The killer hurricane and flood that devastated the Gulf Coast last week exposed fatal weaknesses in a federal disaster response system retooled after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to handle just such a cataclysmic event.
Despite four years and tens of billions of dollars spent preparing for the worst, the federal government was not ready when it came at daybreak on Monday, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former senior officials and outside experts.
Among the flaws they cited: Failure to take the storm seriously before it hit and trigger the government's highest level of response. Rebuffed offers of aid from the military, states and cities. An unfinished new plan meant to guide disaster response. And a slow bureaucracy that waited until late Tuesday to declare the catastrophe "an incident of national significance," the new federal term meant to set off the broadest possible relief effort.
Born out of the confused and uncertain response to 9/11, the massive new Department of Homeland Security was charged with being ready the next time, whether the disaster was wrought by nature or terrorists. The department commanded huge resources as it prepared for deadly scenarios from an airborne anthrax attack to a biological attack with plague to a chlorine-tank explosion.
But Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said yesterday that his department had failed to find an adequate model for addressing the "ultra-catastrophe" that resulted when Hurricane Katrina's floodwater breached New Orleans's levees and drowned the city, "as if an atomic bomb had been dropped."
If Hurricane Katrina represented a real-life rehearsal of sorts, the response suggested to many that the nation is not ready to handle a terrorist attack of similar dimensions. "This is what the department was supposed to be all about," said Clark Kent Ervin, DHS's former inspector general. "Instead, it obviously raises very serious, troubling questions about whether the government would be prepared if this were a terrorist attack. It's a devastating indictment of this department's performance four years after 9/11."
"We've had our first test, and we've failed miserably," said former representative Timothy J. Roemer (D-Ind.), a member of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks. "We have spent billions of dollars in revenues to try to make our country safe, and we have not made nearly enough progress." With Katrina, he noted that "we had some time to prepare. When it's a nuclear, chemical or biological attack," there will be no warning.
Indeed, the warnings about New Orleans's vulnerability to post-hurricane flooding repeatedly circulated at the upper levels of the new bureaucracy, which had absorbed the old lead agency for disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, among its two dozen fiefdoms. "Beyond terrorism, this was the one event I was most concerned with always," said Joe M. Allbaugh, the former Bush campaign manager who served as his first FEMA head.
But several current and former senior officials charged that those worries were never accorded top priority -- either by FEMA's management or their superiors in DHS. Even when officials held a practice run, as they did in an exercise dubbed "Hurricane Pam" last year, they did not test for the worst-case scenario, rehearsing only what they would do if a Category 3 storm hit New Orleans, not the Category 4 power of Katrina. And after Pam, the planned follow-up study was never completed, according to a FEMA official involved.
"The whole department was stood up, it was started because of 9/11 and that's the bottom line," said C. Suzanne Mencer, a former senior homeland security official whose office took on some of the preparedness functions that had once been FEMA's. "We didn't have an appropriate response to 9/11, and that is why it was stood up and where the funding has been directed. The message was . . . we need to be better prepared against terrorism."
The roots of last week's failures will be examined for weeks and months to come, but early assessments point to a troubled Department of Homeland Security that is still in the midst of a bureaucratic transition, a "work in progress," as Mencer put it. Some current and former officials argued that as it worked to focus on counterterrorism, the department has diminished the government's ability to respond in a nuts-and-bolts way to disasters in general, and failed to focus enough on threats posed by hurricanes and other natural disasters in particular. From an independent Cabinet-level agency, FEMA has become an underfunded, isolated piece of the vast DHS, yet it is still charged with leading the government's response to disaster.
"It's such an irony I hate to say it, but we have less capability today than we did on September 11," said a veteran FEMA official involved in the hurricane response. "We are so much less than what we were in 2000," added another senior FEMA official. "We've lost a lot of what we were able to do then."
The DHS experiment is so far-flung that the department's leadership has focused much of its attention simply on the massive complications that resulted from creating one entity out of agencies as varied as the U.S. Coast Guard, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Transportation Security Administration. When Chertoff took office earlier this year, he made his top priority an entirely new bureaucratic reorganization less than two years after the department's creation, dubbed the "second-stage review." The review, still pending, recommends taking away a key remaining function, preparedness planning, from FEMA and giving it to "a strengthened department preparedness directorate."
The procedures for what to do when the inevitable disaster hit were also subjected to a bureaucratic overhaul, still unfinished, by the department. Indeed, just last Tuesday, as New Orleans was drowning and DHS officials were still hours away from invoking the department's highest crisis status for the catastrophe, some department contractors found an important e-mail in their inboxes.
Attached were two documents -- one more than 400 pages long -- that spelled out in numbing, acronym-filled detail the planned "national preparedness goal." The checklist, called a Universal Task List, appeared to cover every eventuality in a disaster, from the need to handle evacuations to speedy urban search and rescue to circulating "prompt, accurate and useful" emergency information. Even animal health and "fatality management" were covered.
