The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Disaster Buck Stopped at Chertoff, Not Brown

by Jessica Azulay

Protocols enacted last year place responsibility for federal disaster management on the DHS chief’s desk – what’s more, they give no indication that he can pass that authority on to the FEMA director.

Sept. 15, 2005 – According to rules enacted by the Bush administration, the hailstorm of criticism targeted at the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be spread to the head of the Department of Homeland Security. Though FEMA’s director at the time, Michael Brown, has been widely blamed for the glacial and inadequate federal response to Katrina, December 2004 protocols put in place by the Department of Homeland Security clearly show Brown’s boss, Michael Chertoff, was technically in charge from the beginning.

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According to the National Response Plan, enacted to coordinate the federal handling of terrorist attacks or natural disasters, primary responsibility for coordinating aid and support to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina sat squarely on the shoulders of the Homeland Security secretary. A DHS memo from Chertoff shows that he did not put Brown in charge until two days after the hurricane slammed into Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

The National Response Plan, which was enacted by DHS under a presidential directive, plainly outlines the chain of command for local, state and federal agencies when dealing with a large disaster. In cases in which "resources of State and local authorities are overwhelmed and federal assistance has been requested," the plan designates the DHS secretary as the "principal Federal official" for "domestic incident management."

Officials in the three most-affected states requested federal assistance for dealing with the hurricane before the storm struck, which, according to the Plan, would have automatically placed Chertoff in charge of "coordinating Federal resources utilized in response to or recovery from" Katrina as early as Saturday, August 27.

But, according to a memo from Chertoff, obtained by Knight Ridder news service, the DHS secretary did not declare Katrina an official "incident of national significance" until Tuesday, August 30, even though the Response Plan says that any time state officials are overwhelmed and ask for federal assistance, "national significance" status should be declared.

In that same memo, Chertoff passed responsibility of "principal federal official" for managing the disaster off to Brown, the head of FEMA at the time, who has since resigned. The "principal federal official," according to the Response Plan, must coordinate all other federal agencies in the government’s relief operations.

By order of the president, that responsibility falls on the DHS secretary. According to an analysis by The NewStandard, nothing in the Plan or in the presidential directive that the Plan stems from indicates that Chertoff had the authority to pass that responsibility off to Brown, or any other official. By doing so, Chertoff put Brown, who already was managing FEMA, in charge of coordinating the efforts of the Departments of Defense, Transportation, Health, and Commerce, among others.

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the Bush administration has dramatically centralized the nation’s emergency response capabilities. In March 2003, the administration put FEMA, the premier agency for responding to national disasters, under the Homeland Security umbrella in order to bring a "coordinated approach to national security from emergencies and disasters – both natural and man-made."

Nine months later, the National Response Plan was enacted, laying out the protocols and lines of authority for coordinating and dealing with disaster preparation and relief. But it appears that government officials did not put the Plan into effect when the governors of the states slated to be hit by Hurricane Katrina asked for federal help.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

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Jessica Azulay is a staff journalist.

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