- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Homeland Security Department chief Michael Chertoff yesterday told a congressional panel that the overall response to Hurricane Katrina was hampered by poor planning.

“And that is a capability we’ve got to build. … If you start to plan in the emergency, you’re not planning; you’re improvising,” Mr. Chertoff said.

Mr. Chertoff, responding to questions from members of the special House committee investigating the federal response to Katrina, said many parts of the Federal Emergency Management Agency are “antiquated and inefficient” and the agency must overhaul its logistical setup to better coordinate its response to disasters with local officials.

“It’s not a money issue, it’s an issue of proper allocation and priorities,” Mr. Chertoff said when asked about former FEMA Director Mike Brown’s assertion that the agency was hampered when several hundred million dollars were moved from FEMA to the Homeland Security Department.

Mr. Chertoff said FEMA’s budget had increased by 28 percent since 2001 and has a greater capacity than it did 15 years ago to handle natural disasters.

“Well, then, how is it possible to explain, then, the dismal response that FEMA made in Hurricane Katrina?” asked Rep. William J. Jefferson, Louisiana Democrat.

Mr. Chertoff said Mr. Brown was his “battlefield commander” and responsible for the plan’s success or failure.

“I made it clear to him that I needed to be sure that he was going to personally be on top of the situation in Baton Rouge,” Mr. Chertoff told the same congressional panel that questioned the former FEMA director in its first hearing into the government’s response to the hurricane.

During their first phone conversation after the hurricane struck, Mr. Chertoff said he told Mr. Brown “you’ve got to rescue people; you’ve got to save lives” and that the second priority was to “get food and water to people, because it is going to be a couple of days before people get evacuated, and the third is to get promptly moving on evacuation.”

Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney, Georgia Democrat, referenced the arrest of a Louisiana couple for failing to evacuate patients that later drowned, and asked Mr. Chertoff: “If the nursing home owners are arrested for negligent homicide, why shouldn’t you also be arrested for negligent homicide?”

“It was enormously frustrating to me,” Mr. Chertoff said of the delayed assistance. “I still don’t know the full story about why some things didn’t move, and I will look forward to hearing an answer to that.”

Since the hurricane, FEMA has directed $2.9 billion in disaster aid to more than 1.6 million affected households and is assisting the Red Cross in moving more than 270,000 evacuees from temporary shelters into temporary housing, Mr. Chertoff said.

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