But the documents were not a menu for action in the devastated Gulf Coast. They were drafts, not slated for approval and release until October, more than four years after 9/11.
"Basically, this is the rules of engagement for national emergency events, whether natural or manmade. It covers every element of what you would have expected to already have been in place," said the contractor who provided the e-mail to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity because he feared jeopardizing his firm's work. "This is the federal government template to engage, and this is being discussed in draft form."
FEMA lost in the shuffle
Until 1979, the federal government had no one agency responsible for dealing with disaster.
But that year, President Jimmy Carter created FEMA out of a patchwork of smaller agencies. Born at the tail end of the Cold War, FEMA had a mission largely defined as nuclear fallout shelters and other civil defense measures, though in reality it dealt with "hurricane after hurricane," as Jane Bullock, a 22-year agency veteran who was FEMA chief of staff in President Bill Clinton's administration, noted.
After Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989 and Hurricane Andrew in 1992, federal response was panned, and FEMA was due for an overhaul. It got it in 1993, when Clinton brought in James Lee Witt, a veteran emergency manager and political ally, to take over, granted the agency Cabinet-level status and gave it a highly visible role it had not previously had. Its response to crises such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing received high marks, though some Republicans complained that it was used as a pot of money doled out to bolster Clinton's political standing.
But after 9/11, FEMA lost out in the massive bureaucratic shuffle.
Not only did its Cabinet status disappear, but it became one of 22 government agencies to be consolidated into Homeland Security. For a time, recalled Ervin, even its name was slated to vanish and become simply the directorate of emergency preparedness and response until then-DHS Secretary Tom Ridge relented.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers from hurricane-prone states fought a rear-guard action against FEMA's absorption. "What we were afraid of, and what is coming to pass, is that FEMA has basically been destroyed as a coherent, fast-on-its-feet, independent agency," said Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.). In creating DHS, "people were thinking about the possibility of terrorism," said Walter Gillis Peacock, director of the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University. "They weren't thinking about the reality of a hurricane."
Hurricanes were not totally absent from the calculations about the new department, according to several former Bush administration officials. Bush tapped his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., to supervise DHS's creation; a decade earlier, Card had been personally deputized by Bush's father to go to Florida and take charge of the much-criticized response to Hurricane Andrew.
"We definitely did worry about it," recalled Richard A. Falkenrath, who served as a White House homeland security adviser at the time DHS was being formed. "We knew we should do no harm to the disaster management side. The leadership of the White House knows the political significance of disasters."
From the day it came into existence on March 1, 2003, the department of 180,000 employees and a nearly $40 billion annual budget was tasked by a presidential directive with developing a comprehensive new plan for disasters. The National Response Plan was supposed to supersede the confusing overlay of federal, state and local disaster plans, and to designate a "principal officer in the event of an incident of national significance." An accompanying new National Incident Management System would integrate all the cascades of information.
"The problem was, who was in charge on 9/11? Who the hell knew? They kept asking and asking. You needed some clarity," Falkenrath recalled. "It was supposed to pull it all together. . . . But FEMA was grousing about that; they thought it was taking things away from them."
Focus on terrorism
In creating the department, President Bush made one of its central missions "all-hazards preparedness," operating on the philosophy -- as the government has for at least the past two decades -- that most disaster preparation is the same, whether the crisis is natural or manmade.
Yet DHS in reality emphasized terrorism at the expense of other threats, said several current and former senior department officials and experts who have closely monitored its creation, cutting funding for natural disaster programs and downgrading the responsibilities and capabilities of the previously well-regarded FEMA. In theory, spending resources on response to terrorism should result in improved response to any disaster, but FEMA's supporters argue that the money was being spent outside the framework of the agency actually equipped to respond.
"The federal system that was perfected in the '90s has been deconstructed," said Bullock. Citing a study that found that the United States now spends $180 million a year to fend off natural hazards vs. $20 billion annually against terrorism, Bullock said, "FEMA has been marginalized. . . . There is one focus and the focus is on terrorism."
The White House's Homeland Security Council developed 15 scenarios for the department to concern itself about -- everything from a terrorist dirty-bomb attack to a Baghdad-style improvised explosive device. Only three were not terrorism scenarios: a pandemic flu, a major earthquake and a major hurricane.
By this year, almost three of every four grant dollars appropriated to DHS for first responders went to programs explicitly focused on terrorism, the Government Accountability Office noted in a July report. Out of $3.4 billion in proposed spending for homeland security preparedness grants in the upcoming fiscal year, GAO found, $2.6 billion would be on terrorism-focused programs. At the same time, the budget for much of what remained of FEMA has been cut every year; for the current fiscal year, funding for the core FEMA functions went down to $444 million from $664 million.
