updated 2/13/2006 1:16:05 PM ET 2006-02-13T18:16:05

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Monday announced wide-ranging changes to the nation’s embattled Federal Emergency Management Agency and rejected criticism that his agency is preoccupied with terror threats, at the expense of preparing for natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

“I want to tell you I unequivocally and strongly reject this attempt to drive a wedge between our concerns about terrorism and our concerns about natural disasters,” Chertoff said.

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 changes announced Monday 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.

They are the first steps to overhauling FEMA, which was overwhelmed by the Aug. 29 Gulf Coast storm.

Rejects criticism
Chertoff spoke at a gathering of state emergency management directors meeting in suburban Alexandria, Va. He responded to what he said were “people taking the position that DHS sees itself as a terrorism-focused agency” and that there’s a “huge difference” between man-made and natural disasters.

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, told a Senate committee last week he told the White House and Homeland Security officials on Aug. 29, the day Katrina hit, that major flooding was under way 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.

The failure of the levee system led to the catastrophic flooding of the city of 500,000 people.

‘I am accountable’
“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,” he added.

Chertoff suggested that time was of the essence, noting that June 1 looms as the start of another hurricane season.

He pledged “a hard, honest look at what we can do to improve our response capability.”

The powerful storm killed more than 1,300 people along the Gulf Coast, displaced hundreds of thousands of others, and caused tens of billions in damage.

Chertoff conceded major communications failures in the catastrophe, 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.

Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee issued their own recommendations Sunday for changing FEMA, including having the agency’s director report directly to the president during major disasters. They also said the director should be an experienced emergency manager.

House report cites paralysis
The FEMA changes follow the results of an House inquiry that found unheeded warnings, poor planning and apathy in recognizing the scope of Katrina’s destruction led to the slow emergency response from the White House down to local parishes.

Overall, the House report said, the federal government’s response to Katrina was marked by “fecklessness, flailing and organizational paralysis.”

“Our investigation revealed that Katrina was a national failure, an abdication of the most solemn obligation to provide for the common welfare,” said a summary of the report.

“At every level — individual, corporate, philanthropic, and governmental — we failed to meet the challenge that was Katrina,” it concluded.

“In this cautionary tale, all the little pigs built houses of straw.”

The House findings mark the first of two congressional inquiries and a White House review of the storm response expected over the next six weeks.

On Monday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee heard testimony about its own investigation into the storm response, examining potentially widespread abuse in federal emergency cash assistance programs for disaster victims.

Up to 900,000 of 2.5 million applicants received aid based on duplicate or invalid Social Security numbers, or false addresses and names, congressional investigators found.

“Everything that we have found ... confirms exactly the indictment of the House Republicans,” Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, that committee’s top Democrat, said Sunday. “It’s shocking and it is unsettling.”

Chertoff singled out
The House investigation criticized Chertoff, saying his overall responsibilities for the federal disaster relief during Katrina were fulfilled “either late, ineffectively or not at all.”

It concluded that Chertoff unnecessarily delayed naming a top federal coordinator for relief efforts and the activation of an internal disaster management group. More prompt action by Chertoff would have quickened the relief effort, the report said.

It also faulted Chertoff for not following a response plan specifically for catastrophic disasters.

In blistering testimony Friday, Brown said Chertoff had marginalized the agency’s role in the Homeland Security Department, which he said was focused more on fighting terrorism than preparing and responding to natural disasters.

A senior Homeland Security official said Chertoff earlier had been focused on ensuring the department could respond to all kinds of hazards, but that “regrettably, we were not through that implementation when Katrina hit.”

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.

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