Dueling officials slowed storm response
New White House report points to lack of leadership as one reason for the hurricane Katrina fiasco.
WASHINGTON — As the day wore on, Michael Chertoff became increasingly irate. He just couldn't get Michael Brown on the phone.
Mr. Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was off in the air somewhere, flying around the crescent of Gulf Coast that had been ravaged the day before by hurricane Katrina and preparing to appear on television that evening. Apparently this meant he had no time for Mr. Chertoff - who was secretary of Homeland Security and Brown's boss.
In hindsight this may have been a mistake. Chertoff - a disciplined former prosecutor - let loose when he finally got Brown on the line. Forget TV. Brown would stay put.
"Job 1 is to get this thing done," Chertoff recalled during a Senate hearing last week. "Sit in the operations center. Get with the relevant managers. Make sure you are taking care of all [necessary] issues."
Five months after hurricane Katrina roared ashore, one cause of the stumbling response to possibly the biggest natural disaster in US history is becoming increasingly apparent: Two of the most important officials involved, Chertoff and Brown, did not get along.
Chertoff is by-the-book, a lean, terse manager. Brown is a talkative maverick who believes in leadership from the front lines. In Hollywood, that's a buddy movie; in real life, it was a recipe for delayed orders and crossed communications.
Critics blasted Brown for incompetence in the hurricane's immediate aftermath.
More recently, some lawmakers have decided that the now former FEMA chief shouldn't be a scapegoat, and that Chertoff should share at least some of the blame.
At the least, "It's very clear that the relationship between Mr. Brown and Mr. Chertoff on this really didn't work that well," said Rep. Tom Davis (R) of Virginia, head of a House investigation of the Katrina response, last week.
On Thursday, the White House released its report on the Katrina disaster. Among other things, the study concluded that inexperienced disaster-response managers, plus a lack of planning, discipline, and leadership, contributed to the failure of the federal government to provide aid in a timely manner.
The report recommends that the Pentagon have a clearer role in responding to future disasters - and that federal, state, and local officials work to better coordinate their efforts in the field.
"This is the first and foremost lesson we learned from the death and devastation caused by our country's most destructive natural disaster: No matter how prepared we think we are, we must work every day to improve," wrote White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend in the report's cover letter.
The White House effort does not recommend that FEMA be removed from the Department of Homeland Security and restored as an independent agency.
Some members of Congress have begun to urge such a move, saying that the old FEMA has been chopped up and scattered around the DHS bureaucracy.
In particular, these lawmakers say that the removal of the preparedness function from FEMA, and its placement in a larger DHS directorate, has turned out to be a bad idea.
"If you have your practice and your game-day team not working together, then you can't expect them the day of the big game to perform well, and I think that's what we saw here in Katrina," said Rep. Bill Shuster (R) of Pennsylvania, a member of the House Katrina panel, last week.
This issue - the dismemberment of the old FEMA structure - was one of the first things that divided Brown from Chertoff.
It was the summer of 2005, shortly after Chertoff left a federal appeals court seat to take over at Homeland Security. In a private meeting, FEMA chief Brown argued that the business of preparing for disasters should stay within FEMA.
Afterward, in a government car headed back to his office, Brown was ecstatic. He says today that at that meeting Chertoff agreed with him that prepareness should stay where it was. FEMA had won the turf battle.
But not for long.
"Forty-eight hours later that decision is reversed and we're going in a different direction," Brown told the Senate last week.
Congressional testimony and reports on the Katrina reponse - documents upon which some of this story is based - reveal obvious tension between the FEMA chief and his DHS boss.
In previous disasters, Michael Brown had dealt directly with the White House. He'd told his contacts there, "The best thing they could do for me was to keep DHS out of my hair," Brown testified before the Senate.
By the time Katrina hit, the attitude had changed. White House chief of staff Andrew Card told Brown he had to follow the established chain of command. He didn't like it. DHS didn't know "baloney," Brown said. Calling Chertoff "would have wasted my time."
Chertoff, for his part, appointed Brown the primary federal official for Katrina response, disregarding the fact that Brown did not have the requisite training for this PFO role.
Chertoff told the Senate last week that he found it "astonishing" to hear that Brown had deliberately bypassed the Department of Homeland Security.