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September 06, 2005

Federal Accountability

Michael Chertoff, Homeland Security Secretary, on how prepared they were for Katrina:

Defending the U.S. government's response to Hurricane Katrina, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff argued Saturday that government planners did not predict such a disaster ever could occur.

Ever? It was beyond all possible planning that something like this could happen?
Chertoff, fielding questions from reporters, said government officials did not expect both a powerful hurricane and a breach of levees that would flood the city of New Orleans.

If you are fully aware that levees protecting the city are designed for a Category 3 hurricane, and a Category 4+ one develops in the Gulf of Mexico, what do you expect the levees will do; hold anyway? You can't possibly be taken by surprise when they fail, especially when the director if FEMA (which is part of Homeland Security) planned and "war gamed" just such a scenario.

Last week, Michael Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told CNN his agency had recently planned for a Category 5 hurricane hitting New Orleans.

Speaking to "Larry King Live" on August 31, in the wake of Katrina, Brown said, "That Category 4 hurricane caused the same kind of damage that we anticipated. So we planned for it two years ago. Last year, we exercised it. And unfortunately this year, we're implementing it."

Mr. Chertoff sounds like he's in full kiester-covering mode at this point. He sounds like he's trying to parse words and phrases. Here's his explanation of how the plan differed so drastically from the reality.
Chertoff argued that authorities actually had assumed that "there would be overflow from the levee, maybe a small break in the levee. The collapse of a significant portion of the levee leading to the very fast flooding of the city was not envisioned."

He added: "There will be plenty of time to go back and say we should hypothesize evermore apocalyptic combinations of catastrophes. Be that as it may, I'm telling you this is what the planners had in front of them.

However, Brendan Loy points out, this explanation doesn't hold water (so to speak).
For those who would defend Chertoff on the basis of the fact that "all the doomsday predictions were based on the levees being topped, not failing," that's true, but it doesn't help Chertoff's case, because if the levees had been topped by the storm surge (which they would have, if Katrina had moved 20 or 30 miles west of where it did), the flooding in New Orleans would have been even worse! It doesn't make much sense to say that the government was prepared for the worst-case scenario, but was unprepared for a less-bad scenario!

FEMA Director Mike Brown isn't entirely without culpability, either. His protestations of surprise sounded like this:
"Saturday and Sunday, we thought it was a typical hurricane situation -- not to say it wasn't going to be bad, but that the water would drain away fairly quickly," Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Mike Brown said today. "Then the levees broke and (we had) this lawlessness. That almost stopped our efforts."

First of all, Katrina was a Cat 3 hurricane on Saturday, meaning it was going to tax the levees' upper bound anyway. Sunday morning around 1am, it was upgraded to a Cat 4, so no, this was no typical hurricane, especially for a city with levees not designed to withstand it, and they had time to realize that. Second, if they "war gamed" this scenario, why would the very scenario almost stop your efforts?

In fact, these "war games" have been specifically designed with Category 5 hurricanes in mind, including one in September, 2002 and one just last July.

Aside from all the questions about fault or the appropriateness of this or that decision, we have a clear question of whether these guys were lying to the American people, and, in addition, how appropriate is it for President Bush to be backing these guys 100%. Bush is a loyal guy, but it may be that in this case the "to a fault" suffix is necessary. And it's also quite possible that Bush's support is meant to avoid undermining the authority of HomeSec and FEMA in the middle of a major crisis. However, once the winds have died down, the further employment of these two directors needs to be given serious scrutiny. Hopefully, in the coming investigations, this will be a top priority.

Posted by Doug at September 6, 2005 02:35 PM

Trackback Pings


I'd like to know why the exististing City of New Orleans Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan wasn't executed. The mayor is given power to do so by executive order.

Here's a link:

Posted by: eLarson at September 6, 2005 03:06 PM


Great question! But a different issue altogether. Conservatives must demand accountability for the words and actions of our leaders and not shift blame or wait for others to apologize. The kind of attitude I see taken by my government in response to this tragedy is not a value I want for my family.

Others at SCO have written posts holding local leaders to account. Doug has called into question specific words and deeds of our federal government. Lots and lots of blame to go around.

This post provides clear evidence that the federal government is either lying or is completely incompetent. I believe that these two individuals are lying because they are incompetent.

FEMA, and by extension the federal government, knew that a Cat V hurricane would destroy NOLA. Not damage it, but destroy it. It was the worst-case disaster scenario for FEMA planners, above even a nuclear strike, because hurricanes come with a warning and a Cat V strike on NOLA woul require evacuation, sink the city, require emergency response for those who did not evacuate, and then long-term housing for upwards to a million people.

If our President had known that a nuclear bomb was about to explode in NOLA in 2 days, would he have waited for the Governor to request assistance? God I hope not. NOLA is destroyed. FEMA knew it would be destroyed. KNEW IT! Yet, now they lie about not anticipating such devastation. Lies lies lies lies lies. They should just own up to it and say that it was up to the Governor and Mayor to take necessary precautions and that since they did not, people died. If that is how they feel anyway... But, instead they lie.

Posted by: anonymous at September 6, 2005 03:28 PM

Not shift blame or wait for others to apologize.
I agree... and this is why I asked the question. All I've heard for a week is a mad-dash to point fingers at the Federal Government.

