No Way Chertoff Should Get The AG Job: Remembering Katrina

Chertoff-MTP.jpg Michael Chertoff's name is being thrown around as a possible replacement for Alberto Gonzales. I'm re-posting this to highlight why he's not eligible for such a post. Tim Russert did a good job of grilling Chertoff over the absolute failure of his department in combating the Hurricane Katrina disaster. (Originally posted 9-4-05)

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Chertoff: Well, I think if you look at what actually happened, I remember on Tuesday morning picking up newspapers and I saw headlines, “New Orleans Dodged the Bullet.” Because if you recall, the storm moved to the east and then continued on and appeared to pass with considerable damage but nothing worse.”                              

Russert exposed the lies that have been coming from the administration for their lack of response to Katrina. Here's the full transcript from MTP. He admitted that he got his intel about NOLA from the media! The Democratic Party should oppose him if the nomination comes through.

RUSSERT:  I want to stay on this because this is very important.  You said you were surprised by the levee being broken. In 2002, The Times-Picayune did story after story--and this is eerie; this is what they wrote and how they predicted what was going to happen. (full transcript below the fold) 

 

It said, and I'll read it very carefully:  "...A major hurricane could decimate the region, but flooding from even a moderate storm could kill thousands.  It's just a matter of time. ... The scene's been played out for years in computer models or emergency operations simulations...  New Orleans has hurricane levees that create a bowl with the bottom dipping lower than the bottom of Lake Pontchartrain.  ...the levees would trap any water that gets inside-- by breach, overtopping or torrential downpour--catastrophic storm. ... The estimated 200,000 or more people left behind in an evacuation will be struggling to survive.  Some will be housed at the Superdome, the designated shelter for people too sick or inform to leave the city.  ...But many will simply be on their own, in homes or looking for high ground.  Thousands will drown while trapped in homes or cars by rising water.  Other will be washed away or crushed by debris.  Survivors will end up trapped on roofs, in buildings or on high ground surrounded by water, with no means of escape and little food or fresh water, perhaps for several days."

That was four years ago.  And last summer FEMA, who reports to you, and the LSU Hurricane Center, and local and state officials did a simulated Hurricane Pam in which the levees broke.  The levees broke, Mr. Secretary, and people--thousands...

SEC'Y CHERTOFF:  Actually, Tim, that...

MR. RUSSERT:  Thousands drowned.

SEC'Y CHERTOFF:  Tim, I had...

MR. RUSSERT:  There's a CD which is in your department and the White House has it and the president, and you are saying, "We were surprised that the levees may not hold."  How could this be?

SEC'Y CHERTOFF:  No, Tim, I have to tell you, that's not what I said.  You have to listen to what I said.  What I said was not that we didn't anticipate that there's a possibility the levees will break.  What I said is in this storm, what happened is the storm passed and passed without the levees breaking on Monday.  Tuesday morning, I opened newspapers and saw headlines that said "New Orleans Dodged The Bullet," which surprised people.  What surprised them was that the levee broke overnight and the next day and, in fact, collapsed.  That was a surprise.

As to the larger point, there's no question that people have known for probably decades that New Orleans sits in a bowl surrounded by levees.  This is a city built on the coast in an area that has hurricanes in it that is built below sea levels and that is a soup bowl.  People have talked for years about, you know, whether it makes sense to have a city like that, how to build the levees.  So, of course, that's not a surprise.  What caught people by surprise in this instance was the fact that there was a second wave, and that, as The Times-Picayune article makes very clear, creates an almost apocalyptic challenge for rescuers.

The fact of the matter is, there's only really one way to deal with that issue, and that is to get people out first.  Once that bowl breaks and that soup bowl fills with water, it is unquestionably the case, as we saw vividly demonstrated, that it's going to be almost impossible to get people out.  So there is really only one way to deal with it, and that is to evacuate people in advance.

Michael Brown got on TV in Saturday and he said to people in New Orleans, "Take this seriously.  There is a storm coming."  On Friday there was discussion about the fact that even though this storm could fall anywhere along the Gulf, people had to be carefully monitoring it.  We were watching it on Saturday and Sunday.  The president was on a videoconference on Sunday telling us we've got to do everything possible to be prepared.  But you know, Tim, at the end of the day, this is the ground truth:  The only way to avoid a catastrophic problem in that soup bowl is to have people leave before the hurricane hits.  Those who got out are fine.  Those who stayed in faced one of the most horrible experiences in their life.

MR. RUSSERT:  But that's the point.  Those who got out were people with SUVs and automobiles and air fares who could get out.  Those who could not get out were the poor who rely on public buses to get out.  Your Web site says that your department assumes primary responsibility for a national disaster.  If you knew a hurricane 3 storm was coming, why weren't buses, trains, planes, cruise ships, trucks provided on Friday, Saturday, Sunday to evacuate people before the storm?

SEC'Y CHERTOFF:  Tim, the way that emergency operations act under the law is the responsibility and the power, the authority, to order an evacuation rests with state and local officials.  The federal government comes in and supports those officials.  That's why Mike Brown got on TV on Saturday and he told people to start to get out of there.

Now, ultimately the resources that will get people who don't have cars and don't have the ability to remove themselves has to rest with the kinds of assets a city has--the city's buses, the city's transportation.  You know, there will be plenty of time to go back over what the preparation has been with respect to infrastructure in New Orleans, with respect to transportation, with respect to evacuation.  To confront a situation that, as you point out, people have been aware of for decades--this is not something that just came on the horizon recently.

But I want to leave you with a very, very important marker which I'm going to put down now.  At this particular moment, this is not over.  There is a tremendous challenge.  Whatever the criticisms and the after-action report may be about what was right and what was wrong looking back, what would be a horrible tragedy would be to distract ourselves from avoiding further problems because we're spending time talking about problems that have already occurred.

MR. RUSSERT:  The...

SEC'Y CHERTOFF:  We are going to have to feed--wait a second.  We're going to have to feed, clothe, house and educate a city of people scattered across the country.  We're going to have to do it in a way that doesn't disrupt the rest of the country.  We're going to have to continue the work to restore our infrastructure.  We're going to have to clean probably the greatest environmental mess we've ever seen in this country.  And we're going to have to make important decisions about this in the next days and weeks and months. And I've got to tell you that for my money what I'm going to spend my time on is focusing on making sure we are getting on top of emergencies that are still under way.

MR. RUSSERT:  This is hurricane season.  Are you prepared for another hurricane in that region or, God forbid, a nuclear or biological attack, which we're told could happen at any time?

SEC'Y CHERTOFF:  I'm going to tell you, Tim, you've put your finger on something which I said the day after this hurricane hit.  As catastrophic as this is, we are still in hurricane season.  And as much as we are working on desperately getting people out now, we've got to make sure we are holding in reserve and we are preparing for what could come next, whether it be a hurricane, whether it be a disease.  I mean, we are challenged to make sure that at a moment when we have a current catastrophe and we have to be vigilant about other catastrophes that we do not lose focus and spend time dwelling on the past.  I promise you we will go back and review the lessons that we have to learn, what went right and what went wrong.  But I will tell you now we will be making a huge mistake if we spend the time in the immediate future looking back instead of dealing with, as you point out, what's going on now and what may yet come.


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