WASHINGTON – In a scorching account of government failure, a bipartisan Senate committee on Thursday blamed the botched response to Hurricane Katrina on a failure of leadership that stretched from the White House to the mayor’s office in New Orleans.
Although the report’s call for disbanding the Federal Emergency Management Agency has garnered the most attention, the assessment also scolds President Bush, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and a host of other officials for failing to anticipate the devastation or provide adequate help to victims.
The bipartisan report by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee concluded that Bush “could have done more” to mobilize federal resources. It says the initial White House response “was halting and inadequate.”
Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the panel’s top Democrat, was even more critical of the president. Lieberman, a centrist whose bid for re-election next fall is being challenged by a liberal rival in the Democratic primary, asserted his conclusions in a solo chapter at the end of the full report.
“Despite the clear warnings before landfall that Katrina would be catastrophic, the president and the White House staff were not sufficiently engaged and failed to initiate a sufficiently strong and proactive response,” Lieberman wrote. “After the hurricane, the White House continued to demonstrate a lack of understanding of the magnitude of the catastrophe.”
He also accused the Bush administration of stonewalling the panel’s investigation. The Senate committee interviewed 325 witnesses and reviewed more than 838,000 pages of government documents in attempting to determine what went wrong.
“In too many cases, we faced agencies and departments that saw our efforts as a nuisance,” Lieberman said. “And the worst offender was the entity that should have stood above the fray and worked hardest with the committee to uncover the government’s failings in Katrina: the White House.”
The report hints at similar frustrations by noting that the committee “has been unable to conclude” why the president waited five days after landfall to order troops to the stricken region. The hurricane and flooding killed more than 1,500 people and left thousands more homeless in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
White House officials defended their response and Bush’s role in overseeing it. Fran Townsend, the president’s homeland security adviser, noted that the committee praised Bush’s pre-storm warnings and his decision to declare a disaster before the storm hit.
“It was the president and his staff that brought all the resources of the federal government to bear,” Townsend told reporters who were traveling with Bush on Thursday to storm-damaged areas in Louisiana and Mississippi. “Can we do better? Absolutely. Will we do better? Absolutely.”
Although the committee’s findings generally echo other assessments of the Katrina response, Lieberman’s report provides new details about what was going on behind the scenes at the White House as officials grappled with one of the most destructive natural disasters in history.
Citing testimony from former FEMA director Michael Brown, Lieberman concluded that Bush didn’t realize the impact of the storm until a day and a half after landfall, when Brown told the president that up to 90 percent of New Orleans residents had been forced from their homes.
“My God, you mean it is that bad?” Brown recalled Bush saying.
In a video teleconference Aug. 27, two days before landfall, Brown warned Bush’s advisers to prepare for a catastrophe. The aides were with the president at his Texas ranch, but Bush didn’t participate in the call.
“I’ve got to tell you my gut hurts on this one. It hurts. I’ve got cramps. So we need to take this one very, very seriously,” Brown said, according to a transcript of the teleconference.
Lieberman said Deputy White House Chief of Staff Joe Hagin, the top White House official at the session, didn’t question Brown about his dire forecast and offered a “perplexingly optimistic” response. Hagin told Brown that “it sounds like the planning, as usual, is in good shape.”
The report faults virtually every official who played a major role in the response. Among the complaints:
-Nagin “wasted time in waiting to order a mandatory evacuation.”
-Blanco “submitted an inadequate and erroneous request for assistance to the president and generally failed to ask the federal government for sufficient assistance before the storm.”
-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff “failed to effectively lead the federal response” and “should have been more engaged in preparations.”
-Brown, who has since resigned, “was insubordinate, unqualified and counterproductive.”
The Senate committee concluded that leadership failures after the storm were particularly harmful because officials had failed to prepare for a catastrophic storm despite repeated warnings.
“The results were a tragic loss of life and human suffering on a massive scale,” the committee concluded.
To read the full Senate report, go to: http://hsgac.senate.gov/index.cfm?FuseactionLinks.Katrina