Chertoff Defends Administration's Response To Katrina
Tim Russert, host of NBC's Meet the Press, was in rare bulldog mode this morning, interviewing Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
Russert, who often rolls over when speaking to top Republicans, was refreshingly sharp with his questions today.
Here are some snippets from the interview:
RUSSERT: Mr. Secretary, this is yesterday's (New York) Daily News: "Shame Of A Nation." And I want to read it to you and our viewers very carefully. It says, "As for Chertoff, if this is the best his department can do, the homeland is not very secure at all. It is absolutely outrageous that the United States of America could not send help to tens of thousands of forlorn, frightened, sick and hungry human beings at least 24 hours before it did, arguably longer than that. Who is specifically at fault for what is nothing less than a national scandal ... It will never be known exactly what a day could have meant to so many unfortunates whose lives came to an end in those hopelessly tortured hours -- on scorching roadsides, for lack of a swallow of water, in sweltering hospital bads, for lack of insulin. But what is already more than clear is that the nation's disaster-preparedness mechanisms do not appear to be in the hands of officials who know how to run them."
Mr. Secretary, are you or anyone who reports to you contemplating resignation?
CHERTOFF: You know, Tim, what we're contemplating now is the fact that we are very, very much in the middle of a crisis. There's a bit of a sense that you get that some people think it's now time to draw a sigh of relief and go back and do the after-action analysis, and there'll be plenty of time for that. ... We will have time to go back and do an after-action report, but the time right now is to look at what the enormous tasks ahead are.
RUSSERT: So no heads will roll?
SEC'Y CHERTOFF: Tim, in due course, if people want to go and chop heads off, there'll be an opportunity to do it. ...
RUSSERT: People were stunned by a comment the president of the United States made on Wednesday, Mr. Secretary. He said, "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees." How could the president be so wrong, be so misinformed?
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. It was on Tuesday that the levee -- may have been overnight Monday to Tuesday -- that the levee started to break. And it was midday Tuesday that I became aware of the fact that there was no possibility of plugging the gap and that essentially the lake was going to start to drain into the city. I think that second catastrophe really caught everybody by surprise. ...
We had actually prestaged a tremendous number of supplies, meals, shelter, water. We had prestaged, even before the hurricane, dozens of Coast Guard helicopters, which were obviously nearby but not in the area. So the difficulty wasn't lack of supplies. The difficulty was that when the levee broke, it was very, very hard to get the supplies to the people. I-10 was submerged. There was only one significant road going all the way the way around. Much of the city was flooded. The only way to get to people and to get supplies was to have airdrops and helicopters. And frankly, it is very -- and their first priority was rescuing people from rooftops. So we really had a tremendous strain on the capacity of -- to be able to both rescue people and also to be able to get them supplies.
RUSSERT: Mr. Secretary, you say prestaged. People were sent to the Convention Center. There was no water, no food, no beds, no authorities there. There was no planning.
CHERTOFF: My understanding is, and again this is something that's going to go back--we're going to go back over after the fact is -- the plan that the New Orleans officials and the state officials put together called for the Superdome to be the refuge of last resort. We became aware of the fact at some point that people began to go to the Convention Center on their own, spontaneously, in order to shelter there. And I think it's for that reason that people found themselves without food and water and supplies. The challenge then became ...
RUSSERT: Well, Mr. Secretary, you said -- hold on. Mr. Secretary, there was no food or water at the Superdome, either. And I want to stay on this because ...
CHERTOFF: Well, my understanding -- well...
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. 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 ... Thousands drowned.
CHERTOFF: Tim, I had ...
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?
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.
RUSSERT: ... 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?
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.