Michael Chertoff: 'What The Hell Is Going On?'

The lowest moment, Michael Chertoff recalls, came at about 2 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 1, three days after Katrina struck. An NPR interviewer asked the secretary of Homeland Security what he was doing about the thousands of people stranded at the Convention Center. Chertoff had no good answer. Hanging up from the interview, he turned and said to an aide, "What the hell is going on with the Convention Center?" Chertoff called his beleaguered FEMA chief, Mike Brown, and was told that there were only 1,500 people there. He ordered Homeland Security's Operations Center to "get some eyeballs" on the situation. Still, the answer came back: only 1,500 people. On the third go-round, Chertoff asked the head of the Federal Protection Service to take a look personally. This time the reported number shot up, to 10,000 to 15,000. Why the discrepancy? The earlier inspectors had failed to look in rooms "deep inside the building," says Chertoff.

It may seem remarkable that the secretary of Homeland Security had to be told by a radio reporter what was going on, and more incredible that it took three tries for his own people to catch up. But Katrina was a case study in how not to handle a disaster. "We weren't where we needed to be," acknowledges Chertoff. His department was in the midst of something called "second-stage review" on disaster planning, and FEMA, he says, lacked "the skill set" to do "preparedness." Pre-Katrina, Chertoff himself appeared to have been more focused on exotic threats from a bio-warfare attack by terrorists than storm damage from hurricanes.

Monday afternoon, after Katrina hit, Chertoff believed that the storm had been "bad" but not "quite as bad" as it might have been, and that the flooding was "manageable." He was not told that a FEMA official, Marty Bahamonde, had seen the levee breach on Monday afternoon and sent frantic e-mails to his bosses at FEMA. Reached by NEWSWEEK, Bahamonde said, "I've been asking myself the same question. Why didn't the information get through?"

A congressional investigating committee has released some embarrassing e-mails that suggest FEMA Director Brown was oddly detached from the urgency of the disaster. For instance, at 11:20 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 30, Bahamonde e-mailed Brown, "Sir, I know that you know the situation is past critical... thousands in the streets with no food and water... estimates that many will die within hours." Less than three hours later, Brown's press secretary, Sharon Worthy, was asking her colleagues to get more time for Brown to eat dinner because Baton Rouge restaurants were getting busy and "he needs much more than 20 or 30 minutes."

Brown did not reply to NEWSWEEK's request for an interview, but he earlier told "Frontline" that he had received conflicting information on the scale of the disaster. By numerous accounts, there was considerable tension between state and federal officials in Baton Rouge, which added to the confusion and miscommunication. Bureaucratic resentment clouded relations between FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security. Brown apparently resented that FEMA lost its cabinet-level status when it was folded into DHS after 9/11; according to his e-mails, he regarded his role as the "Principal Federal Officer" during the crisis as a "demotion."

In Washington, Chertoff was left groping for information. During the day on Tuesday, he recalls, "I'd ask, 'When did the levees break?' and I'd hear a dozen different stories." Chertoff says his first "big twinge" that things were not going well came when "I tried to reach [New Orleans Mayor Ray] Nagin on Tuesday and couldn't get him." On Thursday, Chertoff was unable to find out how many buses had reached the Superdome to evacuate people. He says he received a "big jolt" that day when the National Guard told FEMA that it could no longer guarantee the safety of agency personnel. The tightly controlled former prosecutor began showing his emotions. "On Wednesday, you could hear this impatience in his voice," says his spokesman, Brian Besanceney. "By Friday, he was p---ed off."

By this time, Chertoff was beginning to wonder if Brown was the man for the job--"some people just shut down" was the way Chertoff put it. He decided to effectively shove Brown aside for the more capable commander of the Coast Guard, Adm. Thad Allen. On Sunday, Chertoff went to visit the Superdome, which had finally been evacuated. He was overwhelmed by the stench and lasted 10 minutes. "It was not a place you'd want to linger," he said. For many nights thereafter, he would wake up at 4 a.m., "replaying things--could we have done them better?" He concluded that he needed "better situational awareness" and that the Feds needed to be better prepared "for panic." No "second-stage review" required to figure that out.

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