Chertoff: 'Many Lapses Occurred'

michael chertoff, department of homeland security, hurricane katrina
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Wednesday acknowledged delayed aid and fumbled coordination, saying the federal response to Hurricane Katrina fell far short of providing immediate help to the Gulf Coast that could have saved lives.

Chertoff's Senate testimony came the same day a House panel released a scathing report concluding that deaths, damage and suffering could have been decreased if the White House and federal, state and local officials had responded more urgently to Katrina.

"There are many lapses that occurred, and I've certainly spent a lot of time personally, probably since last fall, thinking about things that might have been done differently," Chertoff told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee about the Aug. 29 storm. He called the hurricane "one of the most difficult and traumatic experiences of my life."

However, in an interview with CBS Evening News anchor Bob Schieffer, Chertoff denied that he had offered his resignation to President Bush.

Regarding his department's handling of Katrina, Chertoff told Schieffer, "I wasn't satisfied at the time, and I'm certainly not satisfied in retrospect. I have gotten a very clear lesson looking back on some of the things we have to do to get ourselves in a position to do better the, the next time, and that's what we're under way doing now."

Read the special House committee's report (.pdf)

Katrina was one of the costliest and deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history, killing more than 1,300 people, causing tens of billions of dollars in damage and forcing hundreds of thousands from their homes.

Senators methodically challenged Chertoff on his mindset before, during and after Katrina's landfall. Committee Chairwoman Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, asked Chertoff why he went to a bird flu conference in Atlanta the day after Katrina hit, reports CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson.

The House report, titled "A Failure of Initiative," was obtained by CBS News correspondent Thalia Assuras. The report finds fault with Chertoff, for failing to activate a national plan to trigger fast relief, and with Homeland Security, for overseeing a bare-bones and inexperienced emergency response staff, Assuras reports.

In a sampling of 63 communications to the White House that the report documents, at least eight were dated before Katrina's Aug. 29 landfall. The documents show that presidential advisers were warned about potential disaster as early as Aug. 27.

"Earlier presidential involvement might have resulted in a more effective response," the inquiry concluded. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the report on Tuesday.

Chertoff, who took over Homeland Security a year ago Wednesday, oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which coordinated the federal response. He promised the senators he would repair many of the shortfalls by the start of the 2006 hurricane season on June 1.

"Our logistics capability in Katrina was woefully inadequate," he said. "I was astonished to see we didn't have the capability most 21st-century corporations have to track the flow of goods and services."