The national soul-searching over the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe has focused on the slow or confused responses of government officials, from President Bush and former FEMA head Michael Brown to the governor of Louisiana and the mayor of New Orleans.
But when the dust settles, investigators leading the inevitable wave of Katrina probes to come may well find that some of the debacle’s chief causes lie with other individuals and stretch back in time — to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and their emotional aftermath.
Even some of the main architects of the government’s massive post-9/11 restructuring acknowledged that, in the Katrina disaster, the changes failed their first major test.
“At this point, we would have expected a sharp, crisp response to this terrible tragedy,” said Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. “Instead, we witnessed what appeared to be a sluggish initial response.”
Interviews with senior officials and outside analysts, along with a review of government reports from the last three years, yield evidence of a string of questionable decisions by lawmakers and homeland-security officials charged with protecting Americans against future assaults:
_ Legislation hastily crafted and passed by Congress in November 2002, which created the Department of Homeland Security, safeguarded the ability of some agencies within the new mega-department _ such as the Coast Guard _ to respond to non-terrorist emergencies, while draining clout and resources from others _ starting with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
_ The law establishing DHS, and subsequent budget moves by Bush, congressional appropriators and the new agency’s leaders, shifted the federal government’s focus from responding to emergencies to preventing them _ and, more broadly, from preparing for natural disasters to readying for terrorist attacks.
_ An administrative change by then-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, early last year, left FEMA with the task of leading the country’s response to any large-scale disaster, manmade or natural. But Ridge’s change stripped FEMA of the right to distribute billions of dollars in emergency-preparedness grants to state and local governments, thus limiting its ability to know where key assets were located once a disaster occurred.
_ Restrictions written into the original DHS law require most of those federal-grant funds to be spent on terrorism-related equipment or training, with response to floods, hurricanes, tornadoes or other natural disasters merely an afterthought.
Now, in the wake of Katrina, lawmakers from both parties and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff are among those rushing forward with fresh fixes.
Sen. Mark Foley, a Florida Republican, and Democratic Sens. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York are pushing measures to remove FEMA from DHS and restore its status as an independent, Cabinet-level agency.
Chertoff, meanwhile, maintains that Katrina makes even more urgent an administrative reform he had advanced before the hurricane and flooding: to dedicate one office within DHS to preparing for emergencies, while retaining post-disaster response responsibilities in a separate DHS agency _ FEMA.
Some experts say that kind of change could exacerbate the existing problem of fragmented lines of authority.
Under the current practice initiated by Ridge, DHS’ Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness distributed almost $3.3 billion in emergency-preparedness grants this budget year. But when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, FEMA was charged with coordinating the use of equipment and personnel bought and trained by those funds.
“The people who draw up the plans should be able to execute the plans,” said Paul Anderson, a spokesman for the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ chief investigative arm. “Now we have one office taking in grant applications, reviewing emergency plans by state and local governments and determining where federal assistance should go, yet FEMA is tasked with managing the response and marshalling the assets.”
For months after 9/11, Bush resisted widespread calls to consolidate the government’s varied anti-terrorism and emergency-response functions into a massive new super-agency.
But when an independent commission set up to probe the attacks _ whose creation Bush had also opposed _ recommended such a consolidation, he relented under political pressure, and the Department of Homeland Security was born. It now contains 22 previously separate agencies or parts of agencies, with 180,000 total employees.
As Congress quickly slapped together legislation to create DHS, some lawmakers warned that it should be giving more scrutiny to the largest government overhaul since President Harry Truman established the Defense Department after World War II.
Holding up the 484-page measure that would set up DHS, Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia declared: “It has not been before any committee. There have been no hearings on this bill. … Never have I seen such a monstrous piece of legislation sent to this body.”
Six months before Congress overwhelmingly approved the DHS legislation in November 2002, U.S. Comptroller General David Walker, head of the GAO, had raised other concerns.
“Many non-homeland-security missions are likely to be integrated into a Cabinet department overwhelmingly dedicated to protecting the nation from terrorism,” Walker said. “Congress may wish to consider whether the new department, as proposed, will dedicate sufficient management capacity and accountability to ensure the execution of non-homeland-security missions.”
Walker cited six critical federal functions he believed could deteriorate if absorbed into the terrorism-oriented DHS. In a warning that seems prescient after the Katrina debacle, one of the functions was “responding to floods and other natural disasters by FEMA.”
Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican, worried about the fate of the U.S. Coast Guard if it was folded into the DHS, saying the military branch provided essential maritime security and search-and-rescue services to his state’s commercial fishermen.
“It is very likely that all other important missions of the Coast Guard and FEMA will become secondary to the effort to combat terrorism,” Young said.
Young successfully demanded that the DHS measure include clauses specifically protecting the Coast Guard. As a result of his efforts, the law defines six non-homeland-security missions and five homeland-security missions for the Coast Guard.
More importantly, the law says those missions “shall be maintained intact and without significant reduction after the transfer of the Coast Guard to the Department.” And it expressly prohibits the DHS secretary from taking any steps that “substantially or significantly reduce the missions of the Coast Guard.”
Partly because similar protections for FEMA were not written into the law, that agency lost its Cabinet status and its right to distribute emergency-preparedness grants after being absorbed into DHS.
That omission might help to explain the contrasting public reviews FEMA and the Coast Guard received as the Katrina disaster unfolded.
Brown, the FEMA director, was recalled to Washington and removed from the job of running the Katrina relief effort, leading to his subsequent resignation. Replacing him as the federal government’s ground commander in the devastated Gulf Coast region was Vice Adm. Thad Allen, chief of staff of the Coast Guard.
Richard Falkenrath, deputy homeland security adviser to Bush in 2003 and 2004, said the Katrina tragedy would require lawmakers and other policymakers to reconsider some of the post-9/11 changes.
“Obviously, our country is not as ready to respond to these sorts of uber-catastrophes as we would like it to be _ and as many people had hoped we would be _ after 9/11,” he said. “To a certain extent, this is a bit of false advertising as to what the government has accomplished since 9/11.”
(Liz Ruskin of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.)