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Failing to Protect and Defend

Oct 20, 2005
Caucus and Staff Report
The Federal Emergency Response to Hurricane Katrina
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Executive Summary

Hurricane Katrina revealed that, despite billions of dollars in emergency response preparation and a complete overhaul of the Federal domestic security system embodied in the Department of Homeland Security, Americans are probably less secure today from the ravages of nature than they were before 9/11. This report attempts to shed light on the failure of the Federal emergency response system to effectively act to save lives and protect property.

The disastrous Federal response to Hurricane Katrina was due neither to a failure of foresight nor to a failure of intelligence.  Scientists had projected for some time that a major hurricane would probably flood New Orleans.  This information had moved effectively to the emergency response community and efforts were launched to create plans specific to the needs of New Orleans in a hurricane.  New Orleans posed special problems because of its physical location 8 feet below sea level (on average) and a population that was poorer than most cities and less mobile since 20% were estimated not to have an automobile.  Hurricane evacuation plans in America assume a population that can pack their vehicles and head away from the water on very short notice.  That model would not work in New Orleans.

As to intelligence:  the National Weather Service specifically predicted the storm track for Hurricane Katrina 55 hours before landfall to within 18 miles of its actual strike point and was projecting a major hurricane for two entire days.  That time was crucial for State and local governments to organize their evacuations (which were successful by American standards) and for the Federal Government to pre-position the resources necessary to follow the storm into New Orleans and launch a rescue and evacuation effort that was known to have to reach at least 100,000 people.

So if foresight and intelligence did what we asked of them, why was the Federal response so dismal?  We suggest that the national response planning process that has been underway for over two years at the direction of the Department of Homeland Security is convoluted, officious and not well understood or fully deployed.

We also suggest that the leadership at the top of the Nation’s emergency response system - FEMA director Michael Brown, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, and President George Bush - failed to comprehend the message rooted in foresight and intelligence.  There was confusion, miscommunication, and passivity throughout the emergency response leadership.  All of the money we have spent on weather forecasting, all the effort and knowledge we have accumulated will be useless if the Nation’s leaders lack the wisdom to simply pay attention while a storm bears down on an American city.

Only a handful of officials have the authority to mobilize the vast resources of the Federal Government to protect our people.  If those who are responsible for securing America avert their gaze when our citizens most need help, how can any of us feel safe?

This work represents themes and issues that we would have presented to Members and allowed them to raise had the Committee held its hearing on Hurricane Prediction as originally scheduled for September 21.  However, that hearing was cancelled at the direction of the Republican leadership in deference to a Select Committee that that leadership would prefer to have handle the work.

That Select Committee has no permanent staff, no permanent Members, and no necessary expertise to dig into the situation surrounding Katrina.  The strength of the House Committee system is the accumulated expertise and institutional memory that resides in the Members and staff of our Committees.  One deviates from that system at some risk and we believe we could do a better job with those issues that relate to our jurisdiction than can a fictive creation that will disappear as soon as it is politically convenient.

An example of the failures of the temporary committee’s effectiveness was revealed in the questioning on September 22 of Max Mayfield, the head of the National Hurricane Center concerning Mr. Mayfield’s story about briefing the President, Secretary Chertoff and Director Brown.  Aside from one question, no effort was made by Republican Select Committee members to clarify what Mayfield may have said in the briefing that the President participated in.  When the Science Committee finally held our hearing, on October 7, we were able to have Mr. Mayfield recreate that presentation with a clear bottom-line message coming from him that the government had to prepare for a Category 5 hurricane and that the hurricane was on a trajectory that threatened to flood New Orleans.

We close our report with questions that deserve pursuit in a serious investigation of the Katrina response.  There will be many who accuse this staff of engaging in politics in this report.  We live in a time when asking questions and seeking answers is dismissed too readily as partisanship.  But politics can also guide what questions are not asked and what truths are not pursued.  In a time when one political party controls two of the three branches of government, remaining silent is no less partisan, and perhaps more partisan, than voicing concerns.

Ultimately, we believe that the Nation is best served by an independent commission like the one that worked to uncover truths regarding 9/11.  Such a body, with the credibility that non-partisan independence can bring, is best positioned to discover the roots of the Nation's failures in response to Hurricane Katrina, and offer guidance on how to correct those failings.  An effort to fully understand how best to correct these problems should come before the Nation rushes to embrace the latest suggestion from the Administration:  that the military be put in charge of national response to emergencies.

While we await the launch of this Commission, the expert work of Committees will continue.  This is our effort to shed light on what happened.

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Original version posted September 26, 2005

109th Congress