Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Chertoff Takes Responsibility for Katrina Lapses…or Does He?

I have to admit, when I read the headline on ABC News, I was pretty psyched: “I am Accountable: Michael Chertoff tells senators he accepts responsibility for “many lapses” during Katrina.” I had just taken a beak from studying for the GMATs, opened up Fox News for my first look at the news in four or five hours, and suddenly one of my prayers had been answered. Someone in the US government was accepting responsibility for this tragedy. While I agree with Ezzie that we need reform to be the result of inquiry into the Katrina failures, I also believe there needs to be blame assigned to someone.

This is not out of spite or a desire to attack the Republicans. My belief is that government exists to protect people, whether from elements within a society, from elements outside of the society, or elements outside of the control of the society (elements of nature). All of the basic functions of government are geared towards this goal, including initiatives like health care, which defends against disease, education, which develops the skills to defend against all enemies, and social security, which defends against abandonment in old age. And municipalities bond into larger governments because of greater defenses associated with the greater size of the constituency. It is this reason the United States isn’t just 50 autonomous governments working independently with no central government.

But what good is that government when it does not protect its members against the most basic dangers, and when it defends other nations from similar disasters better than it defends its own citizens? Our response to the Tsunami was better than our response to Katrina, as the United States quickly created a coordinated effort to relieve the victims quickly and efficiently.

But one of two things happened with Katrina: either the United States appointed a point person (Chertoff, Brown, or someone else) to spearhead our efforts in Louisiana and the surrounding areas, and that person completely dropped the ball, or the US did not appoint a point person to this incident, and as a result valuable information fell through the cracks. Somehow, which happened must be defined. From the Katrina Commission’s report.

"Probably the worst element of this catastrophe, personally, is not criticism I've received or criticism the department has received by committees and commentators, but the vision of people who did have their suffering unnecessarily prolonged because this department did not perform as well as ... it should have been able to do."

So it was with great anticipation that I opened the Fox News article, only to find that while Chertoff said he was accountable, he then refuted that statement completely. He started on the right path:

"I am accountable, and I accept responsibility for the performance of the entire department — the bad and the good," Chertoff said. "One of the most difficult and traumatic experiences of my life … was the process of anticipating and managing and dealing with the consequences of Katrina," he added.

Perhaps most deplorable was Chertoff’s August 30th trip to Atlanta to attend a conference on Avian Flu. This was one day after Katrina hit, and Republican Senator Susan Collins admitted he was “curiously disengaged” from the Katrina incident at the conference. Chertoff’s explanation was horrible:

He reiterated earlier statements that he did not realize that levees in New Orleans had been breached on the day of the storm — despite Brown's claims to the contrary. "When I went to bed, it was my belief … that actually the storm had not done the worst that could be imagined," Chertoff said.

Are you kidding me? I knew we were looking at a major disaster by the night of August 29th, and I knew that from watching CNN, which had excellent coverage of the Hurricane, and where you could see the damage as it was unfolding. Of course, during the commercials I could go to Fox News of MSNBC, because they had the same coverage. So are we now to believe that Chertoff doesn’t get cable, or that he didn’t care enough to turn on the TV?

CNN had a very different headline to the same story: Homeland Security Chief Defends Katrina Response. In this article, they start with Chertoff’s refuting that he was detatched, and claiming he knew the risks associated with Katrina:

"I have to say that 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," Chertoff told the Senate Homeland Security panel. We were acutely aware of Katrina and the risk it posed."

Chertoff has claimed he put Michael Brown in charge of Katrina relief. While Brown has specifically refuted that he was put in charge of the situation, and has also claimed (with the help of supporting documents) that he tried to show people proof that the storm would be this bad, Chertoff addressed the situation by indicating he didn’t know Brown was incompetent. But he never addresses the very real possibility that Brown was more competent than we all thought, and that he presented the materials to Chertoff and the president 2 days before the storm, and they didn’t authorize action.

"If I knew then what I know now about Mr. Brown's agenda, I would have done something different," Chertoff said. Brown quit his post following widespread criticism after the storm, later blaming Chertoff and others of dragging their feet and ignoring his warnings about massive flooding.

On the other hand, Republican Rep Christopher Shays indicated that Chertoff made a crucial mistake in not declaring a catastrophic event in New Orleans. Had Chertoff, or anyone in the government, either listened to Brown, if we believe Brown, or paid attention to the documents he did send around to Chertoff and others in the White House, if we don’t believe Brown’s words, a great deal more could have been done to support the people of New Orleans.

"He could have declared this a catastrophic event, and instead of waiting for the states to ask for help -- and they waited too long -- we could have just started to give them help," said Shays, who co-authored the report.

In my opinion, the United States had a responsibility to assign a point person to handle all necessary relief for victims of Hurricane Katrina. I believe that person should have been assigned on August 27th, when Michael Brown distributed documents indicating the storm would be much worse than expected. But at the least that person should have been assigned on August 29th, when even generally distributed news stories and television footage showed that this was a catastrophe.

If this point person was assigned, then that person needs to take responsibility for the incident, in order for the healing process in the region to begin. If no point person was assigned, then Bush has to take responsibility for not assigning that point person. To me, it’s just that clear.

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Posted by Scottage at 3:04 PM / | |