Hurricane Katrina: Who's at Fault?

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The question Who's at fault? for the growing list of Bush administration failures surrounding Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, was answered nearly two months afterwards by Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff.

Chertoff told members of Congress on October 19, 2005, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency's "lack of planning, not the failures of state and local officials, was to blame for much of what went wrong with the government's response to Hurricane Katrina":

  • "He told lawmakers that he found the governors and mayors of the region to be responsive as the crisis unfolded."
  • "The sheer scope of the damage inflicted by Katrina overwhelmed FEMA and exposed underlying flaws in the structure and management of the agency."
  • "The agency's problems stemmed from a failure to restructure and modernize itself, not from a lack of funding."
  • "He also denied that there was a lack of urgency at the highest levels of the federal government as the hurricane approached the Louisiana coast."
  • "As urgent problems, he cited inadequate logistics and communications systems and the need to 'replenish its ranks at the senior level with experienced staff.'"
  • "[He] said he was taking steps to 'retool' the agency and that he was establishing emergency reconnaissance teams that could immediately move into disaster areas to assess the situation and prioritize relief efforts."

Blaming the Government: Failure to Perform

Michael Chertoff

"Even before the storm struck the Gulf Coast," Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff was the "federal official with the power to mobilize a massive federal response to Hurricane Katrina, [and] could have ordered federal agencies into action without any request from state or local officials." [1]

According to federal documents reviewed by Knight Ridder, Michael D. Brown, who resigned on September 12, 2005, as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, "had only limited authority to do so until about 36 hours after the storm hit, when Chertoff designated him as the 'principal federal official' in charge of the storm."

"But Chertoff - not Brown - was in charge of managing the national response to a catastrophic disaster, according to the National Response Plan, the federal government's blueprint for how agencies will handle major natural disasters or terrorist incidents. An order issued by President Bush in 2003 also assigned that responsibility to the homeland security director," Knight Ridder's Jonathan S. Landay, Alison Young and Shannon McCaffrey wrote.

"But according to a memo obtained by Knight Ridder, Chertoff didn't shift that power to Brown until late afternoon or evening on Aug. 30, about 36 hours after Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi. That same memo suggests that Chertoff may have been confused about his lead role in disaster response and that of his department," they said.

"The Chertoff memo indicates that the response to Katrina wasn't left to disaster professionals, but was run out of the White House, said George Haddow, a former deputy chief of staff at FEMA during the Clinton administration and the co-author of an emergency management textbook," Landay, Young and McCaffrey wrote. "'It shows that the president is running the disaster, the White House is running it as opposed to Brown or Chertoff,' Haddow said. Brown 'is a convenient fall guy. He's not the problem really. The problem is a system that was marginalized.'"

However, "if you go back to August 27th," President Bush had already "declared a state of emergency in the state of Louisiana under Title V of the Stafford Act, ... Ergo, Katrina became an Incident of National Significance on August 27th -- two days before the storm. But Chertoff apparently didn't realize this and waited till a day after [on August 30th] to make the determination on his own, one that according to the flow chart had already been made," Josh Marshall pointed out September 14, 2005, in his Talking Points Memo.

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Crisis Systems

Funding Levee Projects

Cause was political

"The cause was political through and through -- a matter of values and principles. The progressive-liberal values are America's values, and we need to go back to them. The heart of progressive-liberal values is simple: empathy (caring about and for people) and responsibility (acting responsibly on that empathy). These values translate into a simple principle: Use the common wealth for the common good to better all our lives. In short, promoting the common good is the central role of government," George Lakoff, wrote in AlterNet, September 6, 2005.

"The right-wing conservatives now in power have the opposite values and principles. Their main value is Rely on individual discipline and initiative. The central principle: Government has no useful role. The only common good is the sum of individual goods. It's the difference between We're all in this together and You're on your own, buddy. It's the difference between Every citizen is entitled to protection and You're only entitled to what you can afford. It's the difference between connection and separation. It is this difference in moral and political philosophy that lies behind the tragedy of Katrina."

Blaming environmental groups

"Federal officials appear to be seeking proof to blame the flood of New Orleans on environmental groups, documents show," Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion Ledger (Mississippi) reported September 16, 2005.

"The Clarion-Ledger has obtained a copy of an internal e-mail the U.S. Department of Justice sent out this week to various U.S. attorneys' offices: 'Has your district defended any cases on behalf of the (U.S.) Army Corps of Engineers against claims brought by environmental groups seeking to block or otherwise impede the Corps work on the levees protecting New Orleans? If so, please describe the case and the outcome of the litigation,'" Mitchell wrote.

"Shown a copy of the e-mail, David Bookbinder, senior attorney for Sierra Club, remarked, 'Why are they (Bush administration officials) trying to smear us like this?' ... The Sierra Club and other environmental groups had nothing to do with the flooding that resulted from Hurricane Katrina that killed hundreds, he said. 'It's unfortunate that the Bush administration is trying to shift the blame to environmental groups. It doesn't surprise me at all,'" Bookbinder said.

