Posted Feb. 15, 2006 -- A long-awaited congressional report on Hurricane Katrina, showing that the government’s ineptitude and poor planning cost lives and heightened suffering, should have gone a notch further in laying blame, says Democratic Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson.
While the report – "A Failure of Initiative" – is a stinging criticism of how every level of government failed Americans when it was needed most, it falls short of targeting the person most responsible for getting the nation prepared for a disaster such as the killer storm that ravaged the Gulf Coast six months ago, Thompson told BET.com.
“The failings of the department are ultimately [Homeland Security Secretary Michael] Chertoff’s fault,” said Thompson, one of several Democrats who would like to see Chertoff fired. “As the report said, there was a failure of his leadership. He was strongly detached.
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“Now, after the fact, the secretary is saying that the department will put the systems in place to ensure that such a catastrophe does not happen again. Now he’s saying he’ll buy the equipment…It should have been in place already. He’s saying that now he’ll keep a list of businesses that can help when a national disaster occurs. I saw people going to the Yellow Pages looking for help. That’s not how you do business.”
Chertoff, testifying before a Senate committee Wednesday, said he was “acutely aware of Katrina and the risk it posed.”
All but four Democratic members of the House – Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.), Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), and Black Caucus members William Jefferson (D-La.) and Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) – declined to participate in the committee hearings, saying they feared a “white-wash” of the real facts surrounding the Katrina disaster.
“We are left scratching our heads at the range of inefficiency and ineffectiveness that characterized government behavior right before and after this storm, but passivity did the most damage,” concluded the 11 Republican members in the report. “The failure of initiative cost lives, prolonged suffering and left all Americans justifiably concerned our government is no better prepared to protect its people than it was before 9/11, even if we are.”
Investigators also concluded that "hyped media coverage of violence and lawlessness, legitimized by New Orleans authorities," made security difficult, scared off potential rescuers and sparked fear among those trapped in the city. Nagin was singled out for reporting unsubstantiated rumors of rampaging rapists and armed gang members, telling Oprah Winfrey in a televised interview that his city had reached an "almost animalistic state."
In a September interview with BET.com, as rumors about lawlessness were being reported nationwide, activist Dick Gregory said that history will show that "all this stuff we're hearing about raping and murdering going on will prove to be false." He said at the time that lies were being floated to justify the feebleness of rescue attempts to poor Black residents of New Orleans.
Hurricane Katrina, which slammed the Gulf Coast states of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana on Aug. 29, left 1,322 people dead. In addition, tens of thousands of residents were forced out of their homes and into other states, and many are living in temporary housing. Scores of people are still reported missing.
Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), in a statement to BET.com Wednesday, reiterated the notion that the failure was at every level: "The White House was clearly in a fog; Secretary Chertoff was totally detached; and Michael Brown was negligent. Governor Blanco was not decisive and [New Orleans] Mayor [Ray] Nagin fueled the rumor mills with inaccurate information.”
The findings “are absolutely startling,” Thompson said, adding that “they couldn’t really sugar coat it because of how it played out on national TV.”
Thompson said that while Chertoff deserves a fair share of the blame, President Bush’s behavior also should not be ignored.
The president was on vacation in Texas and headed East once he heard of the disaster, Thompson said. But “he flew low, saw it and kept going. Then he tells his FEMA Director [Michael Brown], ‘Nice job, Brownie.’ Now Michael Brown is saying, ‘I asked for help, but the system is so bad that I didn’t hear back.’”
McKinney, speaking on the radio show "Democracy Now" Thursday morning, said she was disappointed that more of her Democratic colleagues did not participate. She urged them to press for more hearings around legislation that could help relieve the ongoing suffering of hurricane victims.
One of the things that Thompson is hoping for in the fallout from the House report is even more disclosure of phone calls, emails and other written correspondence between FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security and the White House. “I’d like to know exactly what transpired and how long it took” for the president to respond once he was notified of the disaster, Thompson said.
“The buck starts and stops right here in Washington, D.C.,” Thompson said. “We are the last line of defense …. We are also the last line of offense, and we failed.”