(As a Conservative I don't believe the Federal Government is the Repository of All Things Good and Great... no matter who is in charge.)

If it will make you happy, I will now proceed to engage in the bashing: Chertoff is dead-bang wrong for saying "nobody knew". In a way he is correct. Nobody "knew", but no one can "know" ahead of time. But lots of folks sure as hell "suspected". Chertoff is engaging in butt-covering of the usual bureaucratic sort.

FEMA knew it would be destroyed. KNEW IT!
So did the people who put together NOLA's CEMP.
The problem is that FEMA is not an early response agency. Should it take a phone call from the President to the Governor of Louisiana to kickstart the process? In a well-run state: no.

The evacuation of New Orleans should have begun 72 hours prior to the storm's arrival, per NOLA's own estimate for how long such an evac would take.

Sadly, going back to late July of this year, city officials were already making commercials telling the citizens of New Orleans that they would be on their own in the event of an emergency. (Source: Times-Picayune)

A lot folks did head for the hills. Exactly the people that the CEMP authors were afraid would be left behind, were left behind.

Posted by: eLarson at September 6, 2005 05:18 PM

You need to have an evolution of thought here. In other words, you need to change. It's the hardest thing to do for a person due to habit and the weakness of the flesh. But, the Federal Government is not mommy and daddy. You need to recognize that fact. And, FEMA is NOT A FIRST RESPONSE ORGANIZATION. FEMA is a (slowly now) Disaster_Recovery_Program: After all the carnage, they come in within 24 to 72 hours and start to kiss it and make it all better.

The responsibility for the LIVES of the people in these kinds of situations lie at the feet of the City and State politicos, WHO ARE THE FIRST RESPONDERS: They know their locale intimately; they know the needs; they can provide the logistics and the materiale. In New Orleans, THEY DIDN'T.

FEMA is there to pick up the PIECES of shattered lives, while the Mayors and Governors and their entourages are responsible for the LIVES THEMSELVES.

Full Disclosure Statement: I worked for FEMA from 1996 to 2002 and for FEMA and Hud Contractors from 2002 to 2004.

Posted by: Hucbald at September 7, 2005 01:35 AM

Would it surprise you that I agree 100% with your description of FEMA vs. first responders? What I said was that the directors of FEMA and HomeSec have not been truthful about their own preparedness for dealing with their contribution to the aftermath. They have said they didn't anticipate this situation, but that is not true.

Posted by: Doug Payton at September 7, 2005 09:23 AM

Read this National Geographic article that appeared 11 Months ago:

It was a broiling August afternoon in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Big Easy, the City That Care Forgot. Those who ventured outside moved as if they were swimming in tupelo honey. Those inside paid silent homage to the man who invented air-conditioning as they watched TV "storm teams" warn of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Nothing surprising there: Hurricanes in August are as much a part of life in this town as hangovers on Ash Wednesday.

But the next day the storm gathered steam and drew a bead on the city. As the whirling maelstrom approached the coast, more than a million people evacuated to higher ground. Some 200,000 remained, however—the car-less, the homeless, the aged and infirm, and those die-hard New Orleanians who look for any excuse to throw a party.

The storm hit Breton Sound with the fury of a nuclear warhead, pushing a deadly storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain. The water crept to the top of the massive berm that holds back the lake and then spilled over. Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans lies below sea level—more than eight feet below in places—so the water poured in. A liquid brown wall washed over the brick ranch homes of Gentilly, over the clapboard houses of the Ninth Ward, over the white-columned porches of the Garden District, until it raced through the bars and strip joints on Bourbon Street like the pale rider of the Apocalypse. As it reached 25 feet (eight meters) over parts of the city, people climbed onto roofs to escape it.

Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. It took two months to pump the city dry, and by then the Big Easy was buried under a blanket of putrid sediment, a million people were homeless, and 50,000 were dead. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.

When did this calamity happen? It hasn't—yet. But the doomsday scenario is not far-fetched. The Federal Emergency Management Agency lists a hurricane strike on New Orleans as one of the most dire threats to the nation, up there with a large earthquake in California or a terrorist attack on New York City. Even the Red Cross no longer opens hurricane shelters in the city, claiming the risk to its workers is too great.

"The killer for Louisiana is a Category Three storm at 72 hours before landfall that becomes a Category Four at 48 hours and a Category Five at 24 hours—coming from the worst direction," says Joe Suhayda, a retired coastal engineer at Louisiana State University who has spent 30 years studying the coast. Suhayda is sitting in a lakefront restaurant on an actual August afternoon sipping lemonade and talking about the chinks in the city's hurricane armor. "I don't think people realize how precarious we are,"
Suhayda says, watching sailboats glide by. "Our technology is great when it works. But when it fails, it's going to make things much worse."

The chances of such a storm hitting New Orleans in any given year are slight, but the danger is growing. Climatologists predict that powerful storms may occur more frequently this century, while rising sea level from global warming is putting low-lying coasts at greater risk. "It's not if it will happen," says University of New Orleans geologist Shea Penland. "It's when."

Here's the link:

Posted by: BB at September 7, 2005 12:41 PM