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Lieberman: What Went Wrong in Katrina Response

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Lieberman: What Went Wrong in Katrina Response

Lieberman: What Went Wrong in Katrina Response

Lieberman: What Went Wrong in Katrina Response

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Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, talks about Congress' responsibility for what went wrong in the initial Katrina response. Lieberman was one the main architects of the Department Homeland Security, which transformed FEMA from an independent agency to part of a large bureaucracy.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Senator Joseph Lieberman is the top Democrat running today's hearings. Earlier, we reached him to talk about the hearing.

Senator JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (Democrat, Connecticut): Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now you were one of the architects of the new Department of Homeland Security. That, of course, transformed FEMA from an independent agency into one that is part of a large bureaucracy.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Yes.

MONTAGNE: How much did that contribute to FEMA's apparent inability to respond quickly and efficiently to this disaster?

Sen. LIEBERMAN: I'm going to be open-minded as we go through this hearing process, but there were reasons that we put it into Homeland Security. Homeland Security is a disaster preparedness and response organization; so is FEMA. It seemed not sensible to have these two separated by walls. My own suspicion, from what I know now, before our investigation begins is that FEMA was both underfunded and badly administered and those two facts would have unfortunately been the same whether it was free-standing or put as part of the Department of Homeland Security.

MONTAGNE: So `badly administered' translates into simple language to possibly the wrong people were in charge.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Well, people were in charge under pressure. They didn't act quickly enough after Hurricane Katrina was clearly going to strike. Maybe they didn't work actively enough to prepare for what everybody said was coming.

MONTAGNE: Well, back to the question of maybe Congress's responsibility.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: Michael Brown, who just resigned as the head of FEMA, was confirmed with very little scrutiny. Will his replacement face tougher questions about his credentials?

Sen. LIEBERMAN: I'm sure he will. I mean, there's an interesting history here. Our committee conducted a hearing on the nomination of Michael Brown to be deputy director of FEMA. And in the normal course honestly for deputy positions, you normally say, `Well, the president, if this person passes all the normal checks, as the right to choose who he wants so long as the person is in an acceptable range,' and ultimately that's where the Senate unanimously agreed that Michael Brown at that point was. He got to be director of FEMA without a confirmation hearing and I think that really was a mistake.

MONTAGNE: Although the new acting director of FEMA, the man now in charge, David Paulison, rather famously advised Americans to seal their homes with duct tape...

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...in case of a chemical attack.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: That's who's running FEMA now.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: I don't think that's enough to say that he's not able to this. I presume, though I don't know this gentleman, that they're putting him in this position temporarily because he's had emergency management experience in Miami and has performed ably in the work that he's done as the head of the US Fire Administration. You know, credentials are important, but then there is a question beyond the credentials of the leadership capability of the person, whether the person will act decisively and quickly in a crisis. And what we saw in response to Katrina is that FEMA and Mr. Brown clearly did not do that.

MONTAGNE: Senator Lieberman, it's four years and a couple of days after September 11th, and I think a lot of people are wondering why are we still apparently so lacking in our ability to...

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...respond to a big disaster. What does Katrina say about our preparedness?

Sen. LIEBERMAN: I share the public's wonderment. Frankly, I share the public's disappointment and I'm angry about it because I worked hard with a lot of other people here in Congress to create the Department of Homeland Security, to make some order out of the chaos that existed before it. I mean, it seems to me that the answer here is not to say, `Oh, the old ways were great before the Department of Homeland Security.' Before the department was created, there was disorganization, and on September 11th, 2001, we paid for that disorganization. This time we had better organization but just an ineffective, outrageously slow response, and we want to get to the bottom of that and make sure we fix it so nothing like the nightmare that followed Katrina happens again.

MONTAGNE: Senator Joseph Lieberman, thanks for talking with us.

Sen. LIEBERMAN: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Senator Lieberman is the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

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