A Deadly Vacuum

Editorial

New York Times

February 16, 2006

In the Bush administration, there is no such thing as failure at the top. When something goes wrong because of bad leadership, punishment is meted out to the foot soldiers and middle management, while the people in charge remain unscathed. Now we'll see whether the rule holds true in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Yesterday an 11-member, all-Republican Congressional panel released a scathing report on the leadership failures before, during and after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. This report, 520 pages in all, needs to be examined carefully for as many specific disaster-response lessons as possible. For example, more than four years after Sept. 11, many of the same communications issues that hampered operations at the World Trade Center — impeding the emergency responders' ability to talk to one another — still plagued Katrina rescue and relief missions.

But right now one thing is clear. While there is no shortage of incompetent public officials involved in this tragedy, one stands out above the rest. That person is Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

According to the panel's report, Mr. Chertoff has "primary responsibility for managing the national response to a catastrophic disaster," yet he handled his decision-making responsibilities "late, ineffectively, or not at all." A FEMA official named Marty Bahamonde sent word back to Washington on the same day Katrina struck, saying the 17th Street Canal levee in New Orleans had been breached. This was not based on a rumor; he had seen it with his own eyes from a Coast Guard helicopter. FEMA public affairs officials sent Mr. Chertoff's chief of staff an e-mail note that night. The former FEMA director, Michael Brown, says he notified the White House at the same time. Yet the next day, President Bush said New Orleans had "dodged the bullet," while Mr. Chertoff flew to Atlanta for a briefing on avian flu.

These are the people charged with protecting us and, failing that, rescuing us. This department was put together based on the belief that everyone would be safer with every facet of preparedness, protection and response under one umbrella. The first time this new system was tested, it failed. And it failed on Mr. Chertoff's watch.

Now Mr. Chertoff and his opposite number inside the White House are proposing changes to FEMA, including a new professional response force. While this is a good idea in and of itself, big organizational solutions will not help if there is a leadership vacuum. It would be nice for the administration to finally send a message that if important people do a bad job, they go away.

But the best tribute possible to the roughly 1,400 people who died along the Gulf Coast would be to help those still suffering in Mississippi and Louisiana, and those evacuees stranded hundreds of miles from home. Right now, almost six months after Katrina hit, families are being forced to leave hotels and are moving into shelters in Louisiana. If that is not a disaster, we do not know what is.

This crisis isn't over, but officials aren't behaving as if they are on a crisis footing. There is no sense of urgency in the White House or in Congress to ensure that people get the help they need. Many people died. Many more can yet be saved.