Chertoff defends Department’s dual role
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has rejected criticism that the Department of Homeland Security is preoccupied with terror threats, at the expense of preparing for natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.
“I strongly reject this attempt to drive a wedge between our concerns about terrorism and our concerns about natural disasters,” Chertoff said at a gathering of state emergency management directors meeting in Alexandria, Va.
His strong defense of his agency, in response to criticism by ex-federal disaster chief Michael Brown and others came as a congressional report blamed government-wide ineptitude for mishandling Hurricane Katrina relief, The Associated Press reports.
Chertoff was announcing wide-ranging changes to the nation’s embattled Federal Emergency Management Agency. The changes range from creation of a full-time response force of 1,500 new employees to establishing a more reliable system to report on disasters as they unfold.
A 600-page report by a special Republican-dominated House inquiry into one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history concluded that late state and local evacuation orders exacerbated an untrained and inexperienced force of federal emergency workers.
It also said President Bush received poor and incomplete counsel about the crisis unfolding in the Gulf Coast. Chertoff has been the target of much of the criticism of the federal response to the hurricane.
Brown, who resigned under pressure as FEMA head, recently told a Senate committee he told the White House and Homeland Security officials on Aug. 29, the day Katrina hit, that major flooding was happening and a levee had been breached.
But both the president and Chertoff said previously that they were unaware of the levee breach until the next day, Aug. 30.
“I want to be clear, as the secretary of Homeland security I am accountable and accept responsibility to the performance of the entire department, good and bad,” Chertoff said. “I also have the responsibility to fix what went wrong.”
Chertoff conceded major communications failures in the hurricane, comparing the situation to “the fog of war.”
“The first step in addressing that fog is to enhance and expand a hardened set of communications capabilities,” Chertoff said.
Among the planned changes at FEMA:
* Tracking trucks carrying food, water, ice, blankets and other emergency supplies by satellite to ensure they arrive at disaster sites quickly and with enough equipment.
* Sending FEMA employees to emergency shelters and other temporary housing venues to register victims for aid, instead of relying on victims to register by phone or the Internet.
* Creating a database of already-approved private contracting firms from disaster regions to remove debris and provide services faster.
* Creating “reconnaissance teams” to report disaster conditions to Homeland Security and FEMA operation centers within hours, and improving communication channels to ensure the information quickly gets to the president and Cabinet-level officials.
* Hiring up to 1,500 new full-time employees as year-round coordinators.