- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Department of Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff yesterday said key officials were informed of the possible devastation of Hurricane Katrina days before the storm hit but were misled on emergency precautions in place.

“The idea that this department and this administration and the president were somehow detached from Katrina is simply not correct in my view and in my recollection of what happened. We were acutely aware of Katrina and the risk it posed,” Mr. Chertoff told a Senate panel.

The secretary described his conversations with ousted Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Michael D. Brown as “heated” more than a day after the storm struck and the New Orleans levee system failed. In those discussions, Mr. Chertoff said he was “nudging, prodding, poking and ultimately raising my voice about buses on Wednesday, [which] led to a decision by the deputy and me on Thursday that we needed to simply take this away and get it done ourselves.”

The Coast Guard was put in charge of the operation after Mr. Brown was first nudged out of control of the situation, then later forced to resign.

Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Oversight Committee, said the biggest mistake was in keeping Mr. Brown on the job despite his objections to his agency’s restructuring and its role in emergency planning.

“Michael Brown testified before this committee that he found your phone calls to be annoying, disruptive. It’s just astonishing to me that a person who seemed to not believe in the cause and a person on whom you were relying for active, complete and prompt communication, which you didn’t get, was placed in charge,” Miss Collins said.

“If I had known then what I know now about Mr. Brown’s agenda, I would have done something differently,” Mr. Chertoff responded.

Yesterday marked Mr. Chertoff’s first anniversary as chief of the fledgling Homeland Security Department, which absorbed FEMA and 21 other federal agencies fighting terrorism.

Mr. Chertoff was placed under oath before facing critical questions from both Republicans and Democrats. His testimony followed the release late Tuesday night of a separate House investigative report authored by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican and titled “A Failure of Initiative.”

“The preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina should disturb all Americans,” the report said. “Passivity did the most damage. The failure of initiative cost lives, prolonged suffering and left all Americans justifiably concerned our government is no better prepared to protect its people than it was before 9/11, even if we are.”

Sen. Mark Dayton, Minnesota Democrat, said, “The crisis was not only predictable, it was predicted. If this is what happens when we have advance warning, we shudder to imagine the consequences when we do not.”

The report went so far as to criticize daytime talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey and actor Sean Penn for disrupting relief efforts by making appearances along the Gulf Coast disaster scene.

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