Chertoff on the Hot Seat

Monday, September 05, 2005

Chertoff on the Hot Seat

Tip O'Neill was right. All politics is local. Until last Tuesday, the major issue that newspapers, TV and a waiter in a coffee shop had placed on my radar screen was Canada's struggle to resume its beef exports to the U.S. Uh, care to guess where I was?

By last Wednesday, however, Canadian newspapers and television were making the Hurricane Katrina misery their lead story.

Just for the record, I'm suspicious of the motives of anyone who feels there is sufficient knowledge to start assigning blame for Katrina's aftermath to this person or that person. The Senate hearings that Majority Leader Bill Frist has promised to convene around Katrina undoubtedly will be designed much more for show than for any genuine analysis of what happened and why.

But it's certainly appropriate for reporters and others in the media to start digging and ask some tough questions. For example, NBC's Tim Russert had good reason to put Homeland Security Sec. Michael Chertoff on the hot seat. These excerpts are from Sunday's edition of "Meet the Press":
RUSSERT: People were stunned by a comment the president of the United States made on Wednesday, Mr. Secretary. He said, "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees." How could the president be so wrong, be so misinformed?
As is so typically the case with public or political figures, Chertoff didn't specifically respond to the question. Oh, to be sure, he gave an answer -- it just didn't address the issue of where Bush got the notion that nobody "anticipated" that one or more of the levees in the New Orleans area could fail.

Chertoff concluded his reply by offering this excuse for the delay in getting relief to those in need:
CHERTOFF: ... And one last point I'd make is this, Tim. We had actually prestaged a tremendous number of supplies, meals, shelter, water. We had prestaged, even before the hurricane, dozens of Coast Guard helicopters, which were obviously nearby but not in the area. So the difficulty wasn't lack of supplies. The difficulty was that when the levee broke, it was very, very hard to get the supplies to the people. I-10 was submerged. There was only one significant road going all the way the way around. Much of the city was flooded ...
Yes, it was. But anyone who knows anything about the Gulf Coast region of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama knows that Interstate 10 lies along marshland and other areas that cannot absorb floodwaters. In other words, any serious hurricane-induced flood or levee breech would easily render portions of I-10 unusable.

Federal emergency planners must have known this, which is why Chertoff's excuse (lots of supplies -- no way to deliver them) doesn't deserve our sympathy. Any relief effort must include plans on how to actually deliver supplies to the injured and afflicted. Chertoff's explanation is as lame as the one offered by the employee at the rental car counter in an old "Seinfeld" episode.

To his credit, Russert didn't let Chertoff off the hook.
RUSSERT: Mr. Secretary, you say "prestaged." People were sent to the Convention Center. There was no water, no food, no beds, no authorities there. There was no planning.

CHERTOFF: My understanding is, and again this is something that's going to go back -- we're going to go back over after the fact is -- the plan that the New Orleans officials and the state officials put together called for the Superdome to be the refuge of last resort ....

RUSSERT: Well, Mr. Secretary, you said -- hold on. Mr. Secretary, there was no food or water at the Superdome, either. And I want to stay on this because...

CHERTOFF: Well, my understanding -- well ...
Something tells me that Michael Chertoff will not greet future guests at his D.C.-area home with the line, "Hey, I videotaped my appearance on 'Meet the Press' ... wanna watch it?"

The actions (or inactions) of state and local officials deserve ample scrutiny, but Chertoff was deservedly raked over the coals on Sunday.

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