Mitchell said that "Whoever is behind the e-mail may have spotted" the September 8, 2005, National Review Online article "Greens vs. Levees. Destructive river-management philosophy" by John Berlau "that chastised the Sierra Club and other environmental groups for suing to halt the corps' 1996 plan to raise and fortify 303 miles of Mississippi River levees in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas.

"The corps settled the litigation in 1997, agreeing to hold off on some work until an environmental impact could be completed. The National Review article concluded: 'Whether this delay directly affected the levees that broke in New Orleans is difficult to ascertain.'

"The problem with that conclusion?," Mitchell asked? "The levees that broke causing New Orleans to flood weren't Mississippi River levees. They were levees that protected the city from Lake Pontchartrain levees on the other side of the city."

Blaming George W. Bush

  • Adam Entous, "Early warnings raised doubt on Bush disaster plans," Reuters, September 17, 2005: "President George W. Bush sought to cut a key program to help local governments raise their preparedness, and state officials warned of a 'total lack of focus' on natural disasters by his homeland-security chief, documents show."

Blaming Governor Blanco: Accountability Resolved

Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco "declared a state of emergency Aug. 26 three days before the storm and followed the steps in her disaster playbook. On Aug. 31, she asked Bush for 'everything you've got.' But some commentators and officials have blamed her for problems such as flawed communication and blocked aid," USA Today's Jill Lawrence reported September 12, 2005.

"Blanco has had several skirmishes with Bush and sent signals that she did not trust his administration. She brought in James Lee Witt, former president Bill Clinton's emergency management director, to advise her. She rejected Bush's proposal that the federal government take control of National Guard troops under her command. ('If that would have improved our situation, it would have been a no-brainer, she says)," Lawrence wrote. "She says that two days after Katrina, desperate for help, she couldn't get through to Bush and didn't get a callback; hours later, she tried again, and they talked."

However, Mississippi's governor Haley Barbour "hasn't had to wait hours to talk to Bush," Lawrence wrote. "In fact, Barbour said in an interview with USA TODAY, the president called him three to four times in the wake of Katrina. 'I never called him. He always called me,' he said."

Blaming the Victims

Blaming the Media

Pointing Fingers

"now is not the time to point fingers"

Although inevitably the "finger pointing" has begun, Rob at AMERICAblog wrote September 6, 2005:

"To a single one, I have heard Republican Congressperson after Republican Congressperson toeing the Party line that 'now is not the time to point fingers.' ... How dare they tell the public not to hold their Government accountable? How dare they think photo ops are enough to quell public outrage at the utterly preventable human catastrophe?"

Jefferson County Parish President Aaron Broussard said on the September 4, 2005, NBC Meet the Press with Tim Russert:

"We have been abandoned by our own country. Hurricane Katrina will go down in history as one of the worst storms ever to hit an American coast. But the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will go down as one of the worst abandonments of Americans on American soil ever in U.S. history. … Whoever is at the top of this totem pole, that totem pole needs to be chainsawed off and we’ve got to start with some new leadership. It’s not just Katrina that caused all these deaths in New Orleans here. Bureaucracy has committed murder here in the greater New Orleans area and bureaucracy has to stand trial before Congress now."

Keep Pointing Fingers

"It might make sense to hold off on the criticism if this were the first big disaster on Mr. Bush's watch, or if the chain of mistakes in handling Hurricane Katrina were out of character," Paul Krugman wrote September 9, 2005. "But even with the most generous possible assessment, this is the administration's second big policy disaster, after Iraq."

"Why did the administration make the same mistakes twice? Because it paid no political price the first time."

Congressional Comments


  • Following a September 7, 2005, meeting with President Bush, Bill Frist "placed the blame for the slow response on all levels of government but warned against citing specific individuals. "'Having been on the ground and seen the failures of the system's approach, the failure in appropriate planning -- yes, federal government; yes, state government; yes, local government -- but the call for people's heads early on almost, to me, misses the root cause of the problem'," Frist said.
  • "'Some people are really very anxious to start pointing fingers and playing the blame game. I think we need to get our work done," Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the House of Representatives, said September 7, 2005.
  • "But in a sign of the White House effort to move the dispute out of the Oval Office and try to cast the argument in partisan terms, the Republican National Committee chairman, Ken Mehlman, issued a statement assailing Democrats like Ms. Pelosi for 'pointing fingers in a shameless effort to tear us apart.'"


  • "'Americans should now harbor no illusions about the government's ability to respond effectively to disasters ... Our vulnerabilities were laid bare,'" House Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-California) said September 7, 2005.
  • "'Our government failed at one of the most basic functions it has - providing for the physical safety of our citizens,'" Senator Evan Bayh (D-Indiana) said.
  • "'It's a summary of all that this administration is not in touch with and has faked and ducked and bobbed over the past four years. What you see here is a harvest of four years of complete avoidance of real problem solving and real governance in favor of spin and ideology'," Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) said in an interview.
  • "'This is deeply disturbing to a lot of Americans, because it's more than thousands of people who get killed; it's about the destruction of the American community. ...The idea that somehow government didn't care until it had to for political reasons. It's appalling'," Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean said.


Political Fallout

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