Putting Together a Few Pieces, At Last

For the last two weeks, the media (CJR Daily included) has been relentlessly bashing Michael Brown, the recently-departed head of FEMA, for his agency’s inept and inexcusably tardy response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Brown is far from off the hook, but the past few days have given us a few stories that begin to pull the curtain back on how the chain of command broke down at almost every conceivable level — stories that illuminate the murky waters of official Washington where for days on end Brown wasn’t the only one with deaf ears.

No one has done the big story yet — the painstaking reconstruction that lays out the fiasco in all its particulars — but the pieces are beginning to fall into place that will eventually enable that story to be told.

We’ll start with Knight Ridder, which performed the necessary legwork to unearth a memo that shows that the head of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, didn’t shift the power requisite to handle the situation to Brown until late in the day on Tuesday, August 30, a full 36 hours after Katrina made landfall and the situation had grown dire. As KR writes:

Chertoff - not Brown - was in charge of managing the national response to a catastrophic disaster, according to the National Response Plan, the federal government’s blueprint for how agencies will handle major natural disasters or terrorist incidents. An order issued by President Bush in 2003 also assigned that responsibility to the homeland security director.

[The August 30 memo] suggests that Chertoff may have been confused about his lead role in disaster response and that of his department.

Noting that “[t]he goal of the National Response Plan is to provide a streamlined framework for swiftly delivering federal assistance when a disaster - caused by terrorists or Mother Nature - is too big for local officials to handle,” KR reports that “Chertoff’s hesitation and Bush’s creation of a task force both appear to contradict the National Response Plan and previous presidential directives that specify what the secretary of homeland security is assigned to do without further presidential orders.”

Shoring up the storyline that no one seemed to know what was going on is a piece in today’s New York Times, in which Brown finally speaks. His version of events further points to inaction and confusion coming from the top - specifically from Chertoff and the White House. The Times reports that Brown describes making “a blur of calls” all week to Chertoff, to the White House’s Andrew Card, and to Card’s assistant, Joe Hagin, warning them all that he had lost control and needed help. As the Times puts it, Brown’s version of events “suggests that Mr. Bush, or at least his top aides, were informed early and repeatedly by the top federal official at the scene that state and local authorities were overwhelmed and that the overall response was going badly.”

In the ongoing nightmare of a bureaucracy tripping all over itself, there also came an early memo from Brown to Chertoff, explicitly asking for help and warning of danger. This memo (obtained by the AP last week), came on August 29, a few hours after Katrina made landfall. The memo shows that, in effect, the FEMA director was waiting for Chertoff to allow him to ask for more help. Specifically, Brown requested Chertoff’s “assistance to make available DHS employees willing to deploy as soon as possible,” and called the hurricane a “near catastrophic event.”

Now, these are all mere bits and pieces of a larger chain of events, but they’re critically important bits and pieces, and the AP and Knight Ridder have done a great job in digging them up. The job for the rest of the press corps is now to take these original sources and do some serious follow-up. There are certainly more documents out there showing what happened (and what didn’t), and it’s likely that there are more people on the inside willing to talk.

We’re imploring the press corps: Step back and put these pieces together into a coherent whole, a tick-tock of the sort that deconstructs the confusion that gripped a nation and its leaders for day after day after day, one that points not just to what went wrong, but why.

Only with that we can make sure nothing like this ever happens again.

Paul McLeary

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.