WASHINGTON — Most of FEMA’s problems in dealing with disasters can be fixed with better planning, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told Congress on Wednesday. “We are going to be very prepared for Hurricane Wilma,” he said of the storm on the horizon.
Testifying before a special House committee created to probe the slow federal response to Katrina, Chertoff deflected questions about his own actions by telling lawmakers he had relied on Federal Emergency Management Agency experts with decades of experience in hurricane response.
“I’m not a hurricane expert,” he said repeatedly.
Chertoff’s appearance came as weather forecasters kept a wary eye on Wilma, which grew into one of the most intense Atlantic hurricanes on record before weakening Wednesday. Forecasters said it probably would strike the west coast of Florida late in the week.
At a separate House hearing, the governors of Florida, Texas and Arizona urged lawmakers not to change the emergency response system that makes states the first responders during hurricanes and other emergencies.
“We can’t do our jobs if the job is federalized,” said Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat.
Chertoff, a former prosecutor and Justice Department official, took over the Homeland Security Department in February. A department-wide review he ordered was under way when Katrina hit, killing more than 1,200 people, flooding New Orleans and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people.
Chertoff said FEMA was overwhelmed by the scope of Katrina.
“I think 80 percent or more of the problem goes to planning,” he said, adding that FEMA’s core budget has increased by 28 percent since 2001.
He also dismissed suggestions by some lawmakers that FEMA lost its effectiveness when it was changed from an independent agency to a branch of Homeland Security.
Grilled about actions leading up to Katrina
Lawmakers grilled Chertoff about why he stayed home the Saturday before Katrina made landfall on Monday, Aug. 29, why he made a previously scheduled trip to Atlanta that Tuesday, and why he didn’t act more decisively to speed up the federal response.
“I don’t get a sense that your heart was in this, frankly,” said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn.
Chertoff said he relied on former FEMA Director Michael Brown as the “battlefield commander” and focused his efforts on making sure FEMA had all the resources it needed. He said he stayed in telephone contact with the office while at home and during the Atlanta trip.
“I don’t think there was a lack of a sense of urgency,” he said.
Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., suggested that Congress should authorize the president or other federal official to order evacuations ahead of storms, since Louisiana officials waited until Sunday to order a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans.
Chertoff called the suggestion “a worthwhile question to ask,” but declined to take a position.
Most of the blame for the slow federal response to Katrina has fallen on Brown, who resigned last month after Chertoff removed him from direct responsibility for Katrina relief and recovery efforts.
When Brown testified before the committee last month, he blamed state and local officials in Louisiana for the slow response to Katrina. Chertoff disagreed.
“From my own experience, I don’t endorse those views,” he said.
Democrats want their own investigation
The hearing was the first opportunity for lawmakers to question Chertoff directly about his role in the response. The investigation is being conducted by a special committee appointed by House GOP leaders. Democratic leaders, insisting on an independent investigation, have refused to cooperate.
But several Democratic congressmen from the affected areas have attended the hearings and questioned witnesses. They were joined Wednesday by Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., who blasted what she called a lack of leadership in the Bush administration’s response to Katrina.
Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, objected when McKinney asked Chertoff why he should not be charged with negligent homicide because of the federal response.
When questions “are over the top and not constructive, I don’t believe the secretary should waste his time by answering,” Bonilla said.
Chertoff did answer, however, declaring that President Bush “was deeply and personally engaged in the process from before the hurricane. I was deeply and personally involved in the process from before the hurricane.”
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