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Congress Should Share A Big Part of the Blame For Katrina Response

In four days, we will mark the fourth anniversary of the tragedy of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It’s been four years — but in terms of our preparation for the aftermath of a devastating terrorist attack, it might just as well be one day after 9/11. [IMGCAP(1)]

This is not a time to mince words. The performance of the federal government in the Hurricane Katrina disaster — the policy wing of the federal government, not the dedicated employees — has been abysmal. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) was right: The grade should be an F. But the failures of the past several days are a symptom of the bigger fiasco, one that should leave all of us furious — and nervous. And in that fiasco, Congress stands front and center in the line of miscreants.

On 9/11, the inability of firefighters and police in New York to work their radios contributed to the loss of many lives. At the Pentagon, the inability of emergency workers from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland and Fairfax and Arlington counties in Virginia to communicate with each other made the response there much more difficult.

Now, four years have passed. A few metropolitan areas, on their own and without adequate federal assistance, have acted to make their own radio systems interoperable. The broader problems? They’re the same, in essence, as they were before and during 9/11.

On 9/11, it became obvious that the resources and training available to the nation’s first responders — fire, police, emergency medical technicians, public health clinics and so on — were woefully inadequate to deal with the new threats, not to mention larger natural disasters. No capability for dealing with chemical or biological threats, not enough gas masks (or appropriate ones), no training to deal with the collapse of large buildings. Four years later, regrettably, we can say the same thing. Instead of allocating the resources necessary to deal with these problems, we have in fact cut them in many areas.

On 9/11, a new set of broad threats emerged: the international network of terrorists out to kill as many of us as it could. The threat had existed beforehand, but suddenly it took on a new magnitude. The Hart-Rudman Commission, understanding this threat, had recommended prior to 9/11 the creation of a new Department of Homeland Security to bring together agencies and bureaus with other missions to incorporate the new missions of combating the terrorist threats and responding to a disaster that terrorists could bring — disasters of a different form and magnitude than a natural catastrophe, but with many similar characteristics.

Four years after 9/11, we have a DHS, and it’s much larger than the Hart-Rudman Commission had envisioned. Its bureaucracy is still reeling from the task of integrating more than 20 separate entities into one — the largest reorganization in federal government history. When Katrina struck, DHS was not the centerpiece of federal response that its outside framers had foreseen, but rather a bloated bureaucracy that was unable for days to figure out what to do, and which produced a leaderless response that only compounded the tragedy.

The idea of creating such a department was a solid one; the magnitude and form of such a department was more debatable. But it was never debated. After vehemently resisting the idea of a department for almost nine months, the president turned around virtually overnight and embraced it, unveiling a plan much more sweeping than the original, and which had been hatched in secrecy by several key administration aides working in the situation room to ensure confidentiality. The normal debate and deliberative process that would have questioned the sweep of the reorganization plan and its breakneck pace was absent. Absent, too, was the notion of starting with a new Department of Border Security and moving in increments to something grander.

When the Department of Homeland Security bill came to Congress, it ended up facing one and only one serious area of controversy and deliberation: the question of sweeping civil service changes to eliminate many of the regular protections for the 70,000 DHS employees. That issue became a political tool — a major campaign point in the 2002 elections — even as the larger and important questions of what kind of department, and how to fulfill all the real and serious government functions, was ignored.

The result was, as we now see in embarrassing fashion, a downgrading of FEMA and confusion about its mission. After the creation of the department, at least these issues could have been raised through Congressional oversight. But the Senate never established a committee with full legislative responsibilities over these areas; the House, after much footdragging, created a select committee with no legislative jurisdiction.

So these issues received virtually no serious oversight. Even after the 9/11 Commission pushed Congress to reorganize itself, there was a wholly inadequate response — a bit of lip service paid to the House committee, which still sits under the thumb of such rival powers as Judiciary and Transportation, and a Senate committee with a new title and surface jurisdiction, but not the real cachet and authority that it needs. Much of the failure to implement the changes needed over the past four years can be laid at the feet of Congress and its leaders.

It is not as if we did not know what to do; other commissions and smart individuals with serious credentials have been out shouting about the problems and what to do about them. Read Steve Flynn’s book, “America the Vulnerable,” and ask yourself: What has been done to deal with threats to chemical and nuclear plants, railway stations with hazardous materials coming in every day and ports?

This is a sham and a travesty. Congress has underfunded first responders; DHS has downplayed the response to an attack while focusing the lion’s share of its resources on prevention; the administration has shown no urgency about these issues of homeland security.

Are local and state officials culpable for the aftermath of Katrina? Of course. But keep this in mind: On 9/11, the tragedies that struck New York and Virginia spilled over into Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland and the District of Columbia. It was clear that leaving the response largely to state and local officials could not work in the same way that local responses might have decades earlier. FEMA worked under the Clinton administration’s James Lee Witt. It worked, if less well, under Joe Allbaugh. It does not work now, and it may be neutered further under the new DHS reorganization plan unless great care is paid to its role in every kind of disaster.

Actions have consequences. Inactions have consequences, too — in this case unspeakably tragic ones. Those responsible, including the leaders of Congress, should be made accountable, and if they are decent, they will admit their failures and make new efforts to correct them. But if the past four years is any guide, I am not sanguine.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.