Homeland Security Chief Chertoff, Not Brown, Was Responsible For Federal Response To Huricane Katrina

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We speak Knight Ridder reporter Alison Young about the Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff’s responsibilities and the shift of blame to former FEMA head Michael Brown. [includes rush transcript]

  • Alison Young, Reporter with Knight Ridder who co-wrote a recent article called “Chertoff Delayed Federal Response, Memo Shows” about how Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff actually had more authority to respond to the Hurricane Katrina disaster than did Michael Brown.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We continue our coverage of the congressional panel where FEMA director — the former FEMA director, Michael Brown, was questioned. Joined in our New York — in Washington studio by Alison Young, reporter with Knight Ridder, who co-wrote a recent piece about how Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff actually had more authority to respond to Hurricane Katrina than did Michael Brown. Welcome to Democracy Now!

ALISON YOUNG: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don’t you lay out what you think the chain of command was and what Michael Chertoff’s role was?

ALISON YOUNG: Well, the entire response has been interesting, hearing all of the finger pointing about the lack of command and control on the ground in the hurricane zone during Katrina. In January of this year, the Department of Homeland Security unveiled their National Response Plan. This was supposed to be a blueprint in this post-September 11 world for how we were going to deal with a massive catastrophe. While certainly terrorism was an emphasis behind this document, it very clearly says that this is to be used when you have a major catastrophic natural disaster, such as a hurricane.

What’s surprising is, when you listen to the testimony yesterday by the former FEMA director, it seems to be in conflict with what the plan calls for in a catastrophe. It very clearly says that in a catastrophe, where you either anticipate or it has already happened that locals have become overwhelmed by the situation, both in terms of resources and the structure, that the federal government is supposed to take a proactive — take proactive steps to protect the lives of citizens. And it says that while there has been a lot of talk about how locals didn’t make certain specific requests, the plan says that all the standard procedures for requiring requests can be waived in these kinds of situations, and while federal authorities are supposed to notify, if they can, and coordinate with states, it says, in the plan, that the coordination process should not delay or impede the rapid mobilization and deployment of critical federal resources.

Ultimately, this plan designates the Secretary of Homeland Security as the person who is supposed to be the principal federal official in charge when disaster strikes. A presidential directive by President Bush going several years back has designated the Secretary of Homeland Security as being in charge in domestic incidents, and so while Michael Brown very much was a point person down on the ground, there are a number of questions for Secretary Chertoff.

AMY GOODMAN: So you write about this memo, saying Chertoff didn’t shift power to Brown for 36 hours after the hurricane. Talk more about that.

ALISON YOUNG: Sure. Part of what triggers this so-called “proactive federal response” is designating an event, what they call an “incident of national significance.” This is a new term that is coming into play in the whole emergency management sector as part of the National Response Plan. Secretary Chertoff — the plan says that it is up to the Secretary of Homeland Security to make that designation. He did not do that until about 36 hours after Katrina struck, even though that designation can be made when a catastrophe is known to be imminent. And in doing that, 36 hours after the event, he empowered Michael Brown to be the principal federal official in charge.

We have lots of questions about what the delay in making that designation — how that may have impeded the lines of authority, whether by not having that designation, the FEMA director was in a position to merely ask and coordinate, as opposed to really step up to the plate in what is a hierarchical structure that puts a federal official basically saying, “Look, we need to coordinate everyone, and we want to work with you, but we also have a duty to get federal resources into the area to help people.”

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the chronology is quite something. When you say Chertoff didn’t shift the power to Brown until late on the evening of August 30, that’s 36 hours after Hurricane Katrina. And then on the day that Chertoff wrote the memo, Bush in San Diego, presiding over the ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, and then we had that pretty well known picture now of Bush with the guitar, because he’s with a country music singer on that day that the people of New Orleans are sinking. Chertoff’s 30th memo, August 30th, for the first time declaring Katrina an incident of national significance, then August 31, the Department of Defense, whose troops and equipment are crucial in such large disasters activated its Task Force Katrina, but active duty troops didn’t move in large numbers to the Gulf Coast until Saturday. Where are the explanations, as you pursue this story from the White House?

ALISON YOUNG: We have not had much luck getting good explanations. Ever since we wrote that article, the Department of Homeland Security has now been — while the day that — the day after Secretary Chertoff designated Katrina an incident of national significance, he held a press conference and made a pretty big deal about how this was the first time ever he had implemented the National Response Plan in an incident of national significance.

After that story ran and they started being asked more questions by us and other media, they’re now downplaying it, saying it really didn’t make much of a difference at all, that this was merely a paperwork matter. They are saying that because President Bush had declared a state of emergency, had issued an emergency declaration for Louisiana and Mississippi a few days prior to the storm, that that essentially was the same thing as declaring it an incident of national significance.

However, while the National Response Plan does, in fact, define things that may qualify as incidents of national significance, as things that meet the definition for an emergency or disaster declaration by the President, it says specifically that it’s the Secretary of Homeland Security who makes that declaration. And also, if they were treating it as an incident of national significance prior to that time, they have not been able to offer us any explanation why, from April 1 of this year, until Katrina, there had been 20 federal emergency and disaster declarations that have been issued but not a single one of those was touted as an incident of national significance.

So we are still asking a lot of questions about the mechanics about how was it that critical federal resources got into the area, what role secretary Chertoff’s designation, coming 36 hours after Katrina struck, what role that played, but we’re having a hard time getting answers.

AMY GOODMAN: So you asked the Department of Homeland Security about Chertoff’s schedule; they haven’t responded?

ALISON YOUNG: They have now talked to us a bit in generalities about his schedule. One of the things that is of interest in his schedule is, while they say that he was very actively involved in monitoring what was going on with Hurricane Katrina, we were able to find out that after the storm struck, he went to the C.D.C. in Atlanta for a previously scheduled briefing on avian flu. And it wasn’t until he was on his way back that he started crafting the language for the memo that declared it an incident of national significance.

AMY GOODMAN: For those who say this is simply a partisan attack, it’s interesting to see your interview with a former FEMA director under President Reagan, General Becton.

ALISON YOUNG: Right, there have been several of my colleagues who have been involved in this story, and that interview was done by one of them. But we have had a number of concerns raised by FEMA officials who have served under both Republican and Democratic administrations who have raised significant concerns about what happened here in the response. They have raised concerns about why there are a lot of questions right now about: Are there greater authorities needed, when, in fact, for many years FEMA in this country had done a pretty good job in responding to major natural disasters and other incidents.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Alison Young, one of the authors of the Knight Ridder piece, “Chertoff Delayed Federal Response, Memo Shows.”

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