Sammon and Kondracke blamed state and local governments for Katrina response in Louisiana

››› ››› RAPHAEL SCHWEBER-KOREN

During the "All-Star Panel" segment on Special Report, the Washington Examiner's Bill Sammon and Roll Call's Mort Kondracke blamed the Louisiana state and local governments for their handling of Hurricane Katrina while excusing or ignoring the failures of the federal government. Sammon concluded that "to the extent that anybody failed [during Katrina], I think it was state and local, and in this case [the California wildfires], the state and locals have stepped up." However, two congressional reports -- while not excusing the state and local governments -- extensively detailed the federal government's failures in its preparation for and response to Katrina.

During the "All-Star Panel" segment on the October 24 edition of Fox News' Special Report, Washington Examiner senior White House correspondent Bill Sammon and Roll Call executive editor Morton M. Kondracke blamed the Louisiana state and local governments for their handling of Hurricane Katrina while excusing or ignoring the failures of the federal government. Discussing the response to the wildfires in Southern California, Sammon asserted that, unlike in California, "[Louisiana] Governor [Kathleen] Blanco, [New Orleans] Mayor [Ray] Nagin fell to pieces when Katrina hit, and therefore, the burden shifted to the feds. And the feds were never set up to be the first responders in natural disasters, so they looked bad." Similarly, after syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer asserted that "Democrats are always looking for a way of blaming [a disaster] on the [Bush] administration or on policy," Sammon claimed that "they did it in Katrina, and they found a way to blame [President] Bush, and that has now become shorthand, that Katrina was Bush's screw up, when, in reality, the lion's share of the blame really does rest with the local and the state officials." Kondracke later noted that "the federal response ... as various investigators have shown, was inadequate in the case of Katrina," adding, "But Katrina was a much bigger disaster than this is. I mean, you know, a whole city got wiped out, and nobody could have adequately responded to it." He then concluded: "But to the extent that anybody failed, I think it was state and local, and in this case [the California wildfires], the state and locals have stepped up."

While the Fox panel's focus on state and local governments echoes the Bush administration's reported post-Katrina public relations strategy of shifting blame for the response to state and local officials, two congressional reports extensively detailed the federal government's failures in its preparation for and response to Katrina, as well as failures at the state and local level. The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs issued a report in May 2006, detailing failures by the federal, state, and local governments. Among its findings:

28. [The Department of Homeland Security] DHS, the agency charged with preparing for and responding to domestic incidents, whether terrorist attacks or natural disasters, failed to effectively lead the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

29. In advance of landfall, [DHS] Secretary [Michael] Chertoff failed to make ready the full range of federal assets pursuant to DHS's responsibilities under the National Response Plan (NRP).

30. DHS leaders failed to bring a sense of urgency to the federal government's preparation for Hurricane Katrina.

31. Secretary Chertoff failed to appoint a Principal Federal Official (PFO), the official charged with overseeing the federal response under the NRP, until 36 hours after landfall.

[...]

34. Secretary Chertoff appointed a field commander, Michael Brown, who was hostile to the federal government's agreed-upon response plan and therefore was unlikely to perform effectively in accordance with its principles. Some of Secretary Chertoff 's top advisors were aware of these issues but Secretary Chertoff has indicated that he was not. Secretary Chertoff should have known of these problems and, as a result, should have appointed someone other than Brown as Principal Federal Official.

35. Although the Hurricane Pam exercise, among other things, put FEMA [The Federal Emergency Management Agency] on notice that a storm of Katrina's magnitude could have catastrophic impact on New Orleans, Michael Brown and FEMA leadership failed to do the necessary planning and preparations:

a. to train or equip agency personnel for the likely needed operations;

b. to adequately prearrange contracts to transport necessary commodities;

c. to pre-position appropriate communications assets; or

d. to consult with DOD regarding back-up capability in the event a catastrophe materialized, among other deficiencies.

