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Report Rebukes Chertoff, Omits Katrina Response Duties

by Jessica Azulay

Feb. 2, 2006 – Having largely escaped initial blame for the federal government’s failure to respond effectively to Hurricane Katrina, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff faced rebuke for leadership failures in a congressional report issued yesterday.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress’s investigative arm, also criticized President Bush in its report for allegedly failing to designate someone to "lead the overall federal response in anticipation of the event despite clear warnings from the National Hurricane Center."

The comments came in a preliminary assessment sent to the House of Representatives’ bipartisan committee investigating the government’s response to Hurricanes Katrina.

"Events unfolded both before and immediately after the landfall of Hurricane Katrina that made it clear that governmental entities did not act decisively or quickly enough to determine the catastrophic nature of the incident," wrote the authors of the report.

The GAO takes the Department of Homeland Security secretary to task for not designating Hurricane Katrina a "catastrophic event," which the Office said would have triggered a more proactive response. "As a result," wrote the report’s authors, "the federal posture generally was to wait for the affected states to request assistance."

The Department of Homeland Security defended itself yesterday, arguing that the "catastrophic event" designation is reserved for incidents with little warning or time to prepare. Department spokesperson William R. Knocke told the press that the report was inaccurate as well as "premature and unprofessional."

The report said no one in DHS filled a crucial leadership role during the Hurricane, underscoring what the GAO called the "immaturity of and weaknesses relating to the current national response framework."

The report does not point out, however, that the National Response Plan designed under orders of President Bush and published in December 2004, explicitly designates the Department of Homeland Security head as the "principle federal official" in charge of coordinating all federal agencies’ responses to disasters like Katrina.

As reported by The NewStandard last year, the Plan goes into effect for any disaster in which "resources of State and local authorities are overwhelmed and federal assistance has been requested." Such a scenario is called an "incident of national significance," and the Plan places response duty squarely on the shoulders of the secretary of Homeland Security, dubbed the "principle federal official," or PFO.

But the Department did not follow its own plan. Chertoff did not declare Hurricane Katrina an incident of national significance until a day after the storm made landfall. At that time, he designated then-FEMA Director Michael Brown as the PFO, despite an absence of language in the National Response Plan giving him authority to pass off such responsibility, according to a NewStandard assessment of the document.

The GAO report notes that although Chertoff designated Brown "to be the federal government’s representative under the [National Response Plan] structure and to coordinate the federal response, the efforts of all federal agencies involved in the response remained disjointed because the PFO’s leadership role was unclear."

The GAO does not, however, address the issue of putting Brown, who already was managing FEMA response to the disaster, in charge of coordinating the efforts of the Departments of Defense, Transportation, Health, and Commerce, among other agencies.

Brown – a Bush appointee with no previous emergency-management experience -- has since resigned from his post at helm of FEMA. For his part, Chertoff, who appears to have been technically in charge of the government’s response, has remained almost unscathed by the disaster’s political fallout.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

This News Report originally appeared in the February 2, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Jessica Azulay is a staff journalist.

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