Monday, September 5, 2005

State and local officials did not inform top federal officials early on of the deaths and lack of food among hurricane victims in the Superdome or convention center, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said yesterday.

Mr. Chertoff said neither he nor Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown was told of the deteriorating situation in New Orleans until Thursday night.

“This is clearly something that was disturbing. It was disturbing to me when I learned about it, which came as a surprise. You know, the very day that this emerged in the press, I was on a video conference with all the officials, including state and local officials. And nobody, none of the state and local officials or anybody else was talking about a convention center,” Mr. Chertoff told CNN.

“The original plan, as I understand it, was to have the Superdome be the place of refuge, of last resort. Apparently, sometime on Wednesday, people started to go to the convention center spontaneously,” he said.

Mr. Chertoff also said he was not informed until hours after the levee burst Monday night that a second wave of water had drowned the city.

“It was midday Tuesday that I became aware of the fact that there was no possibility of plugging the gap and that essentially the lake was going to drain into the city,” Mr. Chertoff told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Mr. Chertoff said the breakdown in communications will be an issue examined closely after the rescue mission is completed.

Appearing on the Sunday talk shows, Mr. Chertoff was asked if he would step down as the nation’s homeland defender, if Mr. Brown should be fired, or who outside the federal government should be held accountable for a lax response.

Mr. Chertoff said it would be a “horrible tragedy” to start investigating or pointing fingers at what went wrong in the response to Hurricane Katrina until the rescue and recovery operations are complete.

“There are some things that actually worked very well,” said Mr. Chertoff, who credited the Coast Guard for rescuing nearly 17,000 flood victims. “There are some things that didn’t.

“Whatever the criticisms and the after-action report may be about what was right and what was wrong looking back, what would be a horrible tragedy would be to distract ourselves from avoiding further problems because we’re spending time talking about problems that have already occurred,” Mr. Chertoff said on “Meet the Press.”

Mr. Chertoff also suggested the tens of thousands of evacuees also shared some responsibility and should have evacuated when asked Saturday, and ordered to do so on Sunday.

“At the end of the day, this is the ground truth, the only way to avoid a catastrophic problem in that soup bowl is to have people leave before the hurricane hits,” he said.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin was asked by MSNBC news why the city did not try to help poor people get out of New Orleans after he issued the mandatory evacuation.

Instead of providing transportation, Mr. Nagin said remaining residents were directed to the Superdome “as a shelter of last resort, but the help never came.”

Senate Homeland Security Committee officials announced late Friday they will begin an investigation this week into the catastrophe and have ordered officials to brief the panel Wednesday.

The oversight panel will look at ongoing efforts to rescue and comfort victims, and will not address preparedness and response questions until after the rescue mission ends.

“It is critical that we in the Senate do everything in our power to strengthen the federal government’s response, and that we thoroughly examine what appears to be breakdowns in preparedness for and responses to disasters, without interfering with efforts that are currently under way,” Sens. Susan Collins, Maine Republican and committee chair, and Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat and ranking member, said in a joint statement.

“We intend to demand answers as to how this immense failure occurred, but our immediate focus must and will be on what Congress can do to help the rescue and emergency operations that are ongoing,” they said.

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