The Senate committee's report also stated that "the White House shares responsibility for the inadequate pre-landfall preparation." The committee wrote that while the president "did take the initiative to personally call Governor Blanco to urge a mandatory evacuation" and "took the unusual step of declaring an emergency in the Gulf States prior to Katrina making landfall," he also "did not leave his Texas ranch to return to Washington until two days after landfall, and only then convened his Cabinet as well as a White House task force to oversee federal response efforts."

Similarly, as Media Matters for America noted, the House Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina, which released its final report on February 15, 2006, found that "critical elements of the National Response Plan," for which Chertoff was responsible, "were executed late, ineffectively, or not at all." The report also asserted that "DHS and the states were not prepared for" Katrina.

Moreover, the House report concluded that Katrina overwhelmed "most aspects" of a "system that relies on state and local governments to identify needs and request resources." From the House select committee's report:

With Katrina, the reasons reliable information did not reach more people more quickly are many, and these reasons provide the foundation for our findings.

In essence, we found that while a national emergency management system that relies on state and local governments to identify needs and request resources is adequate for most disasters, a catastrophic disaster like Katrina can and did overwhelm most aspects of the system for an initial period of time. No one anticipated the degree and scope of the destruction the storm would cause, even though many could and should have.

The failure of local, state, and federal governments to respond more effectively to Katrina -- which had been predicted in theory for many years, and forecast with startling accuracy for five days -- demonstrates that whatever improvements have been made to our capacity to respond to natural or man-made disasters, four and half years after 9/11, we are still not fully prepared. Local first responders were largely overwhelmed and unable to perform their duties, and the National Response Plan did not adequately provide a way for federal assets to quickly supplement or, if necessary, supplant first responders.

The committee further found that:

  • A proactive federal response, or push system, is not a new concept, but it is rarely utilized.
  • The Secretary [of Homeland Security] should have invoked the Catastrophic Incident Annex to direct the federal response posture to fully switch from a reactive to proactive mode of operations.

Elaborating on the latter point, the committee -- while not excusing the significant failures of state and local officials -- faulted the federal government's failure to act without formal state and local requests. The committee wrote:

Perhaps the single most important question the Select Committee has struggled to answer is why the federal response did not adequately anticipate the consequences of Katrina striking New Orleans and, prior to landfall, begin to develop plans and move boats and buses into the area to rescue and evacuate tens of thousand [sic] of victims from a flooded city. At least part of the answer lies in the Secretary's failure to invoke the NRP-CIA, to clearly and forcefully instruct everyone involved with the federal response to be proactive, anticipate future requirements, develop plans to fulfill them, and execute those plans without waiting for formal requests from overwhelmed state and local response officials.

The NRP-CIA was specifically written for a disaster such as Katrina.

[...]

It is clear the consequences of Hurricane Katrina exceeded all of these criteria and required a proactive response. According to the NRP, "Upon recognition that a catastrophic incident condition (e.g. involving mass casualties and/or mass evacuation) exists, the Secretary of DHS immediately designates the event an INS and begins, potentially in advance of a formal Presidential disaster declaration, implementation of the NRP-CIA." On Monday evening, when DHS received reports the levees had breached in multiple locations, it should have been clear to the department the nation's worst case hurricane scenario had occurred and a proactive federal response was required. Chertoff never invoked the NRP-CIA.

From the October 24 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

HUME: So, what's going on here, panel? Bill Sammon, senior White House correspondent of The Washington Examiner; Mort Kondracke, executive editor of Roll Call; and the syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer -- Fox News contributors all.

What do we have here, Mort? Do we have, from what we can tell, a good response to this obviously terrible situation or what?

KONDRACKE: Yeah. I think everybody here has learned a lot from Katrina. The federal government responded promptly. The president is going out there tomorrow. He's not wasting any time. He's not going to do a flyover, he's going to go visit.

Some Democrats in California are complaining that his visit will interfere with the firefighters, which is -- but they would say if he didn't come out there that he was ignoring the problem.

