and 43,776 MREs into the Superdome before the storm hit. The House probe partly blamed state officials who failed to pass along post-Katrina supply requests to FEMA. "Many of the highly publicized parish requests may have never reached FEMA officials," the report said.
Some delays were beyond FEMA's control. Widespread reports of lawlessness in New Orleans prompted truck drivers to refuse to enter the city without police escort.
Brown said he made a mistake by not moving Red October, a mobile communications center, into New Orleans before the hurricane. But some local officials, including those in St. Bernard Parish, also contributed to the communications failures, the House report said, when they returned satellite phones in August 2004 rather than pay a $65 per month charge.
City of New Orleans
With reports of mass desertions and police looting, the hurricane only solidified the New Orleans Police Department's dubious reputation.
Yet original reports that as many as 320 cops on the 1,750-member force had fled were overblown. The actual number was about 133, and it discounted about 100 officers trapped on the roofs of their homes. The House investigation said some police looting was for medical supplies and food.
Perhaps the biggest police failure was in preparation. The House probe said that despite warnings, the Police Department failed to move records, generators, cars and communications equipment to high ground. Similarly, Nagin designated the Superdome as a shelter of last resort, even though it is in a flood plain. Nagin later steered evacuees to the Convention Center without provision for food, water or security.
Nagin has been criticized for not ordering a mandatory evacuation before Aug. 28. But that disregards his stern public warnings a day earlier and an agreement with lower-lying parishes to let them evacuate first.
Investigators reported that two years ago Nagin wrote to the Louisiana congressional delegation spelling out the city's vulnerability to a hurricane, but that little help arrived.
The House committee said that at the height of the disaster, as Nagin was calling for help, he may have contributed to the delay. He told television talk show host Oprah Winfrey that "hundreds of armed gang members" were raping women and killing people in the Superdome, fueling an exaggerated perception of lawlessness that scared away assistance.
Nagin said he made a mistake by not moving city buses to higher ground for evacuations, but he added that they were parked in an area that had never flooded. He also said he would negotiate with the Orleans Parish School Board to use its buses, which were memorably photographed up to their roofs in water.
State of Louisiana
The House report and findings by the Senate committee fault Blanco and her administration for failing to plan adequately to help the infirm or residents without automobiles to evacuate; for not including nursing homes directly in the state's emergency rescue system after Katrina struck; and for sometimes not being specific enough about the resources the state needed. At times, the House report says, Blanco and her staff didn't go through the correct federal channels or didn't complete the required paperwork, delaying federal assistance.
When Blanco testified that the state had done its best under horrible circumstances, Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee Chairman Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she didn't see how the government could make such an assertion given its many failures. It was inexcusable, Collins said, that the state's transportation secretary acknowledged he had failed to make any headway on his assignment, issued four months before Katrina, to develop an evacuation plan for people without cars or too ill or disabled to make it out on their own.
But Blanco and her administration have been credited for getting more than 1 million people out of the New Orleans area with an effective contraflow traffic system. The Senate committee elicited comments from top Pentagon officials that Blanco was right to have resisted pressure from the White House to partially federalize the state's National Guard.
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Bruce Alpert can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 383-7861. Bill Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 383-7817.