The killer hurricane and flood that devastated the Gulf Coast last week exposed fatal weaknesses in a federal disaster response system retooled after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to handle just such a cataclysmic event.
Despite four years and tens of billions of dollars spent preparing for the worst, the federal government was not ready when it came at daybreak on Monday, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former senior officials and outside experts.
Among the flaws they cited: Failure to take the storm seriously before it hit and trigger the government’s highest level of response. Rebuffed offers of aid from the military, states and cities. An unfinished new plan meant to guide disaster response. And a slow bureaucracy that waited until late Tuesday to declare the catastrophe “an incident of national significance,” the new federal term meant to set off the broadest possible relief effort.
Born out of the confused and uncertain response to 9/11, the massive new Department of Homeland Security was charged with being ready the next time, whether the disaster was wrought by nature or terrorists. The department commanded huge resources as it prepared for deadly scenarios from an airborne anthrax attack to a biological attack with plague to a chlorine-tank explosion.
But Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said yesterday that his department had failed to find an adequate model for addressing the “ultra-catastrophe” that resulted when Hurricane Katrina’s floodwater breached New Orleans’s levees and drowned the city, “as if an atomic bomb had been dropped.”
If Hurricane Katrina represented a real-life rehearsal of sorts, the response suggested to many that the nation is not ready to handle a terrorist attack of similar dimensions. “This is what the department was supposed to be all about,” said Clark Kent Ervin, DHS’s former inspector general. “Instead, it obviously raises very serious, troubling questions about whether the government would be prepared if this were a terrorist attack. It’s a devastating indictment of this department’s performance four years after 9/11.”
“We’ve had our first test, and we’ve failed miserably,” said former representative Timothy J. Roemer (D-Ind.), a member of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks. “We have spent billions of dollars in revenues to try to make our country safe, and we have not made nearly enough progress.” With Katrina, he noted that “we had some time to prepare. When it’s a nuclear, chemical or biological attack,” there will be no warning.
Indeed, the warnings about New Orleans’s vulnerability to post-hurricane flooding repeatedly circulated at the upper levels of the new bureaucracy, which had absorbed the old lead agency for disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, among its two dozen fiefdoms. “Beyond terrorism, this was the one event I was most concerned with always,” said Joe M. Allbaugh, the former Bush campaign manager who served as his first FEMA head.
But several current and former senior officials charged that those worries were never accorded top priority either by FEMA’s management or their superiors in DHS. Even when officials held a practice run, as they did in an exercise dubbed “Hurricane Pam” last year, they did not test for the worst-case scenario, rehearsing only what they would do if a Category 3 storm hit New Orleans, not the Category 4 power of Katrina. And after Pam, the planned follow-up study was never completed, according to a FEMA official involved.
“The whole department was stood up, it was started because of 9/11 and that’s the bottom line,” said C. Suzanne Mencer, a former senior homeland security official whose office took on some of the preparedness functions that had once been FEMA’s. “We didn’t have an appropriate response to 9/11, and that is why it was stood up and where the funding has been directed. The message was . . . we need to be better prepared against terrorism.”
The roots of last week’s failures will be examined for weeks and months to come, but early assessments point to a troubled Department of Homeland Security that is still in the midst of a bureaucratic transition, a “work in progress,” as Mencer put it. Some current and former officials argued that as it worked to focus on counterterrorism, the department has diminished the government’s ability to respond in a nuts-and-bolts way to disasters in general, and failed to focus enough on threats posed by hurricanes and other natural disasters in particular. From an independent Cabinet-level agency, FEMA has become an underfunded, isolated piece of the vast DHS, yet it is still charged with leading the government’s response to disaster.
“It’s such an irony I hate to say it, but we have less capability today than we did on September 11,” said a veteran FEMA official involved in the hurricane response. “We are so much less than what we were in 2000,” added another senior FEMA official. “We’ve lost a lot of what we were able to do then.”