Congress Delivers Blistering Katrina Report

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A 600-page report from the House of Representatives on the government's response to Hurricane Katrina targets the Bush administration as well as local and state governments for failing to recognize the magnitude of the August 29. Ed Gordon discusses the investigation with Rep. Christopher Shays (R-CT) and Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA).

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

A 600-page Congressional report is released today regarding the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It underscores what many have said all along, the Bush administration failed in its response to the storm on August 29th. The investigation led by House Republicans also lays blame at the feet of federal agencies and local governments. Panel members warn that the nation is far from prepared in the event of another catastrophe.

Findings of the study cited poor planning and apathy in recognizing the magnitude of Katrina's destruction. The White House says it accepts responsibility for the government's slow response, but maintains the criticism against President Bush is unfair.

Joining us via phone for more on the report is Republican Congressman Christopher Shays of Connecticut. Representative Shays was one of the key members of the Committee that conducted the inquiry. Also on the line, Democratic Congressman William Jefferson of Louisiana. Representative Jefferson was one of two Democrats from the state that participated in committee hearings regarding the probe. He has also co-authored a 57-page report of his own.

Gentlemen, thanks very much. Representative Shays, let me start with you. When you read this report, you hear language like, litany of mistakes, that we were too passive in our responsive, calling this a national failure. This is very, very harsh. Should we expect consequence out of this?

Representative CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (Republican, Connecticut): Well, I think there should be the consequence, but first we just had to fulfill our role as required by the law, and our role was to understand what happened leading up to the storm and what happened in the 14 or two weeks after the storm. And our findings were pretty obvious to us. The White House was in a fog. The Department of Homeland Security's secretary, Mr. Chertoff, was totally disengaged; totally may be a strong word, but he was disengaged. And then the head of FEMA who said let FEMA be FEMA, was negligent. I mean, he simply watched things happen and didn't take action.

GORDON: The White House is suggesting that while they take responsibility, it's unfair to lay blame at the step of the president. Do you agree with that?

Representative SHAYS: Well, I mean, if the president wants to claim credit for things, he also has to be willing to accept the blame. Now then, the definition of what blame means obviously will be debated. But it is regretful that the president didn't on Tuesday simply fly down to, say, New Orleans, go into the Superdome with his security people and simply say, I'm not leaving until everyone is out safe.

We had a very significant warning by the head of the Weather Service. They called both governors; they called the Mayor of New Orleans on Saturday; told the White House as well that this was a storm, a category four or five, that would be almost of Biblical proportions, and it's regretful. I want to add this that the mayor and the Governor of Louisiana were so slow to respond to that warning.

GORDON: Congressman Jefferson, you yourself have been front and center with this. You also have co-authored a 57-page report of your own. Was there anything that you see that has to be done in terms of the aftermath, cause and effect consequence?

Representative WILLIAM JEFFERSON (Democrat, Louisiana): Well, I think that we are still not sure about all of the things that happened because we had such poor communication coming from the administration, for the White House about the back and forth between Michael Brown and the White House, Chertoff and the White House, and others, and we couldn't get a full picture of exactly what happened. So that is, using the word of MR. Shays, regretful.

I also think that the biggest thing that comes out of this is that we were totally unprepared for this event, and the response is therefore totally inadequate. I think now, going into this next hurricane season, the thing we still aren't assured of is that we have a level of preparedness that is going to see us through. And without having a full picture of what happened, it's very hard to make an assessment--not to finger point so much, but to make the plans for the next time.

GORDON: In terms of making plans for the next time, what of those who continue to live and spiral out of control of their lives and the like from August to today. Many evacuees that I've talked to suggest that there are still a litany of mistakes, to use language from the report, that are going on now in dealing with them in trying to get them upright again, Congressman Jefferson.

Representative JEFFERSON: One thing that's quite certain is that things haven't gotten a whole lot better since Mike Brown with respect to the response that has occurred after the storm. We still face tremendous temporary housing problems back home, not to mention no plan at all for where we're going to go long term with housing.

The temporary housing issues, you've seen some examples of those with those trailers sitting in Hope, Arkansas, 11,000 of them, sinking into the ground there, when we need 40,000 back in New Orleans alone, and where thirty something thousand of those would be placed on the private residence of the people, on their lawns and in their driveways--they aren't there. And therefore, people can't come back in to restore their lives and get the city going.

On a long term basis, we have so many homes destroyed there where we don't have any real answers as to how we are going to get those houses stood up. The Baker Bill was our best effort at the time to try and bring some resolution to how we might take some solutions to people, 220,000 households that were damaged or fully destroyed.

