Katrina: Chertoff Delayed Federal Response

A newly uncovered memo seems to show that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff delayed the federal response to Hurricane Katrina by deviating from the National Response Plan and being too slow in giving FEMA the necessary authority to act.

Chertoff delayed federal response, memo shows (Knight Ridder)

The federal official with the power to mobilize a massive federal response to Hurricane Katrina was Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, not the former FEMA chief who was relieved of his duties and resigned earlier this week, federal documents reviewed by Knight Ridder show. Even before the storm struck the Gulf Coast, Chertoff could have ordered federal agencies into action without any request from state or local officials. Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown 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.


White House and homeland security officials wouldn’t explain why Chertoff waited some 36 hours to declare Katrina an incident of national significance and why he didn’t immediately begin to direct the federal response from the moment on Aug. 27 when the National Hurricane Center predicted that Katrina would strike the Gulf Coast with catastrophic force in 48 hours. Nor would they explain why Bush felt the need to appoint a separate task force.

Chertoff’s hesitation and Bush’s creation of a task force both appear to contradict the National Response Plan and previous presidential directives that specify what the secretary of homeland security is assigned to do without further presidential orders. The goal of the National Response Plan is to provide a streamlined framework for swiftly delivering federal assistance when a disaster – caused by terrorists or Mother Nature – is too big for local officials to handle.


Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, didn’t dispute that the National Response Plan put Chertoff in charge in federal response to a catastrophe. But he disputed that the bureaucracy got in the way of launching the federal response. “There was a tremendous sense of urgency,” Knocke said. “We were mobilizing the greatest response to a disaster in the nation’s history.” Knocke noted that members of the Coast Guard were already in New Orleans performing rescues and FEMA personnel and supplies had been deployed to the region.


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.

“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.”

A former FEMA director under President Reagan expressed shock by the inaction that Chertoff’s memo suggested. It showed that Chertoff “does not have a full appreciation for what the country is faced with – nor does anyone who waits that long,” said Gen. Julius Becton Jr., who was FEMA director from 1985-1989. “Anytime you have a delay in taking action, there’s a potential for losing lives,” Becton told Knight Ridder. “I have no idea how many lives we’re talking about. … I don’t understand why, except that they were inefficient.”


Should Chertoff have declared Katrina an Incident of National Significance sooner – even before the storm struck? Did his delay slow the quick delivery of the massive federal response that was needed? Would it have made a difference? “You raise good questions,” said Frank J. Cilluffo, the director of George Washington University’s Homeland Security Planning Institute. It’s too early to tell, he said, whether unfamiliarity with or glitches in the new National Response Plan were factors in the poor early response to Katrina. “Clearly this is the first test. It certainly did not pass with flying colors,” Cilluffo said of the National Response Plan.

All quite bizarre given all the fanfare over the weekend before Katrina hit. It was hardly a surprise, so one would think implementing the pre-designated plan would have been relatively simple. Presumably, the dozen or so commissions that will investigate this will give us the answers in due course.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Herb says:

    I think this revelation should prove that Mike Brown was not at fault for the slow response and that Chertoff and posibly even Bush himself had major roles in this Katrina fiasco. At any rate, Chertoff should go and Bush has the responsibility and obligation to fire Chertoff on the spot. Personaly, I think that Bush was totally left in the dark by Chertoff who blew smoke up Bush’s skirt as to the seriousness of the disaster. The firing (resignation?) of brown was nothing more that Chertoff trying to CYA.

    Now let’s see what Bush is going to do about this mess, He has accepted responsibility, so it is now up to him to make the situitation just and fair.

    He need to FIRE Chertoff, NOW

  2. bryan says:

    Yeah, I’m sure glad we got that nincompoop brown out of the way. (/sarcasm)