New leaders such as Allbaugh were critical of FEMA's natural disaster focus and lectured senior managers about the need to adjust to the post-9/11 fear of terrorism. So did his friend Michael D. Brown, a lawyer with no previous disaster management experience whom Allbaugh brought in as his deputy and who now has the top FEMA post. "Allbaugh's quote was 'You don't get it,' " recalled the senior FEMA official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "If you brought up natural disasters, you were accused of being a pre-9/11 thinker." The result, the official said, was that "FEMA was being taxed by the department, having money and slots taken. Because we didn't conform with the mission of the agency."
"I'm guilty of saying, 'you don't get it,' " Allbaugh said. "Absolutely." The former FEMA chief said he had encountered bureaucratic resistance to thinking about a "monumental" disaster, such as Katrina or 9/11, rather than the more standard diet of "tornadoes and rising waters."
But experts in emergency response inside and outside the government sounded warnings about the changes at FEMA. Peacock said FEMA's traditional emphasis on emergency response "all went up in smoke" after 9/11, creating a "blind spot" as a result of a "police-action, militaristic view" of homeland security. When it came to natural disasters, "It was not only forgetting about it, it was not funding it."
Jack Harrald, director of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster, and Risk Management at George Washington University, said FEMA's natural disaster focus was nearly liquidated. "We ended up spending a lot of money on infrastructure protection and not the resiliency of the actual infrastructure," Harrald said. "The people who came in from the military and terrorist world thought we had the natural disaster thing fixed."
Rebuffed offers of aid
On the Friday before Katrina hit, when it was already a Category 2 hurricane rapidly gathering force in the Gulf, a veteran FEMA employee arrived at the newly activated Washington headquarters for the storm. Inside, there was surprisingly little action. "It was like nobody's turning the key to start the engine," the official recalled.
Brown, the agency's director, told reporters Saturday in Louisiana that he did not have a sense of what was coming last weekend.
"I was here on Saturday and Sunday, it was my belief, I'm trying to think of a better word than typical -- that minimizes, any hurricane is bad -- but we had the standard hurricane coming in here, that we could move in immediately on Monday and start doing our kind of response-recovery effort," he said. "Then the levees broke, and the levees went, you've seen it by the television coverage. That hampered our ability, made it even more complex."
But other officials said they warned well before Monday about what could happen. For years, said another senior FEMA official, he had sat at meetings where plans were discussed to send evacuees to the Superdome. "We used to stare at each other and say, 'This is the plan? Are you really using the Superdome?' People used to say, what if there is water around it? They didn't have an alternative," he recalled.
In the run-up to the current crisis, Allbaugh said he knew "for a fact" that officials at FEMA and other federal agencies had requested that New Orleans issue a mandatory evacuation order earlier than Sunday morning.
But DHS did not ask the U.S. military to assist in pre-hurricane evacuation efforts, despite well-known estimates that a major hurricane would cause levees in New Orleans to fail. In an interview, the general charged with operations for the military's Northern Command said such a request to help with the evacuation "did not come our way."
"At the point that we were all watching the evacuation and the clogged Interstate 10 going to the west on Sunday, we were watching the storm very carefully," Maj. Gen. Richard Rowe said. "At that time, it was a Category 5 storm and we knew that it would be among the worst storms to ever hit the United States. . . . I knew there was an excellent chance of flooding."
Others who went out of their way to offer help were turned down, such as Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who told reporters his city had offered emergency, medical and technical help as early as last Sunday to FEMA but was turned down. Only a single tank truck was requested, Daley said. Red tape kept the American Ambulance Association from sending 300 emergency vehicles from Florida to the flood zone, according to former senator John Breaux (D-La.) They were told to get permission from the General Services Administration. "GSA said they had to have FEMA ask for it," Breaux told CNN. "As a result they weren't sent."
Federal authorities say there is blame enough to go around. In a news conference yesterday, Chertoff cautioned against "finger-pointing" and said no one had been equipped to handle what amounted to two simultaneous disasters -- the hurricane and subsequent levee break.
Other federal and state officials pointed to Louisiana's failure to measure up to national disaster response standards, noting that the federal plan advises state and local emergency managers not to expect federal aid for 72 to 96 hours, and base their own preparedness efforts on the need to be self-sufficient for at least that period. "Fundamentally the first breakdown occurred at the local level," said one state official who works with FEMA. "Did the city have the situational awareness of what was going on within its borders? The answer was no."
But many outraged politicians in both parties have concluded that the federal government failed to meet the commitments it made after Sept. 11, 2001. Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said DHS had failed. "We've been told time and time again that we are prepared for any emergency that comes, that we're ready," he said. "We're obviously not."
Thompson said, for example, that oil pipelines in the Southeast have been identified by DHS as critical national infrastructure to be protected against terrorist attack. In the wake of the hurricane, they have been crippled by floods." We have to review all our systems," Thompson said. "If a byproduct of what happened in New Orleans is we have this gas crisis all over the country, it doesn't matter whether a terrorist hits it or a hurricane hits it. You have the same effect."
Staff writers Peter Baker, Bradley Graham, Spencer S. Hsu, Dafna Linzer and Michael Powell and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.