GORDON: Congressman Shays, what of those who will suggest that Congress, as well as the White House and agencies have not moved fast enough after the fact, that it's still getting bogged down in the Washington bureaucratic mire, and people need help, particularly as Congressman Jefferson suggested, as we face the new hurricane season.

Representative SHAYS: Well, we appropriated a ton of money, in fact, probably more than we should have in one way, because we simply just appropriated the dollars, and then we've given it to different groups. Some of it had been spent very poorly. But FEMA has simply been this incredible roadblock from different organizations that have wanted to help out. I mean, there is no excuse for temporary housing that is available not being used. And if a decision was made, for instance, that they weren't going to allow these homes to be set up in the front lawns or back lawns of homes that had been destroyed, there's the real question mark as to why.

When we flew down the week after, it was amazing to me the damage. And I realize this, that this was a storm of biblical proportion. The likelihood of a storm like this is one in every 500 years. What we saw, and I think Bill would attest to this, is that we saw basically what looked like a tornado, but instead of it being 100 feet wide or 200 feet wide, and maybe 3,000 yards long, it was five to ten miles wide as we went through Mississippi, and 90 miles long.

We had 20-foot levels of water 10 miles inland in Mississippi. So one of the things we did realize is fortunately, people on their own got out, or there would have been tens of thousands of folks who were killed.

GORDON: Congressman Jefferson, what of the idea of oversight? Did we not know prior to this catastrophe that FEMA was so cumbersome? I'll use that language. Many are suggesting that because this is an election year, we're seeing movement after the fact. Did we know none of this beforehand?

Representative JEFFERSON: I'm afraid we knew very little beforehand. One of the things that we've talked about on the Committee, and witnesses that have come forward, is what happens going forward with an emphasis we place, or the focus we place on natural disasters. We've become so focused on the terrorist issues, which are important issues, that Mike Brown says--if you believe him. But as the facts bear out, there hasn't been the necessary emphasis on what happens with these hurricanes that are coming and the other natural disasters that are out there.

And there is a real question as to whether FEMA ought to be mired into the overall Homeland Security and for whether the GEO(ph) and others have pointed out, if that needs to be the officialization of this business about natural disasters in the White House itself with someone who has enough level and enough clout to bring things together to deal with these issues. I just, I think it's a tremendous challenge to us to get the focus back on these issues.

GORDON: Congressman Shays, so much made about race coming into play in the aftermath of this over the course of the immediate days after and the weeks after, not a lot addressed here on that issue. Why?

Congressman SHAYS: Well, because we were looking at why we were unable to respond and where the failure was to respond.

GORDON: Some suggest that race was part of that, though.

Congressman SHAYS: Well, you know--but when you looked at it, you realized there were very poor white sections, poor white parishes that had basically the same problem. The problem, I think, was that poverty was clearly an issue, but I'm not sure that it was as much based on race as some in the media have suggested.

GORDON: Congressman Jefferson, would you agree?

Congressman JEFFERSON: Well, in some ways, Katrina was an equal opportunity storm, and it hit St. Bernard and Plackman, some places with low-lying areas that where extreme white poverty and part of the extreme white poverty in the African-American community. The difference was you had systemic issues that were more concentrated in African-American communities that manifested themselves much more plainly after the storm than in the other areas, and the folks you saw in the Superdome, for instance, who couldn't get out or who didn't get for whatever the reasons were, were the face of the African-American community, and it--there were just many, many more poor African-Americans in that part of the world than there were poor white people before the storm, and so when you look historically on this thing, it just puts the spotlight on what has been a huge legacy of neglect in the African-American community with respect to poverty, and it manifests itself with all of those black faces we saw on television.

GORDON: All right, let me ask you this with, literally, about 20 seconds for each of you. Representative Jefferson, I'll start with you. Michael Chertoff receiving a lot of heat out of this. Should he be fired?

Congressman JEFFERSON: If you look at what Mike Brown has said and what others have said, nothing's happened since the storm that could give us confidence that Chertoff knows what he's doing going forward, and during the storm, he was an absolute abysmal failure, and I think that while not firing any one person is going to solve the problem, it's certainly going to give us confidence that going forward we have somebody...

GORDON: All right. Congressman Shays, same question to you.

Congressman SHAYS: Well, I think the jury's still out. I think he has done a good job in other areas, but he was an abysmal failure when it came to Hurricane Katrina.

GORDON: All right. Congressmen Christopher Shays of Connecticut and William Jefferson of Louisiana, we thank you both.

Congressman SHAYS: Thank you.

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