Chertoff On The Senate Hot Seat

michael chertoff, department of homeland security, hurricane katrina
CBS
A chastised Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff sparred with senators of both parties on Wednesday as he acknowledged "many lapses" in his agency's response to mammoth Hurricane Katrina.

Among things he probably would have done differently, Chertoff told a Senate committee, was that Michael Brown, then director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, would not have been put in charge of overseeing the relief effort.

Brown, who resigned under pressure shortly after the Aug. 29 storm devastated New Orleans, Louisiana, and much of the Gulf of Mexico coast, has accused Chertoff and officials of President George W. Bush's staff of ignoring his warnings on the day of the storm.

"It is completely correct to say that our logistics capability in Katrina was woefully inadequate. I was astonished to see we didn't have the capability most 21st century corporations have to track the flow of goods and services," Chertoff said, promising remedies by the start of the 2006 hurricane season in June.

Chertoff testified before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs as a separate House of Representatives investigation concluded that thousands of Katrina's victims could have been spared through better planning and faster action.

The Senate committee purposely saved Chertoff for last so he could fill in some blanks, reports CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson, who adds that the panel has used the previous hearings to build a Katrina timeline.

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.

Chertoff, one year on the job, acknowledged missteps. He called the storm "one of the most difficult and traumatic experiences of my life."

Just as the House report was drafted largely by members of Bush's Republican Party, both Republicans and Democrats criticized Chertoff during his testimony.

Republican committee Chairwoman Sen. Susan Collins said his agency's performance "must be judged a failure." She called it "late, uncertain and ineffective."

Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the panel's top Democrat, criticized Chertoff for going to Atlanta for a bird flu conference on Aug. 30, the day after the storm roared ashore, instead of rushing to the disaster scene.

"How could you go to bed that night (Aug. 29) not knowing what was going on in New Orleans?" Lieberman asked.

Under Chertoff's oversight, disaster workers "ran around like Keystone Kops, uncertain about what they were supposed to do or uncertain how to do it," Lieberman said.