So, you know, every -- you can be sure that whenever there's a disaster of any kind, somebody's going to try to take political advantage of it for positively or negatively. But all the returns seem to be right.

One thing about Katrina, by the way, just before we finish the subject, the voters of Louisiana made it very clear who they thought was responsible for the failure of Katrina by electing Bobby Jindal, who they rejected four years ago, the Republican governor -- elected him governor.

HUME: Over the weekend.

KONDRACKE: Yeah. Kathleen Blanco --

HUME: By such a large margin that there's no runoff.

KONDRACKE: Yeah. Kathleen Blanco didn't even dare to run. So, I mean, it's quite clear that they held the Democrats partly responsible.

HUME: So, is the issue here that the federal government has learned its lessons and is doing so much better, or is there some other ingredient in the equation that makes a big difference here, Bill?

SAMMON: I think they've learned some lessons, but I think the real difference is that the first- and second-responders -- that is the local and state authorities -- are doing a better job in California than they did in Louisiana.

I mean, Governor Blanco, Mayor Nagin fell to pieces when Katrina hit, and therefore, the burden shifted to the feds. And the feds were never set up to be the first responders in natural disasters, so they looked bad.

This time around, Schwarzenegger is handling it well. The local firefighters are handling it well, so it's not falling into the lap of the feds, and the feds look better.

Yes, they've learned some lessons, but it just hasn't gotten to their level yet. I think that's the difference.

KRAUTHAMMER: Yeah, I think that's true that the sort of competence of state government is extremely important. So, we saw that, ironically, in Katrina itself, where Mississippi has recovered to the point where nobody ever talks about it and Katrina. It's only about Louisiana and New Orleans because --

HUME: You mean as in still being a big --

KRAUTHAMMER: As a big issue, and in contrast to what happened in Louisiana where local incompetence was the major contributor.

And also, look, the major factor is -- here is nature. I mean, the Santa Ana winds have shifted this afternoon. If they hadn't, we'd be looking at a disaster of Katrina proportions. It may end up as a smaller disaster. There's a very small margin of error.

But what I thought was important in what you mentioned, Brit, about Boxer and Dodd, and what we heard from Senator Harry Reid, who blamed the fires on global warming, is that the Democrats have a boundless capacity to seize whatever inanity is in the air and to make it to their own.

The idea that Iraq is at fault is refuted by all the evidence on the ground, and by the statement we heard in Jim Angle's piece about -- from the National Guard General, who said it had no effect at all. Everything is in place, and it was adequate supplies.

And troops in global warming is equally absurd. Obviously, you've had the Santa Ana winds for thousands of years, and this area is desert. So it's always happened; it's always going to happen, and it has -- Democrats are always looking for a way of blaming it on the administration or on policy, and every once in awhile, they outdo themselves in their overreaching.

SAMMON: Well, they did it in Katrina, and they found a way to blame Bush, and that has now become shorthand, that Katrina was Bush's screw up, when, in reality, the lion's share of the blame really does rest with the local and the state officials.

But, you know, if you look at what Bush is doing this time around, in terms of how soon he's going out there, how soon he's declaring an emergency, how soon he's signing these declarations, it's the exact same timetable as he did last time.

In fact, he declared an emergency in Louisiana two days before Katrina hit landfall, but this myth has taken root that he was asleep at the switch for weeks, and he just wasn't.

KONDRACKE: Well, the federal response, as the -- as various investigators have shown, was inadequate in the case of Katrina. But Katrina was a much bigger disaster than this is. I mean, you know, a whole city got wiped out, and nobody could have adequately responded to it.

But to the extent that anybody failed, I think it was state and local, and, in this case, the state and locals have stepped up.

HUME: Up next, President Bush urges the Cuban people to look beyond Fidel Castro and embrace democracy. We'll discuss both the substance and the timing of that speech.

Network/Outlet
Fox News Channel
Person
Mort Kondracke, Bill Sammon
Show/Publication
Special Report with Brit Hume
Stories/Interests
Hurricane Katrina, Natural Disasters
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