Editor's note: On Sunday, Feb. 19, 2006, following a series of hearings in the U.S. Senate, Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" to answer questions about his department's handling of the response to Hurricane Katrina. He
spoke with NBC's Tim Russert, host of the program.
Tim Russert: Have you ever considered stepping down?
Michael Chertoff: Well, like everybody else who is serving in the Cabinet, I serve at the pleasure of the president and when I took the job I knew that we had a lot of work to do. I was aware of the fact that something might happen, whether it was a manmade or a terrorist event. I continue to serve at the pleasure of the president. I think my responsibility is to try to fix the department and as long as the president wants me to do that I'm going to continue to stay on the job.
TR: Sen. Joe Lieberman at the hearings said this: "Our conclusion is that the Dept. of Homeland Security had a responsibility to lead the preparation response to Hurricane Katrina and let us down. We've invested billions of dollars in the department and had the capabilities to prepare for and respond to Katrina and didn't use them. As a result a lot of people suffered and unfortunately a lot of people died." Does that haunt you?
MC: It does haunt me. It's not the criticism because obviously some of the criticism is helpful. Some of it I don't agree with. But what does stick with me is the image of people who unnecessarily suffered because of delays in getting them evacuated. There were some tremendous success stories. I actually was very worried the first couple of days about rescues. I was worried about how are you going to get thousands and tens of thousands of people who are trapped in attics out of those attics. There, the U.S. Coast Guard and other parts of the department performed magnificently. But in the evacuation we really fell short and I think that's certainly something which I will always carry with me and something that I'm determined to fix, particularly as we come into hurricane season this year.
TR: When you were last on (the show) a few days after the hurricane began, you said that the levees were breached early Tuesday morning. We know now that it was around Monday morning at 8:30 that people were first notified the levees had been breached. Why were you out of the loop?
MC: What I said was that they had been breached overnight, Monday night and we now know that the levees began to be breached Monday morning. The principal levee that had been breached, 17th Street, we still haven't pinpointed the exact time of the breach. This was really the biggest failure, I think, was the inability to get ground troops from New Orleans. The fact that we didn't have assets on the ground, trained people and proper equipment to immediately send back messages about what was going on. That's one thing we've already begun to fix.
TR: But FEMA knew on Monday morning that the levee had been breached. I was somewhat taken aback by this testimony from Michael Brown before the Senate question: "You're telling us that a conversation directly with Secretary Chertoff would not have produced any kind of worthwhile result?" Brown: "No, it would have wasted my time."
MC: I think that was a big mistake on Mike Brown's part. We had the ability to bring in all kinds of assets of the department. The Sunday before the hurricane struck I sat in on a video conference and . . . at the end I asked: Is there anything you need from us? I was told "we've got everything we need." And . . . I was told the Dept. of Defense was sitting at the table and they were engaged. I think that had we gotten earlier notice we could have done more to help.
TR: The Thursday of the hurricane, you began to have your doubts about FEMA and its leadership. The very next day the president came down to the Gulf region. The president is saying he (Mike Brown) is doing "a heck of a job." The night before you're saying "I don't think the guy is up to it." Why didn't you tell the president?
MC: I do think the context of that remark is that Brown had been up for practically every night for the last few days. Whatever my judgment was about whether his skills were matched to the challenge, I think certainly everybody believed at that point he was doing his best. This is really an effort to kind of buck the troops up, recognize the fact that everybody was really exhausted and working hard. The fact is, we were still very much in the middle of the event and we needed to keep people's spirits up.
TR: Was it an attempt to spin the American people? Things on the ground were in such stark (contrast) to what the official pronouncements coming out of the government were?
MC: When you're in a disaster and you look people in the eyes, you see how they are working their hearts out. Even if they haven't done the job that you wish they could have done, as a human matter you want to reach out and pat them on the back, you want to buck them up. I don't think that's the time to start to engage in finger pointing and giving brutal assessments about people's performance.
TR: Taxpayers are very concerned about where their money's going. There have been a series of reports this week about some of the federal money that was spent on Katrina. The Government Accountability Office said this: "The government squandered millions of dollars in Katrina disaster aid including handing $2,000 debit cards to people who gave phony social security numbers, recipients who improperly used their debit cards intended for food and shelter for $400 massages, a $450 tattoo, a $1,100 diamond engagement ring and $150 worth of products at "Condoms to Go." How does that happen?
MC: Let me first say there's actually good news in that we've fixed the problem of people being able to call up with phony Social Security card numbers because we've now engaged a contractor that we've used to screen online applications and we're now using that for telephone applications. That's one problem we've corrected. The second problem of people misusing funds is a common issue when you deal with disasters.
TR: There are some misjudgments, however, that were not [made by] scoundrels. It appears to be your department. Look at this. Mobile homes worth hundreds of millions of dollars are deteriorating in a muddy field in Arkansas and may never be used to house victims of Hurricane Katrina. Only about 2,700 of the 25,000 mobile homes ordered at a cost of $850 million have been installed and at least 10,000 are sitting in Hope, Ark., according to documents and statements from FEMA officials.
MC: The challenge we face is where do we put them? It is true that there are certain parts of Louisiana and Mississippi where you can't put mobile homes because they are in a flood plain and that's partly regulation, party common sense. You don't want to put something that's fixed, that's a mobile home, in a place that's going to flood again. We originally hoped that some significant number would be placed in other parts of Louisiana and Mississippi. It's turned out that some communities don't want to have that happen.
TR: But there are thousands of people who are still homeless.
MC: There are. And we are procuring trailers as quickly as we can. The biggest problem is that there is a just a total shortage of housing in Louisiana. We've been battling that economic issue for the last six months.
TR: Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi has said "Enough already. Let's take FEMA out of Homeland Security and report directly to the president. Let FEMA deal with hurricanes and natural disasters and let Chertoff and Homeland Security worry about terrorism. Why not do that?
MC: I think that would be a big mistake for a couple of reasons. First of all, to the extent things worked well in Katrina, it was only because we had a unified department and could get the Coast Guard involved, we could get the Transportation Security Administration involved to help us construct an air bridge for evacuation. We would lose all of that extra help if we separated FEMA out. Second, catastrophes don't come labeled. Sometimes you know it's a natural disaster. Sometimes you know it's a terrorist act. Sometimes you don't know. The last thing we want to do is to have a situation where we have two parallel agencies fighting over who manages a particular type of a disaster.
TR: If a tropical storm 4 or 5 hits New Orleans, will the city flood again?
MC: This, I think, is a very serious question which I intend to address with the mayor and the governors of both states in the next month. We are not fully rebuilt. The levees are supposed to be rebuilt by June to a level better than they were before Katrina. But we don't know if there is a dead-on hit, the worst scenario is we could still very easily have flooding. We've got impermanent structures, we'll still have some debris around. So we need to have a plan.
TR: Based on your department's performance during Katrina why should the American people feel confident and comfortable that you can keep us safe if God forbid there's a terrorist attack?
MC: I warned in July that we're not as prepared as we need to be. This is an immature department. The Department of Defense took 40 years to get to where it is now. We have made a lot of progress in some areas. There are some areas, including disaster management, where we have a lot more to do. The good news is that if there's anything redeeming out of this hurricane it is that we've learned some very valuable lessons.
CYRIL TUOHY, managing editor of Risk & Insurance®, recorded and edited the transcript of the show.
April 15, 2006
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